Pairing the best wines with the best foods

Pairing the best wines with the best foods (Photo by Polina Kovaleva)

It’s a foggy November evening in Riquewihr and we’re sitting in a cozy Alsatian wistube. We’ve been tasting wines all day- acidic, fruity Riesling, lemony Pinot Gris, and spicy Gewurztraminer. Now, over a meal of Baeckeoffe, a traditional dish of potatoes, lamb, and Riesling, we are marveling at how perfectly the acid of the Riesling cuts through the fat and richness of the dish. It makes the meat and potatoes seem less heavy. This is stick-to-your-ribs, keep-you-warm-in-winter food. Most people wouldn’t think to pair it with a white wine.

That’s the magic of Alsace. These cool climate, high acid, fruity wines perfectly match one of France’s most distinctive regional cuisines. Salty pork sausages; tangy, dressed vegetables; fragrant pumpkin soup; potatoes cooked in fat all make these wines sing.

“Clearly, the wine style came first,” I say. “Then the food.”

“Wait, wait, wait…” My friend, a traveler to Alsace for the past three decades, disagreed. “Who’s to say the food didn’t drive the style of the wine?” He continues, “If you have fatty pork and rich potatoes, wouldn’t that mean that you might favor higher acid results when it comes to picking grapes? Or vinification?”

“But what about the natural essence of the Riesling and other grapes from the climate and terroir?” I counter. “Don’t they have more influence on the result? And wouldn’t that drive cooks to add more fat to their cooking to make the wine more pleasing?”

We don’t have a lot of answers. Who first discovered that Burgundy’s plentiful duck, rabbit, and wild boar paired perfectly with the local Pinot Noir? Who figured out that the plumper, briny oysters from Arcachon paired better with the Viognier/Sauvignon Blanc blends of Bordeaux while the more intensely mineral-driven oysters from northern France paired better with the bright crispness of Cote d’Or Chardonnays?

Did the cheeses of a particular region develop to complement the wines? A 36-month Comte is completely obscured by a southern Rhone Grenache blend but shines with a Pinot Blanc. A delicate but stinky Epoisses or Munster can stand up to whites of some regions and reds of others. Did cheesemakers who drank the local wines for generations gradually adapt their styles to pair best with the local cuvées, or was it the other way around?

Wine lovers may grow impatient with the question, but when you think about food and wine together, you get to the heart of the answer- it doesn’t matter which came first. All that matters is that they go together. Wine and food both elevate and complete the other. They pair.

Do you remember your “a-ha” moment when you tasted the wine, ate the dish, tasted the wine again, and experienced the explosion of flavors that made both the wine and the food better. Mine was a fine Champagne and a triple crème brie. The salt and fat in the cheese conspired with the perfectly delicate bubbles-  I instantly understood why Dom Perignon likely said “I see stars!”

“But,” my friend said, bringing me back to the present over an apple tart and a vendages tardive. “That’s the perfect case. Not everyone has had that experience. Is it important? Or just important to you.”

“It’s not that I expect perfection,” I said. “It’s that I want everyone to experience how magical wine can be.”

Wine reaches its truest expression with the right food, and the right food is often the regional cuisine of the wine. Everyone should experience the magic of that “a-ha” moment. I want everyone to see stars.

My friend and I didn’t finish our discussion that night, but as usual, we agreed that more research was required. I plan to look for that answer for a long time to come!