Matching food and wine – the paradox

Am I the only person in the world with a cellarful of red wine and a preference for white wine food?

Here's the paradox. To judge from what's in our glasses, the world's wine drinkers increasingly choose red wine in preference to white. But to judge from our plates, we're less and less interested in the sort of food that red wine has traditionally been drunk with.

Red meat? No thanks, say more and more people – and not just committed vegetarians or those living in a foot-and-mouth zone. Apart from the ritual of the barbecue, the (to me) incomprehensible allure of hamburgers and an occasional nostalgic steak, modern eating patterns show a distinct move away from chewy dark meats towards fish, pasta, vegetable dishes and, of course, the ubiquitous chicken. Yet according to traditional food and wine matching advice, all of these are better washed down with white rather than red wine.

Maybe the time has come to tear up traditional food and wine advice. After all, when it was devised, red wines in particular tasted very different. Tannins were much more aggressive. Acidity was often more pronounced. And wines of all hues were generally lower in alcohol. Certainly young red wines made before the 1980s demanded food as chewy as red meat to make their own very obvious tannins seem less unpleasantly chewy.

But most modern red wines taste much more supple. They may have a quite respectable tannin content, but the tannins themselves are much riper and less aggressive. Velvet rather than sandpaper is more typical of modern red wine texture. Put them together with a steak or a slice of rare roast beef and you have two quite different, not complementary, sensations.

Modern red wine has become, if you like, liquid chicken: inoffensive, versatile and hard to avoid.

In fact, you can drink modern red wine quite happily with almost any food, so long as it's not too sweet. I mean sweet as in chocolate, rather than sweet as in so many supposedly savoury dishes today. Incidentally I would maintain that while red wine has been getting steadily riper, the food typically offered around the world – certainly in many restaurants – has become progressively sweeter. Consider the California style of cooking, Pacific Rim cuisine with its liberal lashings of relishes, fruits and nuts, and the rise of the sugar- concentrating confit.

But the sweet tendency is as nothing compared to the increasing spiciness of the food we are offered in the world's restaurants. I use the term spicy in its most general sense and of course the range of spices varies enormously, but wine today is being drunk with all sorts of things that the traditional wine and food advice would not countenance. In my opinion, one of several great side-effects of the Asian wine boom has been an increasing willingness everywhere to experiment with matching wine to a wide range of Asian cuisines. Indeed my only complaint about this phenomenon is that it is not even more widely practised. I would love to see the gastronomically fastidious Japanese, for example, abandon completely the theory that with French wine only French food should be served.

(French cuisine is an exception to all that I have said so far. The French live and eat in virtual isolation from international food trends. The closest most French chefs get to a dalliance with anything spicy, Roellinger of Cancale being an obvious exception, is to put an occasional pinch of curry powder in a creamy sauce.)

My own position on the tricky and extremely popular question of wine and food pairing is that (a) it is very difficult to get it completely wrong and that (b) it is very, very rare to get it completely right.

The only place I expect to encounter an absolutely perfect food and wine combination is in a classical three-star French restaurant. Here the menu changes only two or three times a year and part of what one is paying for is surely that the sommelier should know exactly how each dish tastes and which of the wines in his or her care – at several different price levels, please – provide a perfect match.

In a more informal establishment, where dishes may come and go overnight, it may be difficult for waiting staff to offer such tried and tested advice. And in our own homes, life tends to be just a bit too hectic to do in-depth comparative tastings before every meal.

The truth of the matter is that it is perfectly possible to drink more or less any wine with more or less any food. No thunderbolt strikes down the diner hapless enough to drink classed growth red bordeaux with sole or Zinfandel with oysters. We all experiment with this sort of thing in the company of our nearest and dearest; it's only when we are entertaining that we feel we have to follow certain rules and that we will be judged according to them.

All it takes is confidence, the confidence to flout the old rules and know that so much has changed on the gastronomic landscape since those rules were drawn up that we really shouldn't care a hoot.

Of course there is a major problem with the scenario I have just outlined. Many of us may have decided that we love fish, but if the world cannot do more to husband the resources of its seas, lakes and rivers, fish may become the rarest of delicacies.

People in the wine business are always trying to forecast the next big thing. (Everyone was taken by surprise with the speed of the swing to red wine – and now in Australia at least some winemakers are being caught out by a shortage of Chardonnay grapes.) What is it that might encourage a swing back in the opposite direction towards white? In theory it could be the fact that more and more people are eating white wine food, but for the reasons outlined above, that looks unlikely to persuade us to give up the new, suave reds.

No, it could be something on a bigger scale entirely. Global warming might become so significant that the world's wine drinkers will start to demand that the first duty of a wine is to be chilled. And that really will be a test of modern red wine's suppleness.


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