Dinner parties create anxieties: who to invite, what to serve and, if you’re a guest, what to bring. For many people, the wine is the last thing to consider, and thus the rules for food and wine pairing. It’s often said that the convention of not serving red wine with fish is outdated. But that is only half right. The young tannins of sturdy reds react with white fish to give the wine an unpleasant metallic taste. Yet a less tannic, or more mature red, combined with a meatier fish like salmon or tuna works very well.
And whites can be served with more than the fish course. White Bordeaux offers great pleasure with chicken or light pasta dishes. The creamy Semillon combines with the freshness of the Sauvignon to balance any dish with a white sauce. Fuller wines made from white Grenache in Spain, Pinot Gris in Alsace, Chenin Blanc from the Loire and tangy Alvarinhos from Portugal have the weight and viscosity to stand up to many foods. In this category, southern French Viognier is exceptional with seafood. But watch out for the exotic Condrieu: it’s a show-stealer. If a fine wine is the star of the meal it’s best to keep the food simple. The same holds for complex reds. A classed growth Bordeaux or grand cru Burgundy needs only a good piece of meat or a high-protein vegetarian dish.
In some cases, food can balance a wine. The slightly bitter note that follows the cherry flavours in a Chianti Classico is immediately tamed by a salty black olive. It’s as if they were made for each other. And of course they were—at one time wines were made and drunk to accompany locally available foods. It’s because we now have easy access to wines from all around the world that we are obliged us to learn anew what was once second nature.
The English have an obsession with consuming claret with cheese. The French have long seen through the error of this habit. Acidity is generally higher in whites than in reds and it is that which complements the sharp acidity in most cheeses. Almost any white wine with any cheese is better than the distorting effect of a soft cheese on red Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc is particularly good. But if you insist on claret, make sure the cheese is hard.
The best cheese and red wine…