The Art of Racing in the Rain
Successfully pairing wine & food together is not just a super power that some people possess, rather, some of us just know how to access that hidden x-gene a little more often than the rest of the world. Part of why I began taking wine more seriously during my time in culinary school was the result of experiencing classic pairings and being encouraged to experiment with my own. The magic that occurs when the elements of food & wine are seamlessly blended is, for a lack of better words, life altering. The wine & cheese seminars I'm hosting with Assorted Table Wine Shoppe & Orrman's Cheese Shop reminded me of how exciting it is to take a shot in the dark with wine and food, and see the magic happen. AND who can say no to an afternoon of drinking wine & munching on cheese for "work-related purposes"? 👀🍷
Now there is no exact science or concrete guidelines that work perfectly for pairings every time. A lot of it is the result of trial and error. Just like any science experiment, we create our hypothesis and look at the trial results to determine patterns that can influence or stay true to that hypothesis. In the world of fine wine & food, however, we do have some general rules that aid in making an educated guess in our pairings. This ranges from building a pairing based on the regional cuisine & wine of that region, or finding flavors that are either complimentary or congruent to one another.
For example, one of my favorite wine & food pairings is a regional pairing of Sauvignon Blanc & Goat Cheese. That pairing works because the bright, electric acidity of the white wine is able to cut through the gaminess and creaminess of the cheese to unleash a new flavor profile entirely. The lingering finish is both slightly sweet and floral, and enough to convert a non-goat cheese lover like myself. The story goes that in Sancerre (spiritual home of Sauv. Blanc) there are vineyards planted right next to goat farms where goat cheese is produced. As a result of the two products being "raised" together and constantly influencing one another from an agricultural point of view, the pairing has become a classic.
Before the inaugural wine & cheese seminar of 2021, Rachel, Josh & I focused more on seeking complimentary & congruent flavors to make pairings work. Complimentary pairings take two flavors that are distinctly different & merge them together to create something seamless and new. Coconut cream & key lime zest, two very different fruit flavors, blended together to make a coconut cream pie would be an example of a complimentary pairing. Congruent pairings involve two items with the same flavors and merging them together to create a super saiyan upgrade of that shared flavor. The umami flavor of sautéed mushrooms with seared beef filets pumps up all the savory tones one could ever ask for.
We spent a good hour or two circling the plate of cheeses Rachel provided & sipping the four wines Josh had selected for this seminar. Rachel obviously approached her pairing ideas with the foreknowledge of the cheese flavors she had put on the plate. Whether there was buttery quality that would seek something with crisp acidity or a funky cheese that would require a wine equally as bold. Josh, being the wine schnerbly he is, understood the elements of the wines he selected and actually worked through the rolodex of classic pairings to make sense of a new pairing. His passion for regional pairings came through especially when he mentioned how well the Barbera would likely work with the blue cheese due to its similarity to gorgonzola dolce. I observed with a palate that has been heavily influenced by technical culinary training & wine study, but my quirk comes from the desire to go against the grain a little and experiment with the thrilling unknown.
The cheeses were all quite unique-----I mean, Bleu Cheese soaked in Vouvray?! Again, this was a moment of cheese conversion for me. This especially rang true when we tasted that fruity, assertive blue cheese with the textbook Californian red blend. The richness of the wine interplayed with the richness of the cheese and bumped up the overtones of dark red fruits. Give me that with some crostini's and I'll call it dessert, ha! The most interesting part of it all was watching how my two fellow hospitality professionals approached their methods for pairings. We all have our quirks & preferences, but we understood how crucial it was to put that aside to focus on pairings that would sing true to our upcoming audience.
The fun came from using our shared & personal experiences with flavor pairings to create entirely new ones. Even if some of the tested pairings reminded us of baby vomit, ha! Navigating the cheese plate & searching for the right wines for each really felt like a race through torrential downpours. You can't quite see where the pairing may lead despite knowing the individual flavor road map of the cheese and wine, but once you find one that blends harmoniously, it's as if the rain clouds fade to reveal glimmering sunlight. Wine & food pairings aren't always textbook simple to create, and you have to take a shot in the dark only armed with your general understanding of each piece. Once you figure it out, it's like you've mastered the art of racing in the rain.