Wine column no. 69: When vigilance matters

May 3, 2015: Cured meats. Rubber. Diesel. Wet asphalt. Tar.

These are not the most alluring terms to use to describe certain wines. Yet wine isn’t always an elegant business. It’s not always Michelin three-star. It can be barnyard, as some wine reviewers say via http://shop.winefolly.com/products/wine-descriptors-guide. It can reek of cat pee. It can be austere, flabby or just plain sour; coarse, harsh or bitter; vegetal, stalky or even spineless.

No, really. I’m actually talking about wine here.

These are the terms that wine reviewers use to communicate with people who like wine. Some terms are massive failures (what does “fallen over” mean, really, in the large scheme of things?) Others are pretty specific (grapefruit, cherry, strawberry.) Yet in all cases, the words we use and the definitions we use for them are largely approximations. Cherry at the start can become strawberry toward the end. Cured meats, once introduced to blue cheese, can disappear on contact — absorbed, I assume, by the cheese’s oily, unctuous character. Lemon can sweeten many acidic Sauvignon blanc. And sugar? Oh sugar, how I love thee. But sugary, sweet meals will ruin many a dinner wine if the wine isn’t a bit sweet, too.

So let’s talk about chemistry. Let’s talk about interactions. Let’s talk about relationships.

The first rule of wine and food is that there is always a flavor and texture relationship. The salmon on your plate can’t not impact the Pinot Noir in your glass, and the Pinot Noir in your glass can’t not impact the salmon on your plate. The two are connected, as are any entrée and wine. It’s natural. It just happens. It wouldn’t matter if there were a law that insisted otherwise. The interaction exists, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. 

The second rule is that sometimes, one (either the wine or the entrée) will dominate the other. Usually what happens here is a result of seasonings in the entrée or dominating acidity or tannins in the wine. Brown sugar will just shut a dry wine down, for instance; all subtlety, all grace, gets tossed to the side. And excess acidity will kill a meal, unless there’s an appropriate foil. Anyone who’s had a wine that elicits a grimace or an immediate overflow of saliva will know what I mean. That’s why you tend to pair acidic dishes with acidic wines. Chianti usually blends well with acidic tomato sauces, for instance. The acidity in each cancels the other out, making each much more tolerable.

The third rule is that sometimes wines and entrees have absolutely no impact on each other. Call it a lack of attraction, call it a reluctance to acknowledge the other, but some wines and some entrees can’t help but be mutually neutral. I’m not saying that this negates Rule No. 1. But sometimes the food and the wine are able to co-exist fully on their own. They remain constant regardless of their interaction with the other. They are solidly solid, steadfastly steadfast, calmly calm. Neither fazes the other. They are each their own. 

The fourth rule is that, sometimes, if you are lucky, you pair a wine and an entrée and, together, they create something even more wonderful. This is rare. Sometimes it happens on purpose; other times it happens accidentally. I have learned, over the years, that you can orchestrate what you can, and you can study what you can, but in the end, it’s all up to chance. Some wines find accidentally illustrious companions; other wines find entrees you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. You really will never know, until you try them out yourself. That is why wine is a continual learning experience. Put simply, the story never ends. There is always something new to discover.

I came across Rule No. 3 when I paired the 2012 Tres Picos Borsao Garnacha with a poblano pepper filled with chorizo, a type of minimally spicy pork sausage from Spain. I bought the pepper specifically because it had the chorizo. And I specifically served this Spanish wine from Borja with this entrée because I thought each would complement the other. Enter Rule No. 3. On its own, this wine was smooth, mild and tasted of strawberries and cherries. With the chorizo and pepper? It was still smooth, mild and tasted of strawberries and cherries. And the wine didn’t change the flavors of the pepper and chorizo, either. 15 percent alcohol. $17.99. The Fresh Market.

The best way to pair wine and food? Just go ahead and pair them. Don’t rely on someone else’s version of whether the pairing will complement the dish and the wine; do the work yourself. Inspect the wine and read up on the vineyard. Locate the grape-growing region on a map. Take pictures to better take it to task. Analyze the ingredients and the textures in the dish you serve it with. And then take notes, lots of specific, date-and-time heavy notes. Once you have enough experiential evidence, you’ll likely find a wine and food pairing you’ll be proud to stand behind. Or, you’ll find a pairing you’ll never want to experience again. Either way, it’s your move. Make the most of it.