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Many think wine-food pairings are a gamble unless they know everything about it first, and that it requires much study.

In pairing wine and food, experience is the best teacher

May 1, 2020 5:50 AM

PAIRING wine with food has come to symbolise much of the intimidation, apprehension and pretension that, for many people, intrude on the elemental enjoyment of a good bottle.

Why? Because the notion that you require books, apps and arcane charts and graphs to determine which sort of wine will mesh with the characteristics of a particular dish suggests that without a method, you can make a mistake. You might be wrong. You could be embarrassed.

We all know how that goes: Doubt. Anxiety. Shame. Why even risk it?

One major reason for such anxiety is the feeling among many people that in order to enjoy wine, one must understand everything about it first. That requires long-term study.

This sense that wine must be pored over like a calculus textbook is disheartening. Some people give up immediately. Others approach with a sense of obligation.

The best foundation for learning about wine, we believe, is experience - that is, pulling corks and drinking.

Consuming a wide variety of wines, and considering your own reaction to them, is the best way to become more comfortable with your own taste.

If wine happens to excite you enough to want to open a book, that's great. The academic study of wine may greatly enhance your pleasure. But only if you are motivated from within to do so.

Each month we ordinarily focus on a particular genre of wine. I suggest three bottles, and you drink them over the course of several weeks. We then review and discuss the wines.

Last month, we switched it up. Instead of suggesting a specific wine, I asked everybody to roast a chicken (or cook a vegetarian recipe) and pick wines that they thought would pair well with the dish.

One of the many wonderful things about a roast chicken is that it goes beautifully with a wide variety of wines. Red, white, rosé, sparkling - you name it.

The idea was to offer a virtually foolproof exercise in pairing wine with food, both for the pleasure of the combination and simply as a way of gaining confidence.

The truth is, you can pick unsatisfying combinations of wine and food. Such experiences might be discouraging, but they are nonetheless essential. It's hard to understand what you like if you can't figure out what you don't like. That is among the virtues of experience.

While reliable combinations satisfy endlessly, individual taste is subjective. And almost never is there only one correct wine to serve with any dish.

Roast chicken is a perfect example. I was thrilled by the broad array of wines that readers loved with the chicken dishes they prepared.

Tried-and-true combos abounded - roast chicken with Burgundy, with Beaujolais, with Oregon pinot noir, with Côtes-du-Rhônes, with Northern Rhône syrah and with chenin blanc wines from the Loire Valley.

Other ideas bubbled up. Loire reds, cabernet francs from the Finger Lakes, nebbiolo wines from the Langhe region of northern Italy, trousseaus from the Jura, rieslings from Alsace, Chiantis, grüner veltliners, Champagnes, Rhône whites, even the great, idiosyncratic white from Chateau Musar in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

I tried four wines - one white, three reds - with a chicken that I roasted combining elements from two recipes, Samin Nosrat's buttermilk-marinated roast chicken and Melissa Clark's splayed roast chicken.

I did not want to try combinations that were familiar or comfortable for me, although I did pick wines that I already knew I loved. They were: Dreissigacker Rheinhessen Riesling Organic Trocken 2018; Cirelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo La Collina Biologica 2018; Alessandro e Gian Natale Fantino Rosso dei Dardi Vina Rossi 2016; and Porter Creek Mendocino County Carignane Old Vine 2015.

I was pretty sure that these would all be satisfying combinations with the chicken, and they were. The expressive, pure, rich and energetic riesling was perhaps my favorite pairing, which surprised me because I gravitate toward reds with roast chicken.

Yet, I loved the soulful, earthy, delightful Montepulciano - it's a wine I want to keep drinking. The Rosso dei Dardi, made mostly of nebbiolo blended with small amounts of dolcetto and freisa, was a lovely, gorgeous wine, and the Porter Creek, which you might remember from our examination of California carignan, is an old favourite, a little richer and more structured than the other two reds, with floral, licorice flavors.

As much as I loved the combination of the riesling and the chicken, would I choose it the next time? Probably not, because, with roast chicken, I simply want a red. That's my preference, for whatever strange reason.

Not everybody agrees. Bill of Carmel, California, took issue with my experiential approach and recommended instead an article on the Wine Folly website that offered nine tips for pairing wine and food, along with various graphs and charts.

Not to pick on Wine Folly, but the article epitomises the issues that I am citing. Wine Folly's first rule: "The wine should be more acidic than the food." No argument, but most people have no idea of the relative acidity of wine and food. Reading that will get you nowhere unless you already have enough experience for it to make sense.

The article also asserts: "Sauvignon blanc is light-bodied, but it has higher acidity. Chardonnay has more body, but it's usually not too acidic." Again, these are the sort of simple, general statements that are confusing and useless. A sauvignon blanc from Quincy in the Loire may well be more acidic than a buttery, fruity chardonnay from California, but chances are a white Burgundy - chardonnay - will seem more acidic than a slightly sweet, fruity New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

The old writing axiom of "show, don't tell", applies especially to wine. You can memorise all sorts of helpful hints, but until you drink many different wines with a variety of foods, you will be stuck.

Some people believe that the entire enterprise of pairing wine and food is "junk science", as writer Alder Yarrow recently put it in an article. He made a lot of good points, although I strongly disagree with his argument that transcendent food-and-wine combinations, in which the synergy surpasses the individual elements, are virtually nonexistent.

"Maybe the food is great, maybe the wine is too, but when I put them both in my mouth, sparks almost never fly," he wrote.

I think the number of people who loved their pairings with roast chicken demonstrates otherwise. So do great, time-honored matches like lamb and Bordeaux, Barolo and white truffles and so on, although these might be taken for granted because the alchemy is expected. NYTIMES