03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Do Food and Wine Pairings Matter?

I will take any suspense out of the question. Yes food and wine pairings can make for an enlightened experience.

After sitting at the family holiday table, and watching the adults happily drinking a Napa Cabernet with their seafood chowder, I began to think about the pairing of food and wine. I mean, the goal of pairing the proper wine with the proper food is to enhance the enjoyment of both. The plates were scraped clean, and the wine was gone. Am I supposed to tell my family they don't know how to enjoy their food and wine? They seemed to do fine without me. So, the thought came to me, that although there are definitely combinations that add a new dimension to both the wine, and the food, knowing the concerns of the participants has a lot to do with the success of the meal. They like Napa Cab, and they also like seafood chowder. Period.

Know Your Audience

Part of what makes any food and wine experience successful is to know your audience. I have been around the restaurant business enough to have witnessed 1st Growth Bordeaux mixed with soda, ice cubes with Puligny Montrachet, and orange juice with Louis Roederer "Cristal" Champagne. These customers were enjoying themselves, and equally important from my standpoint, they paid their checks. They were not asking my advice, and frankly if they did, I would have needed to be more creative than I would with more conventional food and wine pairings.

Mindset for Great Wine Pairings

Understanding how to pair wine with food, has a great deal to do with the mindset of a chef. There are two primary elements that a wine must have; either a complementary element, or a contrasting element to the dish. The wine is in effect, a liquid ingredient the makes, if done properly, a magical addition that makes both the wine and the food taste better because of their combination.

The weight of the wine, i.e. a light Muscadet which has light, crisp, acidity like squeezing a lemon, is a perfect foil to a raw, creamy briny oyster. Keeping the same mindset, a heavier dish, like a broiled Porterhouse steak would overwhelm lighter wines. The weight of the wine needs to be matched up to the weight of the food. So, weightier wines, such as Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or a red Bordeaux, or a Syrah from the northern Rhone Valley, or an Argentinean Malbec; become naturals to make a suitable pairing.

Refining the Pairing

Some of the little tricks of wine and food pairings have to do with a full understanding of both the food and the wine products. For example, the Porterhouse steak we spoke of earlier is being plated with three types of sautéed mushrooms. The mushroom combination lends an earthy quality to the dish. So, the pairing still needs to have the weight to stand up to steak, but to narrow it down further, should also have an earthy quality that is compatible to the mushroom medley. Wines like a Northern Rhone Valley of France Syrah, or a Spanish Garnacha have both of the qualities needed the make for a great match.

Farm raised salmon has a fatty rich texture that lends itself to many different wine pairings. White wines with good lemony acidity, like Prosecco, non-Vintage Champagne, Sancerre, Chablis, and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc all have an element that cuts through the fat of the fish. Other white wines, with components that pair up with the fatty element of the salmon; like prototypical California Chardonnay with malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts malic acid (a Granny Smith apple acidity level) to lactic acid (creamy, buttery) flavors; complement and enhance the fattiness of the fish.

Red wines are also very compatible with a fuller bodied fish like farm raised salmon. While the very full bodied reds with high tannin levels; such as the reds suggested with the Porterhouse; would overwhelm salmon, lighter reds with lower tannin levels, such as Pinot Noir and Beaujolais, would pair very well. An advanced touch would be to make a sauce that incorporated the wine you are choosing to drink. With the sauce being made from the same wine, there is a true melding of food and wine.

Some Classic Pairings & Your Imagination

Here are a handful of wine & food pairings; that have a great deal to do with regional classic foods, for example:
Muscadet with Oysters (Loire Valley France, Atlantic Ocean)
Albarino with Shellfish & Light Fish (Galicia Spain, Atlantic Ocean)
Rioja with Lamb (Rioja, Spain)
Beefsteak with Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (In the words of Dennis Groth Napa Valley Winemaker; "A Slab and a Cab") (Napa Valley, California)
Beef Empanadas and Argentine Malbec (Mendoza Valley, Argentina)

All of these pairings have a similar geographic origin. This seems to be a good starting point, as food sources that graze or grow in the same vicinity where the grapes are grown, should have some linking flavor. Understanding food flavors and textures is equally as important.

Imaginative and successful food and wine pairings are made from non-traditional pairings by breaking down the taste profiles of both food and wine. There is no reason that a light and crisp white wine, with a good lemony backbone, could not be equally as good as a Sancerre or Chablis with oysters. Similarly, wines such as a Cotes du Rhone and a Tempranillo both should be beautiful complements to Pork.

So, a little bit of wine knowledge with a little bit of food knowledge can make for some great food & wine experiences....if you want them. Otherwise, if you are having fun; eat what you like, and drink what you want.