New and Old World Style Food – Wine Pairings?

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A Frenchman Walks into a Bar in Mendocino, and…

My wife and I were recently in a winery tasting room in Mendocino County enjoying several wines and a gentleman from France joined us at the tasting bar.  This producer happened to offer a cool-climate Syrah mixed with 20% cool-climate Zinfandel and Viognier.  A very light style of wine, with the Zin adding a brighter red fruit character.  I remarked that I wished I had a bottle of this wine to pair with our Turkey and stuffing dinner from a few nights before… and wow, both the attendant and the Frenchman laughed out loud!

Is Food & Wine Pairing THAT Different in the U.S.?

At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but it stuck with me and eventually had me thinking about the nature of food – wine pairings.  Is a Sommelier‘s job different in Europe vs. the United States?  Does the European restaurant patron look for something different, than their American counterpart?  I began turning over my Somm training in my head and realized, there really are two separate and distinct points of view to this discussion:

1st View

When pairing with foods, wines should contribute to mouth-feel, exhibit balance to complement the food textures, but primarily – the wine should clear the palate between bites.  The idea being: clearing the palate with wine allows you to fully experience the flavors of the food in each bite.

2nd View

When pairing with foods, wine should compliment the flavors in the food and ENHANCE its enjoyment.  In this case, a wine is selected based on pairing the wine and food flavors so the whole is tastier than the parts.

I know EXACTLY what that Frenchman was thinking… in his mind, that fruit-forward wine interfered with the taste of the food.  I thought back to his preferred wines at the tasting bar.  He purchased the most acidic Pinot Noir that was the least fruity and the best balanced (BTW, I enjoyed it too).  His thinking regarding the pairing was completely at odds with mine.  Lighter Zins (with good acidity) are a great pairing with turkey and gravy, because the wine compliments the food.  These two people were so against that kind of thinking, that they had laughed when it was suggested.  A strange experience, but very instructive.

Another Wine Job That Requires an Understanding of Cultural Preferences?

Sometime back, I wrote a piece on the cultural differences affecting the wine marketing and media manager position.  So, now the Somm position is affected by this too?  OK, I am not saying my preference here matches everyone in the U.S., but the wine education training I have done, has shown it to be true – at least in my small sample.  Does this mean Somm training and certification should include the regional and cultural preferences of local wine consumers, NOT just regional cuisine?  Could this also mean, there is no one definitive training approach to content that will apply to both the Old and New Worlds?


For the professional Somms reading this, what has your experience been?  Am I painting to broad a brush on the issue? I don’t read much talk about this on wine related websites.  Is this observation and discussion relevant?


Filed under Food Pairing, Sommelier, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

12 responses to “New and Old World Style Food – Wine Pairings?

  1. I look at wine and food pairing more like the Europeans and my teaching of classes on wine and food pairing reinforces that. The primary rule is to match the perceived level of the acid in the wine (residual sugar can blunt acid perception) with the perceived level of acid in the food or sauce that accompanies the food, if the sauce is the dominant taste.

    While matching body of wine with body of food plays a role and occasionally matching a wine flavor (other than acid) with a chemical flavor in a food, also plays a role in pairing, if you violate the acid matching rule, both the food and the wine tastes change and usually for the worse.

    You would not match a moderately acidic wine with a savory dish like turkey and stuffing because the acid in the wine clashes with savory (umami) tastes. I’ll grant you the acid does cleanse the palate, but if that is your object, you should not drink the wine until after you have finished the savory dish. Thus as a theory of wine and food pairing, palate cleaning from pairings should not play a dominant role.

    If a wine is perfectly in balance for your own personal tastes, it is best consumed on its own on your porch or in your easy chair as a “meditation” wine because any food will change the that wine’s taste (e.g. sell on cheese). Many U.S. wine drinkers do not realize that most of the time, good pairings use the food the bring the wine into balance for your tastes, NOT to make the food taste better. Probably 95% of wines are food wines, i.e., they NEED food to bring the wine into balance for your taste.

    You can easily test these principles for yourself at any meal. Take a small sip of the wine first and describe its flavors and balance to yourself. Then take a bite of a savory (low acid) food, e.g., turkey and stuffing, cheese-based pasta, steak, etc. Follow this with another sip of the wine and redescribe the flavors and balance to yourself.

    Do this first with an acidic wine like an unoaked chardonnay with no malolactic treatment and then repeat with an oaked and malolactic treated chardonnay or a Viognier if you can’t abide an oaked Chard because both are low acid perception).

    I think you will find that the more acidic, unoaked Chard tastes worse after the savory bite of food, whereas the oaked Chard (even if you do not like oaked chards) will taste better.

    Repeat with the same wines and an acidic food such as a salad with vinaigrette or a lemon marinated chicken breast, etc. This time I believe you will find the oaked Chard tastes worse after the acid food and the unoaked Chard tastes better.

    You can use the same foods and try the experiment with a low acid Merlot or Tempranillo and a cool climate Pinot or Syrah (medium or high acidity).

    See what you think.


    • Rick, thanks for your comment. I am not sure I completely agree with you, but then palate variation does apply. Using a holiday example, I find the umami in turkey goes fantasticly with a light, acidic Pinot Noir… WHEN it has an earthy component. The forest floor and funk in the wine really compliments umami in this case. Just like any generalization (in general I agree with your comments), there is always an exception. Again tho, as the piece highlights, my approach represents complement vs. contrast thinking. A personnel style difference that I have found resonates with many average American wine drinkers. In the world of collectors and connoisseurs, it may be totally different.


  2. Yes tastes vary widely between US wine professionals and European. As do the marketing and media jobs and perceptions in the US vs Europe as far as the wine business, in particular (I realize this more and more every time I chat business, marketing, social media and how to draw business to a brand with my French winemaker and estate owner friends), BUT I still think a Sommeliers job is the same regardless of what country he/she is in and who his/her client is. The job is to pick a wine that the customer will enjoy (firstly) and that will pair well with the food. If you know your customers tastes are high acid Burgundies and high acid whites and he doesn’t like heavy tannic reds than select something in his wheelhouse, etc etc
    that’s my two cents anyways


    • Brooke, you and I think along many of the same lines, but from my experience… this is very New-World kind of thinking. I had several French born classmates in my Somm classes. It was cool to get their take, but our tastes and approach varied considerably. Not trying to be divisive in the world wine community, just trying to point out how upbringing and regional cultural influences may have more of an impact than is generally recognized.


      • Very true! I think we all know US wines are dif than Euro and also theres the fact that customer service is different and ppl are different in US and Europe but with wine pairing soecifically: if you are in France asking your French sommelier for a wine that pairs w your food there will only be French wines on the menu so of course thats what the customer will get. And thats what theyll be used to, because thats whats on every menu (can sub Italy or Spain here too). In the US many patrons may have a palate for domestic or CA wines but then also many have intl palates since we have such a variety widely available. So seems like the job of somm is still the same ( find out what customers tastes are and consider when suggesting wine) regardless of which country they are in right?


  3. Paul graydon-Taylor

    Good Article and enjoyable reading…my belief and experience as both a past Chef and Sommelier, has always been that the emphasis is on the Food first and foremost and matching or pairing any wine must take this consideration first, no matter how much we are devoted in taste to a particular wine as we all have our favourites. However if one has the desire to enjoy a favourite or special varietal or blend of wine, then it’s much the same that it has to be complementary to and alongside the food to so best be enjoyed, but the emphasis still remains with the food for the greatest overall enjoyment. Often having the right atmosphere and especially the right companion/s will help make a huge difference also. The most important thing is that you enjoy it and when you do, you won’t care what anyone else thinks and that’s how it should be. Enjoy!


    • Thanks for your kind comments Paul. I agree with many of your thoughts here. Although, because I am a wine guy, I often plan my menu around special bottles of wine… I know it is backwards, but please cut me some slack… I am a wine geek through and through!


  4. When you say “to compliment the food textures”, perhaps you mean “to complement…”?


  5. If you like cool climate wine check out my latest post about Saperavi


    • I have not seen this varietal on a wine list at a distributor, or shop. Do you know of an online retailer that carries it? I am always interested in checking out interesting varietals…


      • Saperavi is just becoming know as a varietal by it real name. It was officially recognized as a wine grape here in the U.S. earlier this year. I would recommend that you go to the Standing Stone Winery website and purchase it from Marti Macinski . She has been working with Saperavi from here FLX vineyards for over 20 years and is a true pioneer in this area. If you happen to be in the FLX on Sat. 12/13/14 she is having a Vertical Barrel Tasting of her Saperavi. Keep in touch and let me know what you think. It’s not often you get to see a varietal evolve from the start.