Wine has had a long history of being served as an accompaniment to food. The early history of wine has it origins as another dietary staple and a beverage that was often more sanitary than the local water supply.
There is little evidence that much serious thought was given to pairing particular dishes to particular wines with most likely whatever wine was available being used. However, as culinary traditions in a region developed, so too did local winemaking tradition.
Many pairings that are considered “classics” today emerged from the centuries-old relationship between a region’s cuisine and their wines. In Europe, lamb was a staple meat of the diet for many areas that today are leading wine regions.
The red wines of regions such as Bordeaux, Greece, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rhone and Provence are considered classic pairings with the lamb dishes found in the local cuisines of those regions.
In Italy, the intimate connection between food and wine is deeply embedded in the culture and is exemplified by the country’s wine. Historically, Italians rarely dined without wine and a region’s wine was crafted to be “food friendly”, often with bright acidity.
While some Italian wines may seem tannic, lean or tart by themselves they often will show a very different profile when paired with boldly flavored Italian foods.
There have been some historical anecdotes that have related to food and wine pairing before modern times. One anecdote often attributed to British wine merchants is “Buy on an apple and sell on cheese” meaning that if a wine tastes good when paired with a raw, uncooked apple it must be truly good and pairing any wine with cheese will make it more palatable to the average consumer and easier to sell.
The principles behind this anecdote lies in the food pairing properties of both fruit and cheeses. Fruits that are high in sugar and acidity (such as the malic acid in green apples) can make wines taste metallic and thin bodied. In contrast, hard cheeses such as cheddar can soften the tannins in wines and make them taste fuller and fruitier.
Another historical anecdote, still repeated today, is “White wine with fish; Red wine with meat”. The root of this adage rests on the principle of matching the body (weight) of the wine with the weight of the food.
Meat was generally heavier and “red” in color so it was assumed that a red wine (which was usually heavier than white wine) paired better. Similarly fish was generally light and “white” in color so it was often paired with white wine.
This adage has become outdated somewhat due to the variety of wine styles prevalent in modern winemaking where there are now many “heavy” white wines such as “New World” oaky Chardonnay that can have more body than lighter reds such as Pinot noir or Italian Merlots.
Another older idea was “to pair strong cheeses with strong wines,” for example, asiago, a sharply flavored cheese, with Zinfandel, a dark red wine with fruit tones.
In recent years, the popularity and interest in food and wine pairings have increased and taken on new connotations. Industries have sprung up with print publications and media dedicated to expounding on the principles and ideals of pairing the perfect wine with the perfect dish.
In the restaurant industry, there is often a dedicated individual or staff of sommeliers who are trained to recommend wine pairings with the restaurant’s fare.
The origins of this recent phenomenon can be traced to the United States in the 1980s when the wine industry began to advertise wine-drinking as a component of dining rather than as just an alcoholic beverage meant for consumption and intoxication.
Winemakers started to emphasize the kind of food dishes that their wines would go well with, some even printing pairing suggestions on back wine labels.
Food magazines began to suggest particular wines with recipes and restaurants would offer multi-course dinners matched with a specific wine for each course.
Today there are multiple sources for detailed guidelines and tips on food and wine pairing. But many wine drinkers select wine pairings based on instinct, the mood of the meal or simply a desire to drink a particular wine at the moment they desire to eat a particular meal.
The subjective nature of taste makes it possible to drink any kind of wine with any kind of food and have an enjoyable experience. Wine expert Mark Oldman has noted “Food and wine pairing can be like sex and pizza: even when it’s bad, it can still be pretty good” and gives the example of wedding cake with a dry sparkling wine.
A very dry wine with a very sweet food is, according to Oldman, “the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard” and is not a “good pairing” according to most guidelines but the atmosphere of the occasion and the subjective nature of taste can trump any rule or guideline.
Today, many wine experts and advocates in the realm of food and wine pairing try to focus on the more objective physical aspects of food that have an effect on the palate, altering (or enhancing) the perception of various aspects of the wine.