The synergy of wine with food
Ive often heard it said that in pairing wine with food, you need to decide
who is going to be the star: the wine or the food. And this seems to have been borne out
by my experiences of pairing the two. In particular, as I have dined out in restaurants
that have reasonably elaborate menus, Ive been surprised time and again by how the
food has been nicely complemented by simple wines -- those that I would normally not think
very carefully about -- to such an extent that the wine has been elevated to another
dimension it would not have been capable of if it had been drunk alone.
This is where good but humble wines come into their own: in partnership with food. In
fact, if pressed, Id say that this is the most satisfying aspect of wine; its
highest purpose. Yes, there is a place for wine tastings with fellow enthusiasts exploring
flights of fine wines under analytical experience -- this is certainly tremendous fun. But
what a shame if the ultimate purpose of these fine wines is for them to be ogled over,
analysed and given a score out of a hundred, without them ever reaching the dinner table.
Humble wines, tasted on their own, often underwhelm, and consequently are overlooked by
many wine enthusiasts. My assertion is that there is much pleasure to be gained by
drinking reliable, well made and often well priced wines in the context for which they
were intended, with food and good company. And any wine lover who concentrates solely on
more expensive, sought after wines, in many cases will be selling themselves short and
missing out on this enjoyment.
Obsession with the best
Part of the problem is that in the USA and perhaps to a lesser extent in the UK, there is
a culture that puts enhanced emphasis on the best, separating out just a very
few exceptional examples and sidelining the very good alongside the rest. This phenomenon
can be seen in any competitive activity, whether it be sport or business. In both these
fields, exactly what is the best is much more clear cut than in a subjective
subject such as wine: you'll have a good idea who the best golfer is by looking at their
stroke average, or who the most successful company is by looking at their share prices.
Yet even though wine is not a competitive activity (at least as not as far as I am aware)
people seem to treat it as if it were, continually searching out the 'best' wines.
To my mind, asking the question, 'Which is the best wine?' is as absurd as asking a
workman 'Which is the best tool?' But it's a question you'll often hear asked. This
relates to the notion of 'quality'. Quality in wine, as in other things, can be defined as
'fitness for purpose'. If you want to cut a piece of wood in half, a saw is a 'better'
tool than a beautifully engineered precision drill, no matter how rusty or old the saw is.
It really doesn't matter that the precision drill is vastly more expensive and well
engineered than the saw. Its the same with wine. Take a rustic taverna in a
Mediterranean country on a warm summer's evening -- this is not the environment for
classed growth Clarets or premier cru Burgundies. A humble country wine, in these
circumstances, is a 'better' wine than, say, Château Leoville Barton 1982, because it
suits the purpose better. Fine wines need to be savoured, they need to be sipped, whereas
a juicy young Beaujolais or crisp, chilled Sauvignon Blanc demands to be glugged. Which
wine is best? The one that fits the intended use better, I would argue.
Don't get me wrong: I love fine wine, and expensive, highly sought-after wines are
often worthy of their reputations. There's a place for these great wines, but there's also
a place for less exalted but well made wines that tend to be overlooked by wine geeks. It
was Kermit Lynch who pointed out that Americans seem to look for a Great Wine Experience
every time they open a bottle, but in doing so, they lose out on a lot of the pleasure
that wine has to give. But when I choose a bottle to open, I'm selecting the best bottle
for the purpose: one that matches the environment, the occasion and my mood. I want it to
do a job for me, and in this sense, the 'best' wine is one that suits this purpose best --
a wine that is 'good enough'.