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How important is food and wine matching? Divergent ideas

When it comes to the subject of matching food and wine, there are some striking differences of opinions among wine lovers. For convenience, I've generalised these stances into four categories: the nihilist, the legalist, the anarchist and the pragmatist. Which are you?

The nihilist: it's all a load of nonsense
This is probably the most extreme position, and, yes, I do know some fairly serious wine lovers who take this view, even though it is probably only a minority. These people think that all writing about food and wine matching is just a lot of hot air; that the whole subject is a nonsense because most of the time they drink wine on its own, and when they do drink it with a meal they don't put food and wine into their mouths at the same time. I disagree. I really do think that the highest purpose for a wine is for it to be matched with appropriate food, and that synergistic combinations do exist between food and wine where each brings out the best in the other.

The legalist: it's an exact science, with a full set of rules
The traditional position, as espoused by the classic works of writers such as Hugh Johnson. In some books you'll even find whole chapters devoted to outlining the best wine matches for a surprisingly elaborate list of foodstuffs. This can appear quite intimidating! Personally, I think such lists are unnecessarily prescriptive, and too restrictive. Also, these lists are almost exclusively focused on old world classic wines and don't take into account the new world options now available, many of which make superb food matches.

The anarchist: tear up the rule book -- anything goes
This is becoming the trendy position, and has been adopted by quite a few wine writers desperate not to appear stuffy and conventional. If you want to drink red wine with fish, fine, they say. Or if you want to drink Sauvignon Blanc with steak, that's OK too. But this is poor advice. Some boundaries are helpful. As in music and painting, it's only when you have learned the rules that you can break them successfully. This certainly applies to wine and food matching: a solid grounding in the basic principles may then enable you to make the odd audacious pairing and actually pull it off.

The pragmatist: few really bad matches, few really good ones
Surprise, surprise! This is the position I'm going to speak out for. I think there are some guiding principles in food and wine matching that act as helpful foundations. For example, white wines are generally better with fish, and red wines pair best with red meats. You know the sort of thing. Having said this, as long as you aren't flouting the foundational rules, you'll probably find that there are few really bad wine and food matches, but plenty of adequate ones and many good ones. From this, it follows that there are few exceptional matches, but the fact that there are some makes the hunt for these sublime, synergistic pairings an exciting and worthwhile pursuit.

And finally…
One more area where there are divergent opinions concerns the respective quality levels of the food and wine partners. A common view is that it is necessary to choose which is to be the star, the food or the wine. According to this view, fine wines are best matched with relatively simple dishes that lack strong competing flavours; conversely, dishes with complex character need to be matched with simpler wines. I've certainly experienced occasions where the strongly flavoured foods have all but overwhelmed the fine wines I've been drinking with the meal. The contrasting view is that the best should be matched with the best: fine wines need to be accompanied by first-rate food. This is a view I have some sympathy for: excellent food and excellent wines have a natural affinity. So I'll sit on the fence …