So, you’ve come to a wonderful state of understanding about wines and spirits. You know how the products are made. You know where they come from. You are even somewhat familiar with weather conditions in a particular year and how the rains and temperatures affected the final outcome. You know the difference between distillation and fermentation.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Now you are involved with bringing the beverages to the table, and the next question is, “What foods can I serve with (fill in the blank)?” All your wonderful knowledge is about to put you in the realm of knowing quite a bit, but not knowing what to do.

What happens if Wine A does not go with Course A? What happens if the cheese completely overwhelms the beverage? Worse, what happens if the whole pairing thing does not work at all, and every guest is left with a bad taste in their collective mouths? (Oh come on, you knew that pun had to be here somewhere. Don’t be so surprised.)

The first thing to know about pairing wines or spirits with food is that you have to relax. While every wine expert, every sommelier, every chef will happily spout off about culinary faux pas, what they won’t admit is that there really are very few pairing possibilities that are complete failures. Even if you miss the pairing-call by a bit, I don’t see a stoning in your future.

There are traps out there, for sure, but usually it comes down to a pairing that is not as successful as it could be. It’s not about total breakdown.

Even the best food and/or wine expert is capable of screwing up, and sometimes their advice can be distracting to what you are trying to accomplish. For instance, have you ever read, or maybe experienced, that dark chocolate pairs very well with heavy red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel?

That’s not as successful of a pairing as you have been led to believe. In fact, thanks to the sugars in the chocolate, it really does not work at all. Now, toss in a Port, and you have something. The sugar in the Port is a fine match for the sugar in the chocolate.

So there is a guideline for you. Keep characteristics on both sides of the table as equal as possible. Sweet does not do well with dry. Savory is not necessarily a true friend of sweet.

Another guideline that should help your pairing success: What are the folks back home eating?

With wine, it’s good for you to know where the grapes are from originally. Maybe you are having a pinot noir from Russian River, Sonoma County. That’s not the real home of Pinot Noir. Burgundy, France, is. And what are the folks in Burgundy enjoying with their wine? The same thought process is true for Sangiovese. What are the winegrowers in Tuscany having for dinner, or a snack? And so on.

Wine is the product of literally hundreds of years of trial and error in every original locale. During that time the locals have evolved a cuisine that works very well with their wines. What are these people eating? And then you have an answer to what you should be eating to enhance the wine tasting experience.

Cheeses can be a little bit tricky since there is such a broad spectrum of flavors and textures. But by following the guideline of place of origin, you have a lot of answers. A wonderful manchego from Spain goes quite well with a lighter style Tempranillo-based wine from the Ribera del Duero region of western Spain. Creamy cow’s milk cheese, like Brie, is a marriage made in heaven with the wines of Burgundy.

In truth, most cheeses pair better with white wines than reds. I know that may violate what you think you know but the more expressive fruit in white wines, as opposed to the tannins and heavy structures of reds, is a better match with cheese. The influential factor here is that the skins of white grapes allow the meat of the grape to shine through more, while the heavier skins of the reds bring about stronger “elements” of the wine, muting the subtle fruit characteristics.

Cocktails present a more difficult challenge when it comes to pairing. Most cocktails are multi-layered and a cocktail by definition is a combination of sweet, sour and alcohol. Along those lines there is a lot of fruit juice, citrus presence and a grain-based spirit. Go for typical cocktail snacks. Salted nuts, crackers made from wheat, processed meat and dried fruit can all work depending on the style of drink.

Some softer, more savory cheeses work with cocktails, particularly when the drink contains a wine element, like sparkling wine in a French 75.

If you are in doubt, or doubt your knowledge and abilities (get over this feeling – you are fine and have as much good sense as anyone), check with your wine merchant, cheese monger or deli manager. But don’t be a slave to their opinions.

What is often fun is to take their advice, then also inject something of your own choosing. Give your guests a couple of choices and see how your approach stacks up against the so-called “expert.” I bet you will be quite surprised at how well you do, and I’ll also wager that your guests will never be able to discern which pairing came from an experienced professional and which came from the perfect host/hostess.

That should tell you something right there. Go for it, with great gusto!

 

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