Simon gets grumpy about the state of food and wine pairing in restaurants, outlines some of the most deadly sins and ponders if this fussed over topic is even still relevant.

food wine matching photo by Simon J Woolf

The wine world abounds in rituals. From cork sniffing to letting the wine breathe, some are harmless, others less so. The modern obsession with food and wine pairing probably causes as much fear and consternation amongst restaurant diners as it brings joy or gastronomic nirvana.

Wine pairing menus are a kind of solution for the unwary, and they’ve become an essential pillar of any fine dining establishment’s offering. Their carefully curated choices dovetail perfectly with the chef’s vision (née ego) and all 23 ingredients, dots, foams, smears and foraged whatnots on the plate. At least in theory.

If the food is a fiddly smorgasbord of unpronounceable ingredients that look like they’ve been worried over by a team of keyhole-surgeons, is there any bandwidth left for an attention-grabbing wine?

For food and wine pairing has become a complex science in an age of Nordic minimalism, recherché fermentation and plant-based everything. The days of white with fish, red with meat are long gone. But does the concept still have any validity in an age when restaurant dishes have become so involved?

Even food and wine matching expert Fiona Beckett sits on the fence. She says “The more complicated the food, the trickier it is to get a standout match. But people go to restaurants for different reasons and with different priorities.” She makes the point that many restaurant customers are there primarily for the food – and they’re more than happy to abdicate responsibility for selecting the booze.

It’s not you, it’s me

If you’re reading this though, I assume you have more than a passing interest in wine. So here’s the rub: If the food is a fiddly smorgasbord of unpronounceable ingredients that look like they’ve been worried over by a team of keyhole-surgeons, is there any bandwidth left for a challenging or attention-grabbing wine? There’s a serious risk of over stimulation, and that either wine or food overawes its stable-mate.

The fine dining conceit that every element of the experience has to be ‘elevated’ breaks down at some point. Some of my happiest moments involved basic food paired with a blinding wine. Or vice versa. Sitting in the courtyard of Nikolaihof, in Austria’s Wachau region, you graze on the traditional fare of an Austrian tavern: cold cuts, bean salads, soups. A schnitzel is about as complicated as it gets. Pair this with a glass of Vinothek – their sensational top Riesling, bottled after 16 years in large barrels – and it is hard not to be transported to a more astral plane.

Conversely, gorge on the top seafood at Porto’s O Gaveto restaurant, and the optimum accompaniment is a simple, fresh Vinho Verde. Anything else would be a distraction.

Still, there will always be creative somms who toil to achieve similar harmony amidst the white tablecloths. Maximum respect goes to Antonello Nicastri, the head somm at Peruvian restaurant Nazka in Amsterdam, for his pairing of a Netherlands Frühburgunder with ceviche. It was unexpected, fun and delightful. But this kind of daring is the exception rather than the rule. There’s a lot that can go wrong.

The four deadly sins of wine and food matching

Cardinal sin number one is what I term the “fake wine pairing”. This takes place at venues that list eight wines by the glass – invariably a sparkling, three whites, a rosé, three reds – and then offer a ‘wine pairing menu’ which turns out to be said by-the-glass stalwarts re-sequenced into a pseudo-random order, to make it look like the somm furrowed their brow and justified their existence.

This doesn’t just happen at mid-level establishments, but even on occasion in more rarefied gastronomic temples. Inevitably, the wines on offer will be towards the budget end of the spectrum, with generous markups of four or five times the retail price. It’s a bit like buying a salad, a burger and a saccharin dessert at McDonalds, and being told it’s a tasting menu.

Then there is the “high roller pairing”, as seen in snobbish Michelin-decorated establishments where a wine has clearly been grafted onto the menu for its status rather than any innate sympathy with the food. Eating at a one-star restaurant in Chelsea last year, I had the option to spank €50 on a glass of mature-ish Lynch Bages as part of a five course wine pairing. Tempting? Hardly. Lynch Bages and its ilk are not beverages that one wants meted out in stingy 100ml servings, to sip nonchalantly alongside a micro-sliver of sous vide venison.

Classed growth Bordeaux or its other grand vin cousins deserve an unfettered, leisurely hearing, preferably with the entire bottle on hand to administer a generous refill. Rushing through a glass in a multi-course tasting menu is a bit like having a five minute quickie with the love of your life. It might satisfy some basic needs, but is hardly the basis for a profound relationship.

Squeezing the designated pour through a surgical needle, and watching it froth unattractively into the glass like fizzy ribena is about as romantic as a seminar on erectile dysfunction.

We have to talk about Coravins too – devices which add insult to injury in the above scenario. Squeezing the designated pour through a surgical needle, and watching it froth unattractively into the glass like fizzy ribena is about as romantic as a seminar on erectile dysfunction. I’d rather just buy the bloody bottle, and hang the cost.

Next up is the “asynchronous pairing” – a favourite of Dutch restaurants, and other locations where slow service prevails. Your glass of Bolivian Chardonnay, lovingly selected to pair with the second course, arrives before the food. By 25 minutes. You are thirsty. This is less a pairing, more a suspect upselling opportunity. Beware when the somm spies your empty glass and appears to generously top it up, so you can continue to enjoy the wine with the food it was intended to accompany. It doesn’t look so generous when it has its own line on the bill.

These are admittedly first world problems. But the limits of human endurance also need to be respected. Surviving a 12 course tasting menu with 8 or 9 different paired wines, some bubbles to start and an inevitable sticky or fortified conclusion is the quickest route to dyspepsia I know. A really ill-considered food and wine pairing results in nothing more than inebriation, desired or not.

In contrast, when wine pairings head south of four courses, pourings are often reduced to a half glass. Whilst this is prudent, it offers an even more compromised snapshot of the wine – especially if it turns out to be a real banger. My opinion? Screw the pairing and order a single, delicious bottle, whose progress can be tracked enjoyably throughout the course of the meal.

Here, the experience is the full feature, complete with highs, lows and plot development, rather than eight half glasses which can seem like an hour’s worth of film trailers – some diverting, others not. And to the naysayers who insist that no wine can bridge the whole gamut of proteins, vegetables, amused bouches or desserts, I will say only this: Sherry. Orange wine. Jura Chardonnay.

We had to get onto natty eventually…

You know this was always going to end up in the realm of skin contact and haziness. Mention has to be made of the increasing number of restaurants that focus purely on natural wines. Beckett says “I’d like to think that people would be as open-minded about the wine as the food but that isn’t always the case. People who’ll try kimchi are often aghast at the idea of orange wine”.

Certainly, another annoyance is the wine-pairing-as-doctrine – usually accompanied by a little speech from the somm about why natural is just, you know, better. Of course I am biased. To me, wines that are typically lower in alcohol and higher in acidity make perfect food partners. But this may not suit everyone.

And that prompts the most important point of all: no pairing, whether delivered by glass or bottle, makes any sense if you don’t like the wine. So perhaps the whole concept of food and wine pairing ought to be retired. Instead of thinking of the somm as some kind of beverage DJ, cueing up the notionally correct match at any point, see them more as a discovery guide or shaman. A great somm can entice you on an adventure, introducing you to liquids you never thought to imbibe (and yes, increasingly, that might include interesting craft ciders, beer or kombucha).

And if they chance to forge that perfect moment of wine and food harmony? Invoke a less pernicious restaurant ritual – tip handsomely.