Wine pairings: why bother?

Pairing wine with food or music

I want to talk about pairing wine. Pairing it with food, arts like music or books, or pairing wine to an occasion.

Here’s what winds me up

There’s a seesaw effect with a saturation on both sides: countless articles listing the best pairings for certain wines (sure, I’m guilty) and then numerous studies flying around for click-bait journalism that debunk whether any pairing has scientific or cultural grounding.

Both sides bug me.

On the wine side, some of my peers are nigh on obsessive about what does or doesn’t work. They have been for years. It’s one of the inherent reasons why consumers still regard wine as a snobbish industry filled with rules. It’s also why many consumers are intimidated about swapping out and trying something new.

This is exactly the opposite effect of what a wine writer or merchant offering a pairing guide should want in the first place.

On the studies side, you come across two common features:

One is headline grabbing studies, formulated from tiny samples or unqualified experts. For example, grouping a sample together to blind-taste wine pairings and reporting none of them could discern any real benefit to pairing x with y anyway. These studies get funding because they make great content, yet few of these studies bother polling significant audience sizes; or they field experts who haven’t been tasting and learning about wine for years.

The other issue with these studies is they are too objective, too cold – and let’s face it, that’s never been what wine’s about.

Here’s the heart of the matter

If you want to know the value of a wine pairing, think about your best memories drinking wine.

I would gamble that few of you are thinking of a time you were drinking alone.

Wine is social. It’s in a 750ml bottle primarily because history dictate it be shared. Whether you’re drinking it with a meal and family, sharing a bottle as you catch up with friends, tasting something new in a wine club, or simply pulling the cork on something to drink in front of the telly with your better half.

A wine pairing isn’t about whether that Chenin Blanc goes with pork belly, or whether you can drink Merlot while listening to jazz, it’s about the conversation around it.

Perhaps Chenin goes with pork belly because its apple aromas and tart citrus notes remind you of the apple jelly on your grandma’s Sunday Roast pork.

Or maybe Merlot goes with jazz because, as you enjoy the silky plum notes and the warmth that makes you blush, it reminds you of the red wine you sipped on your first date and the tingling nerves you felt.

Perhaps it doesn’t go with pork belly or jazz at all, but you read or hear the pairing and you have a conversation with yourself. Could it work? Maybe. It brings alive the wine you’re going to drink. It’s no longer just alcoholic grape juice, but an experience, a memory, a decision, all rolled into one.

Many of us might drink for the taste, others might drink for the merry feeling when the buzz hits, but all of us enjoy a drink because of context. The best wine you have is usually on holiday, or with some of your favourite dinner guests.

Wine pairing starts a conversation – and it’s those memories of conversations I’ve had over my years as a wine writer that made me fall in love with wine.

So, ignore the snobs and the studies and enjoy a wine pairing for what it truly is: the opportunity to enjoy a moment.

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