If you know anything about wine, you probably know some of the basic rules: red with beef, white with fish, that sort of thing.
The pairing of herb-stuffed breast of pheasant, with butternut squash risotto and natural jus, and a 2009 Domaine du Terme Vacqueyras might seem more the act of an expert. And it is: It’s a combination put together by Josh Kayser and Matt Shindler, the executive chef and wine director, respectively, of Bel Lago in Westerville.
But food and wine pairing is no science. Kayser’s and Shindler’s extensive experience has served them well, no doubt, but both emphasize the fact that it all comes down to taste, and everyone’s tastes are different.
You might not intuitively pick capellini with morels and white asparagus, along with tableside-shaved black summer truffle, to go with 2009 Joseph Drouhin Meursault at your next dinner party. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with some impressive pairings of your own.
Kayser and Shindler have been getting regular workouts thanks to Bel Lago’s Wine Director’s Dinner events, four-course meals built around top-notch food and wine. The two also regularly collaborate on special events at the restaurant, ranging from casual $60-per-person dinners to opulent $1,000-per-person affairs.
For the Wine Director’s Dinners, the wine comes first. Shindler will choose a wine-producing region to highlight and have his representatives bring in a few options from it, then he and Kayser will taste all of them over the course of 60 to 90 minutes and discuss every aspect – alcohol level, acidity, viscosity, etc.
“A lot of times, we’ll taste wine and just start throwing out ingredients,” Kayser says – for example, shouting out “cherries!” or “chocolate!” and then swiftly writing it down.
Sometimes, they’ll bring out a few plates of food, too, to compare flavors and reactions to different wines. Every identifiable aspect of the food has to factor into the equation as well.
“A lot of the basic dialogue can be stimulated just by the flavor,” says Bel Lago managing partner Rich Rores, who oversees all the menus.
An example: For the Pacific Northwest-themed Wine Director’s Dinner on Feb. 26, Shindler picked for the second course a 2010 pinot noir from Raptor Ridge, a winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The dish that came to be paired with it was crispy pork belly with white grape moustarda (sweet fruit cooked down with sugar and vinegar), frisee (curly endive) and Dijon lemonette (lemon-based vinaigrette). Kayser picked the pork belly because of the earthy flavors in the pinot noir and the moustarda and Dijon for its spicy flavors.
Custom dinners often start with the food – the customer will request certain dishes or ingredients, and it’s up to Kayser and Shindler to figure out which wines will best fit those flavors.
At such a dinner in June, the customer requested the inclusion of foie gras, and Kayser accommodated the request with fancy s’mores – graham cracker crostini, Godiva chocolate and foie gras-filled marshmallows. Shindler accompanied the s’mores with a 2007 Aszu 5 Puttonyos (a white wine made from Furmint, Harslevelu and Muscat de Lunel grapes) from Hungary’s Royal Tokaji wine company.
“All the components of the food have to work together, and all the components of the food have to work with the wine,” Shindler says.
Matching up compatible flavors is important, but there are plenty of other things to consider. For one thing, both the food and the wine need to proceed naturally through the courses, growing gradually heavier – go too far early on, and you risk wrecking the diner’s palate for the next course. The tannins in the wine, the heaviness of the food and the spiciness of both need to be carefully considered.
It’s a good idea to use a light touch when it comes to ingredients. It’s not necessary to use a lot of ingredients to make good food, Kayser says, and having too many can make tough to find a suitable wine.
It’s also important for the food to live up to the quality of the wine. For the June dinner, the third course – Cornish game hen stuffed with mushrooms and foie gras – ended up paired with a 2008 Joseph Drouhin Echezeaux Grand Cru. The grand cru is a big, complex wine, and Shindler was careful to pick it over a Bordeaux, which, though seemingly appropriate, could have covered up some of the flavor of the food.
“You can’t let the wine overpower the food,” he says.
As helpful as the chef’s and sommelier’s experiences may be, more important are their efforts to understand the tastes, likes and dislikes of the diners. Kayser and Shindler ask lots of questions of their customers, and anyone planning a wine pairing dinner would do well to understand the diners’ palates to the best of his or her ability.
It’s also useful to know and understand your own tastes, Rores says. No matter how many people you might be serving, your own tastes and experiences can help inform your decisions.
One of the most important things to have when developing a pairing plan, Kayser says, is a thick skin. He and Shindler, along with Rores, reject far more flavors than they accept en route to finding the best combinations.
“Neither of us gets offended when we get shot down,” says Kayser.
Not only does checking one’s ego at the door make for a better menu, it also makes the process more fun, Rores says, and that’s key to a productive process. And don’t be intimidated by the variety of wines available, the depths of others’ knowledge or stereotypes about wine in popular culture – you have to enjoy the process before you can succeed at it.
“There are no right or wrong answers with wine – only what you like,” says Shindler.
Garth Bishop is editor of CityScene Magazine. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.