A Technical Guide to Food and Wine Pairing

Food and wine can have a synergistic relationship, such that the wine improves the food and the food the wine, unleashing the full taste potential of both. In many European wine regions, the wine styles and culinary traditions developed reciprocally such that the wines naturally pair with the regional fare. Many of these so-called ‘food wines’ can seem overly tart or tannic if drunk independently, but come into their own once paired with food, and, in particular, those dishes that they co-evolved with. If you respect these time-honoured pairings, you are unlikely to go wrong.

Otherwise, you need to choose what to put into focus: the food or the wine. For instance, if it is the wine that you wish to emphasize, pick a dish that is slightly lighter and complements rather than competes with it. Take care not to pick a dish that is too light or it will be overwhelmed by the wine: although you want the wine to lead, you want the dish to follow closely behind. If it is the food that you wish to emphasize, you are effectively using the wine as a sauce or spice. In all instances, the wine and the food should interact synergistically, with the wine bringing out the best in the food, and the food the best in the wine. This is certainly the case with such classic pairings as Muscadet and oysters, Claret and lamb, and Sauternes and Roquefort.

Taste, however, is subjective, and there cannot and should not be rigid rules for pairing foods and wines. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the wine lover is in experimenting with combinations and, in so doing, multiplying the flavours, textures, and sensations of everyday life. That said, you do need to be versed in the principles that you may, or may not, decide to break.

First, identify the dominant component of your dish. For example, the dominant component of fish served in a creamy sauce is more likely to be the sauce than the fish itself. Then pick a wine that either complements or contrasts with the dominant component. Examples of complementary pairings are: a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with sole in a lemon sauce, an earthy Pinot Noir with mushroom vol-au-vents, a peppery Syrah with a steak in peppercorn sauce, and a nutty Vin Jaune with Comté cheese.

Four important elements to bear in mind are weight, acidity, tannins, and sweetness. The weight and texture of a wine is determined by such factors as alcohol level, amount of extract and tannin, and winemaking processes such as extended maceration, lees ageing, and oaking. In general, lighter wines pair with lighter foods, whereas heavier, more robust wines pair with heavier, more rustic foods. Good examples of pairings by weight are Chardonnay and lobster or Chardonnay and roast chicken.

Acidity stimulates appetite and cuts through heaviness, explaining the success of such contrasting pairings as Sancerre and goat cheese, Alsatian Riesling and pork belly, and Tokaj and foie gras. In all cases, the wine must be at least as acidic as the dish, and preferably more so: if not, the wine is going to seem thin or insipid.

Tannins can lend chalkiness or grittiness to a wine, and also bitter astringency. Tannins bind to and react with proteins in food, by which process they are ‘softened’. While tannic wines go hand in hand with red meats and cheeses, they pair poorly with spicy or sweet dishes, which can accentuate their bitterness and astringency, and also with fish oils, which can make them taste ‘metallic’.

A sweet dish requires a wine that is just as sweet or sweeter if the wine is not to be overpowered. Sweetness balances heat and spiciness, and also contrasts with saltiness, as, for example, in the case of port and blue cheese. Conversely, alcohol accentuates the heat in spicy food and vice versa. So much explains why Mosel Riesling, which is both high in residual sugar and low in alcohol, is often an excellent choice for spicy food. However, very spicy food will overwhelm almost any wine, so pair with some other beverage such as water, tea, beer, or lassi. Some foods are difficult to pair with wine, most notably chocolate, eggs, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus.

Finally, remember also to match your wine to the occasion, your companions, the season, the weather, the time of day or night, and your mood and tastes. If you are serving more than one wine, think about your line up and make it as varied or interesting or educational as possible.

And of course—even if the tasting conditions are far from ideal—serve the wines blind!

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Hide & Seek Out Today!

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The new edition of Hide and Seek is now available on Kindle!

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love…  —Fyodor Dostoevsky

Self-deception is common and universal, and the cause of most human tragedies. Of course, the science of self-deception can help us to live better and get more out of life. But it can also cast a murky light on human nature and the human condition, for example, on such exclusively human phenomena as anger, depression, fear, pity, pride, dream making, love making, and god making, not to forget age-old philosophical problems such as selfhood, virtue, happiness, and the good life. Nothing, in the end, could possibly be more important.

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Why Blind Taste Wine?

WINE is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, polyphenols, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon the amount consumed—on mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, wine- making, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, which can be analysed and interpreted by the experienced or attentive taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label. Even our past experiences (‘I once had a lovely picnic in this vineyard’, ‘I hate Sauvignon Blanc’) and the context and conditions of the tasting (‘This room is cold’, ‘This Empire style Château is amazing’) can influence our appraisal of the wine.

While all these factors can, and inevitably do, play a part in our personal enjoyment of a wine, they can lead us to prejudice one grape variety, region, producer, vintage, etc. over another, and, ultimately, one wine over another. By holding us back from tasting different wines and thinking about wine, they limit our understanding, and so our enjoyment, of those wines and wine in general.

By far the best way to control for biases is to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass, preferably in a more or less neutral setting and without flourish or fanfare. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may be usefully compared and contrasted with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for instance, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the tasting is said to be ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

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Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Focusing on nothing else but the wines in our glasses.
  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses.
  • Applying our judgement.
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories.
  • Comparing our analysis and interpretations with those of our peers.
  • Getting it completely right, more or less right, or ‘wrong for the right reasons’.
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general.
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

In philosophy, phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Wine blind tasting is the best phenomenology, phenomenology par excellence, returning us from our heads into the world, and, at the same time, teaching us the methods of the mind.

The more practically-minded among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more down-to-earth purposes: winemakers need to taste a wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their stocks; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers and patrons; and imbibers before sharing it with their friends. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of local, national, and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering into the wine trade, which is no doubt more life affirming than many other trades.

Adapted from the new third edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

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The Two Types of Psychopath

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The hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder is grandiosity. The narcissist harbors a strong sense of entitlement, self-aggrandizing fantasies, and a craving for admiration. In severe cases, she may be envious, lacking in empathy, and ready to exploit others in the pursuit of her lofty ambitions. Although she can be charismatic and charming, she more often seems self-absorbed, controlling, and insensitive. If she feels slighted or ridiculed, she might be provoked into a fit of destructive rage and revenge seeking. Such a paroxysmal reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’ and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved, including the narcissist herself.

In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, both the characters of Lord Henry Wooton and Dorian Gray are strongly narcissistic. Lord Henry’s narcissism is insightful and often quite charming and no doubt similar to that of his creator and alter ego, Oscar Wilde.

I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me.

On the other hand, Dorian Gray’s narcissism is cold and destructive, leading, among other things, to the suicide of actress Sibyl Vane. In Chapter 7, Sibyl tells Dorian that he brought her to “something [higher] of which all art is but a reflection” and made her understand the nature of true love. Instead of feeling flattered or humbled or otherwise moved, Dorian castigates Sibyl for her poor acting, claiming that it has killed off any love that he might ever have had for her.

‘Yes,’ he cried, ‘you have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid. My God! How mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name. You don’t know what you were to me, once. Why, once… Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I wish I had never laid eyes upon you! You have spoiled the romance of my life…’

A study carried out by Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey in England found that narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and another personality disorder called anankastic personality disorder are actually more common in high-level executives than in mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high-security Broadmoor Hospital.

This suggests that people commonly benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, driven, and able to exploit people and situations to maximum advantage. People with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and thus adept at building and exercising business relationships.

In their study, Board and Fritzon described the executives with a personality disorder as ‘successful psychopaths’ and the criminal offenders as ‘unsuccessful psychopaths,’ and it may be that highly successful people and disturbed psychopaths have more in common than first meets the eye. As the psychologist and philosopher William James put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce… in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’

Over in the United States, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues investigated how successful psychopaths might differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked several members of the psychology and law division of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who could be counted as successful and also conformed to psychologist Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath:

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life… Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.

From the responses that they collated, the researchers found that successful psychopaths matched unsuccessful ones in all respects but one: conscientiousness. So, it seems that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the former behave impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the latter are able to inhibit or at least restrain destructive tendencies and build on their achievements.

Narcissistic personality disorder is, of course, named for the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions. In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus was prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.

One day, Echo followed Narcissus through the woods as he hunted for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, “Who’s there?” to which she responded, “Who’s there?” When at last she revealed herself, she rushed to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away—just, in fact, as Dorian did Sibyl. Echo spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.

Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty, but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.

What does this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would ourselves be treated, and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. After being rejected by him, poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus, and ‘slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice’.

On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves, in our own little egos, that we lose sight of the bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourselves, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so, in some sense, we kill ourselves, like so many ambitious or self-centered people. Treating other people badly is a sure sign that we are still trapped in ourselves.

Teiresias prophesized that Narcissus would ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’, because to truly know oneself is also to know that there is nothing to know. Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than the ever-receding reflection that Narcissus was unable to grasp. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego’s boundaries dissolved in death and he merged back into the world in the form of a flower. In Greek myth, the hero—Theseus, Hercules, Odysseus—has to die and travel through the underworld (the unconscious) before re-emerging as a hero. He has to conquer himself, to die to himself, to become more than merely human.

Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much. The key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure in oneself and yet to be able to dissociate from the envelope that we happen to have been born into.

References

  • Board BJ and Fritzon KF (2005): Disordered personalities at work. Psychology, Crime and Law 11:17-23.
  • James W (1902): The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture 1 ‘Religion and Neurology’, Footnote 6.
  • Mullins-Sweat S et al. (2010): The Search for the Successful Psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality 44:554-558.