Each day, restaurant customers across the country panic at the thought of ordering wine for their table.
The term “food-friendly” has conveyed great qualities for difficult-to-match foods—high acidity, mild tannins, bright fruit and low alcohol—but the overused term has sometimes become a backhanded compliment for wines that are mainly tart and one-dimensional. And while crisp acids and low tannins go great with a frisée salad, such a wine might taste like lemon water next to the caramelized edges and melted fat of a hanger steak.
Meanwhile, the more subtle wines that enhance rather than overpower food tend to be overlooked by the ratings-meisters. Further complicating matters are several newly available wine brands that specifically target types of foods—2007 Roast Duck Merlot, anyone?
Beyond the basics of pairing—dry wines seem thin and acidic when served with sweets, and red-meat dishes welcome assertive reds—the concept of food friendliness can pose as many questions as it seeks to answer.
Here’s an idea: Wouldn’t it be more useful to simply make sure your food works better with wine?
Places like Chicago’s Bin 36 popularized listing specific wine recommendations on the food menu. But getting chefs to craft their dishes with wine in mind is another matter, says wine director Brian Duncan.
“It’s like the separation of church and state,” Duncan says. “In most cases, food is king and the wine has to chase the food. I’ve worked with all kinds of chefs with varying degrees of concern about whether the dish went with the wine.”
In some cases, chefs resist any alteration of dishes to suit potential wine pairings. Still, he maintains that guests shouldn’t have to struggle to figure out what to drink with dinner.
“I’ve said, ‘I shouldn’t have to be a tailor to get a suit altered,’” Duncan said.
Tim Hanni, M.W., director of applied psycho-sensory studies at Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, Calif., is working on how the brain processes and interprets sensory info.
He’s advised the P.F. Chang’s chain on their wine list and recently has been working with chefs at New York-based China Grill Management on his flavor-balancing concept, which he describes as “the art of getting the key taste components in a balance.” When that’s accomplished, he says, both the dishes and wines served with them taste better.
Hanni says that while sweetness and umami flavors give deliciousness to food, those characteristics also make most wines seem thinner, less fruity and more bitter. Increasing the salt and acidity in the dishes will make them automatically more wine friendly, he says.
“Look at the cuisines of Alsace, Tuscany, Burgundy and Bordeaux,” Hanni says, “and you will see that this is what they intuitively do in all these classic cuisines.”
Hanni says that when he works with chefs on flavor balancing, they become proselytizers for the adjustments that make dishes enhance the wine experience. Hanni has managed to get even skeptics to think in new ways about what makes food and wine work together.
It’s a start.
But just as chefs can ignore front-of-the-house wine issues, many customers cleave to notions that limit their tasting opportunities. Rashed Islam, sommelier at Chicago’s Viet Bistro, battles the idea that Asian food demands beer and Riesling; the numerous lean reds from the Rhone and Spain he stocks are great foils for his bistro’s French-Vietnamese dishes.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Islam says. “After the movie ‘Sideways’ came out, we had so many people interested in Pinot Noir, but they were thinking of California, which can be totally different from the Burgundian style.”
Warnings that a silky, dry Pommard might not work with the French-Vietnamese dishes in the same way a fruity Cal Pinot did fell mostly on deaf ears.
Sounds like a job for flavor balancing.