There are a few basic rules that most of us stringently stick to when choosing what to quaff with tonight's dinner. If you're having white meat, like fish or chicken, pick a white wine. If you're having a cheese platter for dessert, the safe bet is to go for a stickier, sweet drop of dessert white with a dark yellow or orange tinge. And if you’re cooking a red meat dish featuring beef, then grab a bottle of red.
But the truth is matching food and wine – at least in France – is not so simple. Au contraire: pairing food and wine is an learned craft to be respected. And the more you investigate pairings, the more room you have to shake up the rules.
Do things in reverse
Olivier Leflaive knows more than a thing or two about wines. Not only does he run a wine label in France’s Puligny-Montrachet that produces 70,000 cases across 65 different appellations, but his family also owns the local restaurant, Table d'Olivier Leflaive.
The secret to a perfect food-and-wine pairing is to revolve everything you do in the kitchen around wine rather than food.
Leflaive tells SBS the secret to a perfect food-and-wine pairing is to revolve everything you do in the kitchen around wine rather than food. That means forgetting the white-red rule and picking a bottle of wine first, according to how you feel and your personal tastes. Food and cooking should then come later.
“A dinner without wine? It’s impossible to understand that,” says Leflaive. “So in restaurants, sometimes the chef tastes the wine first and then makes the dish according to the wine. It is quite incredible but a good chef does that.”
When you need to, break the rules
You don’t always have to go with white meat versus dark meat direction. As the head chef of Hostellerie de Levernois’s restaurants in Beaune, Philippe Augé explains, wine selection depends on the body of the wine you drink, the overall combination of the proteins you cook and the sauce you make.
“When I am cooking, I am always thinking about which wine will pair with my meals, so I work with the sommelier,” says Augé. “For example, we have a lobster menu. When you think about lobster, people feel that you always need to have white wine [to drink with it]. But we are in Burgundy. It’s my aim to promote the many styles of wonderful wine we have available through what I am cooking. So people have to be able to drink every kind of wine – red and white – with my meals.
“[So, we decided that the different parts of the] lobster would be served in three different courses. But I cooked the main part of the lobster with pigeon for main course. I did that just to be able to pour [and drink] some red wine while eating lobster.”
Creamy chicken and mushroom fricassee is typically made with white wine and chicken stock but, according to Food and Wine French pairings online, the perfect match was a 2009 bottle of red.
It’s also okay to drink a pinot noir that’s very low in tannins or Gamay, with grilled salmon, especially if it’s served with the earthy flavour of French lentils (lentilles vertes du Puy).
Changing cheese and wine pairings
Véronique Beigenger from Burgundy Tourism is in the thick of the food and wine business in France’s popular Bourgogne region. She recalls how traditionally, red wine was only ever served with cow’s cheese. “In the past, my parents or grandparents would never have accepted a glass of white wine with cheese,” Beigenger tells SBS. “It was red and only red. But times are changing. These days, [it is acceptable to] be offered a glass of white wine with cheese in restaurants.”
“In the past, my parents or grandparents would never have accepted a glass of white wine with cheese.”
Leflaive adds that “cow’s cheese is for red wine”. He also confirms that goat’s cheese may only be served with white wine. Yet, to Leflaive, the most important thing about food-wine pairing in France is that you choose a wine you like to taste and enjoy sipping. “Not drinking any wine is bad for your health,” he jokes. “It’s also bad for your knowledge of wine.”
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