On Pairings

Thinking too deeply about pairing food and drink is ridiculous. But no more ridiculous than life itself.

I’ve been thinking about pairings. Well, I’ve been thinking about a lot of things during what was a disheartening holiday month — thinking too much, to be honest, along with talking too much, and creating too much useless drama. Wine pairings seemed a safe thing to ponder. I’ve always considered the topic of what to drink with what you eat to be one of the dullest in wine (Potato chips and Champagne! Olives and sherry! Sauternes and lobster! Asparagus and grüner veltliner!). Dull seemed to pair well with my mood. Plus, if I was busy cooking and tasting I might be less likely to send self-pitying texts to friends and family.

I decided to cook a rack of lamb and figure out what wine drinks best with it. Anyone who has read a wine label or a shelf talker in a shop knows that “rack of lamb” is default advice for pretty much any big red wine. Barolo? Rack of lamb. Chianti Classico? Rack of lamb. Rioja Gran Reserva? Rack of lamb. Left Bank Bordeaux? Rack of lamb. When I read that kind of pairing advice, I always imagine wine writers and marketers conjuring some mythical gastronome, perhaps wearing a monocle, dining regularly on rack of lamb and popping open expensive bottles. In my world, I’ve eaten rack of lamb, like, twice in the past decade. I couldn’t even tell you what wine I drank with it. What was the fuss about?

Anyone who reads wine media, or opens a wine app, or just talks with a sommelier knows that we’re drowning in a sea of tips, tricks, and tactics on how to pair food with wine. It reaches a point of manic breathlessness during the holidays, when journalists are annually dispatched to tackle the dilemma of what to pour with the turkey or the ham — a mystery, apparently, that will never be solved. What’s unclear, however, is whether people even care about this advice in the first place. A decade ago, I wrote about an industry survey, which found that more than 60 percent of wine consumed by “high-frequency wine drinkers” (the people who drive 80 percent of the market and buy almost all the wine over $20) is consumed without a meal.

In any case, I consulted a nice book called Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food and Wine, by François Chartier, a sommelier from Quebec touted for his “pioneering research on food harmonies and molecular sommellerie.” I planned to prepare my rack of lamb with thyme and rosemary, and flipped through the pages.

Because I was using thyme with the lamb, Chartier insists that I serve “red wines from the Mediterranean basin.” This is apparently because of thymol, the volatile compound that gives thyme its aromatic character, and is also found as a principle flavor molecule in lamb. Apparently, the red wines he suggests are “marked by aromas of the garrigue (scrublands where herbs such as thyme are abundant).” It seemed a little bit of a leap. Still, I opened a syrah from the Rhône Valley that mentioned “aromas of garrigue” on its label.

However, 34 pages later, I saw a heading that read “Rosemary, Lamb, And…Riesling.” With an dry Alsatian riesling, insists Chartier, I would find “an almost perfect link” between the “major active compounds” in both lamb and the riesling. “You’ll attain harmony thanks to the two poles of harmonic attraction,” he writes. So I also opened a dry Alsatian riesling.

I don’t mean to brag, but the rack of lamb I cooked came out amazingly delicious — medium-rare, simple, tender, and juicy. I tasted it first with a glasses of the Alsatian riesling, then with the Rhône syrah. For the riesling, its acid contrasted nicely with the fatty lamb. With the syrah, there were certainly connections between the herbal notes and…the actual herbs used as cooking ingredients. They both accompanied the meal just fine. Did either achieve “harmony?” I mean, I don’t know. It was an interesting exercise, but honestly…meh. Though it certainly could have been me and my mood.

Some outspoken wine people, such as Alder Yarrow of Vinography, have long dismissed pairings as a “big scam.” Last spring, Yarrow published another anti-pairing article titled “Food and Wine Pairing is Junk Science,” in which he does not mince words:

Yarrow cites a 2015 study, which found that the aromatic compounds released from wine when it came into contact with saliva were statistically different across different people’s mouths. “Thanks to the more than 700 different types of bacteria living in our saliva,” he writes, “we each literally taste something different and individual.” The differences are so distinct, scientists suggest “it could be used forensically, just like fingerprints.”

But maybe the problem isn’t pairings themselves. Maybe it’s the idea that food and drink combinations can be codified and studied and strategized and planned for. Can any sommelier in the world tell me what’s going on in my own mouth and my own brain?

We’ve all had amazing, memorable pairings in our life, mostly by chance rather than design. That late-night tequila and tacos at the start of an exciting new friendship. That pairing of takeout Thai drunken noodles and the $12.99 Loire sauvignon blanc you shared and connected over during a particular evening of Netflix. That weird blend of pinot noir and blaufränkisch you paired with your go-to sweet potato recipe on a night you cooked for someone you really liked. Maybe, in some alternate universe, that mythical old gastronome with the monocle pairs rack of lamb with a Rhône syrah or Alsatian riesling and enjoys it because that’s what he drank with his third wife on their first date.

Pairings are no more bullshit than any other of life’s pleasures. But there is no formula, no systems, no proofs. The best ones are always unexpected and fleeting. And we recognize them mostly in hindsight.

As for my rack of lamb, there was likely no successful pairing with my wallowing melancholy. Or wait, maybe there was. At a certain point, I gave up on the wine and stirred myself a proper martini, four parts gin to one part dry vermouth, a dash of orange bitters and a lemon peel twist. I don’t know about the volatile compounds or the molecules or the harmonies. But it was perfect.