Flavor Bridge to Nowhere

19 March,2018
Doug Frost


Sitting in my usual dim sum restaurant, I noticed Christmas decorations overhead. I almost stopped chewing on the chicken feet; I was horrified. Is it really that time? Not quite, but media is pivoting to the holidays and the entertaining guides, pardon me, the entertainment guides have started popping up, whether in newspapers, magazines or social media. They all promise to simplify, simplify.


But not this columnist. I promise to complicate things. Let me explain. Most of these guides offer sage notions of matching food and wine. After providing listicles of their top tens, they conclude by telling you to stop worrying about any of this (at least the good ones do) and drink whatever you like. Me, I’ll start out with that. I’ve been shouting it my whole career because, well, probably because I have a problem with authority. Also, because we all like different things and that’s the way is supposed to be. Damn the rules.


But after reading another half dozen numerical such, a prevailing notion seems to guide these erstwhile guides. They seem to believe that you select a wine to go with a dish based upon each sharing the same flavors. The guide in front of me insists that cranberries go well with California Zinfandel. Yes, Zinfandel has the flavor of cranberries, amongst many other flavors. But cranberries are tart and Zin is not. In fact, it’s usually rather warm, ripe, even slightly sweet and figgy at times. When you put a tart food with a wine that is slightly sweet (or vice versa), it can make both of them seem out of balance, as if you had a brownie and decided to suck on a lemon at the same time. You can do that, but most of us wouldn’t.


Or here’s another match offered by a writer with the noblest of intentions: “apple and Chenin Blanc”. Yes, Chenin Blanc has apple flavors, but like apples, Chenin Blancs vary from dry as dust to sweet as pie. If you serve a dry as dust Chenin Blanc with a sweet apple dish, neither will be well served.


It’s not a new notion. Many chefs have been trained to suggest wines based upon a concept called “flavor bridging”, in which a dominant flavor on the dish is the “key” to the choice of wine.  I’ve had chefs tell me they’ll marry this fish dish with the Chardonnay I want to drink by adding peaches to the dish. Why? Many Chardonnays have a peach flavor to them. By why would I want to drink a liquid version of the dish in front of me? Chefs don’t drop everything on the plate into a blender and expect it to taste as good as all those individual elements.


And chefs know better when it comes to their plates. Look at how plates are composed: an Old School chef will offer a protein matched with a starch, a vegetable, an appropriate sauce or seasoning, a bitter green leaf and citrus slice to finish, each element highlighting the others in a constellation of differing flavors. You don’t see them serving spaghetti squash with two other squashes (but don’t they share the same flavors?) and maybe some spaghetti on the side. They know better. Still, certain famous chefs (who will remain nameless – never make a chef angry) have promulgated this notion of flavor bridging to guide food and wine matching.


Cooperative writers have complied, selecting their wines by finding flavors in common with the foods. If nothing else, it’s boring. I’ve seen it ad nauseum; lamb with mint sauce is a classic. So someone matches it with a “minty” Australian Shiraz (some Aussie reds are genuinely minty in flavor); makes sense, right? Except mint sauce is usually sweet, and such wines are often very tannic, astringent and even bitter.


So what’s a person to do, now that I’ve complained about all these kindly but misguided guides? Well, first off, let’s return to the first principle: drink what you like. Stop worrying about things going together or not going together.


Yet since I’ve spilled KC Star ink railing against such practices, let me explain it this way: most of us are fair-minded people. We like things to be fair and balanced (and get angry when certain media usurp the term for something that’s anything but). The safest guide (as rules don’t really exist) is to ask that the wine doesn’t overwhelm the food, and the food doesn’t overpower the wine.


That’s it. Nothing too complicated. Things are simpler than they seem. It’s the same with my Chinese restaurant. I asked about the Christmas decorations and the waitress said, no, they hadn’t put them up this week or last week. They just keep them up year around. It’s easier and simpler.


Image credit: Home Wet Bar