In 1989, David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson published the provocatively titled, Red Wine with Fish: The New Art of Matching Wine with Food. Designed to ease the stress of pairing wines and foods to a generation of Americans proudly describing themselves as “foodies” (and, without the least bit of self-conscious awkwardness, “Yuppies”), the title slyly inverts what this burgeoning group of gourmets would consider conventional wisdom: red wine “went” with red meat; white wine “went” with fish. With a wink and a nod to a readership that supposedly knew the well-established, if tired, rules derived from time-tested French gastronomic hegemony, Rosengarten and Wesson preached a welcome, if iconoclastic, gospel to drink whatever one enjoyed, “rules” be damned.
Flash forward to the present. Polymath Richard Shepro is an avid gastronome and international litigator who, by day, may find himself in the courts of Paris. By night, he haunts the city’s restaurants. A meticulous observer of the French culinary scene, he noticed that one of the ironclad “rules” of pairing food and wine was regularly broken with gusto: Paris’s culinary fashionistas were drinking white wine with the cheese that follows le plat principal. Quel horreur! Every Frenchman knows that the penultimate course of cheese is where the last bit of mature Burgundy or Bordeaux that had accompanied the roast or game was savored with some of France’s aged esteemed cheeses. What was a fresh white wine doing here? His curiosity piqued, he delved into the history and traditions underlying “le mariage êntre mets and vins” and was startled to find that most of the traditions we believe are hallowed gastronomic wisdom are of relatively recent vintage.
Shepro identified four general methods used by the French to justify how to pair wine and food. First is matching geography (i.e., drink Burgundy with dishes of that region). This practice, originating in the days when many wines were consumed locally, reflected the co-evolution of cuisine and vinification—food and wines developed in ways that flattered each other. The geographical marriage continues; contemporary food writing waxes nostalgically about that the “unpretentious vin ordinaire” that was so luscious under the Provençal sun, but never is as good outside its locale and without an accompanying slice of pissaladière.
Shepro’s second method is sequential pairing (i.e., light wines precede heavier, less precious before more precious, younger before older vintages). Sequential pairing could only develop in the 19th century, when the sequential, single-dish courses of service à la russe supplanted the smorgasbord of service à la française, with its multiple dishes served simultaneously. As fish tended to precede red meat, the “light-before-heavier” slowly, imperceptibly, coalesced into the rule “white wine with fish, red wine with meat.”
Shepro’s third method emerged relatively recently, around the time when Rosengarten and Wesson were writing Red Wine with Fish. Called the “alchemical” approach, the idea was to create a “new” flavor through the marriage of food and wine. Shepro attributed this approach to a master of nouvelle cuisine, Alain Senderens, who urged diners to identify flavor elements in wine—dried fruits, herbaceous undertones, etc.—and select foods with those same characteristics. Other chefs and sommeliers, adopting the alchemical approach, have sought to contrast flavors, suggesting that the richness of boiled beef is flattered by a sturdy white, with its refreshing acidity. It is this appreciation for contrasts that led the gastronomically fashionable in France to pair white wines with the cheese that follows the main course, subverting Rule #2.
Shepro’s last method of pairing is historically the oldest: one drinks wine according to one’s personal physical condition, rather than what one is eating.
Originating in the historical doctrines of humoral medicine, wine was seen as both a refreshing beverage and a healthful tonic and was often augmented with herbs, spices, and other items to increase its benefits. In the heyday of humoral medicine, most red wines were roughly tannic or acidic and were thought suited to those of strong constitutions, meaning that aristocrats, especially women, concerned about their health seldom drank them at the French court. Although this idea of personality-driven wine selection fell into desuetude in the 19th century, traces still lingered into the 20th. Auguste Escoffier warned that many young wines were too acidic for those of delicate stomachs or the aged.
Three main takeaways emerged from Shepro’s thought-provoking analysis of the way in which the French have thought about pairing food and wine. First, it was only in the mid-to-late 19th century that the actual flavor resulting from “le mariage entre mets et vins” became a key concern because it was only at this point that the revolution of service à la russe created the opportunity to select a specific wine for a specific dish. In the pre-à la russe days, affluent hosts would offer both red and white wine throughout the meal, leaving the choice to the guest to drink whichever wine he or she personally preferred. Often this might be a sweet wine or something from the Champagne region, both of which were fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, but neither embodied a “rule” of pairing.
Second, this focus on selecting the correct wine became important only when improvements in vinification and the aging of wines made such connoisseurship a mark of cultural capital. Prior to the the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when dark glass bottles and cork stoppers became increasingly available as a way of storing, shipping, and aging wine, most (but certainly not all) wines were produced and consumed locally. It is the rare rave from diarists like Samuel Pepys, who, in the 1660s, noted with favor the flavor of an imported wine, “Ho Bryon.” Adding water and flavorings to many wines was common before modern-ish wine-making emerged in the 19th century, which could then contribute to the emergence of the great classification of Bordeaux in 1855, which memorialized some of the oenophilic hierarchies that remain with us today.
And third, we should not mistake the discourse surrounding the “alchemical” approach for a “just drink what you like” anarchy. For the French, food and wine choices are designed to make a compatible marriage: sometimes opposites attract, sometimes each partner reinforces the other’s strengths, and sometimes it is tradition that, like the best arranged marriages, yields contentment.
Following the traditional rules of sequential food and wine pairings, attendees enjoyed a short tasting menu (fresh cheese and fish with white, earthy mushrooms, roast lamb, and aged cheese with red):
Fresh chevre with herb salad and sherry vinaigrette
Poached salmon with dill sauce
Courtault Tardieux 2016 (Loire)
Roast lamb with ‘espagnole’ mayonnaise
Marcel Petite Comté, 18-24 mo. (Franche-Comté),
Camembert Fermier Ferme de la Tremblaye (Ile-de-France)
Causse Marines “Peyrouzelles” 2015 (Gaillac)