Look up any guide to food and wine matching and you’ll find a list of foods that are regarded as anathema to wine. I’ve done it myself but have come to the conclusion recently that the problems are often overstated.
It may be true that most wines fall out with such ingredients as artichokes or hot curries but they may be the kind of wines you wouldn’t be inclined to drink with those dishes anyway.
There are also ingredients or elements that you can introduce to make a troublesome ingredient more wine-friendly either by building a bridge to the accompanying wine or by softening the impact of the food (like adding cream or ricotta to spinach)
Artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin which reacts particularly adversely with oaked whites and most red wines, making them taste oddly sweet
Serve them as the Italians do rather than as the French do, i.e. grilled, fried or raw in salads with lemon (including lemon peel) or olive oil rather than boiling them and serving them with a vinaigrette. The wines that match best are dry, earthy whites such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano or Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi or southern French whites including grapes such as Terret or white grenache. Bone dry fino or manzanilla sherry is also a good option.
Chocolate fondant puddings
The palate-coating effect of very rich, dark, sweet, molten chocolate
Lighten up the effect with a scoop of vanilla icecream or extra thick double cream, add some dark cherry or other berry fruit compote then serve with a sweet red such as a Recioto della Valpolicella or modern-style vintage character port. It’s not perfect admittedly but it’s the best match going (short of espresso coffee)
Very hot curries
Hot chillies manage to both anaethetise the tastebuds and accentuate the tannins and alcohol in any accompanying wine.
I’m tempted to say don’t bother, stick to beer or don’t make your curries so hot but if you must a very well chilled riesling, gewurztraminer or flowery white like Torrontes is your best bet. (If you offset the heat by offering raita and naan as well as boiled rice or a pilau you can even get away with a jammy red)
Ice creams and sorbets
Again they numb the palate and can have the effect of making most dessert wines taste thin and sharp
Serve them with more wine-friendly ingredients - a slice of fruit tart, a crumble topping or some accompanying fresh fruit that is less sweet than the wine you pick to accompany the dessert. Of course it depends partly on the ice cream. Rich vanilla, coffee or chocolate ice creams can be sensational on their own with sweet (e.g. PX) sherry or madeira, other sweet fortified wines like Malaga or Australian liqueur muscat.
Very ripe washed rind cheeses (like Epoisses)
The bitterness and ammoniac flavours of the cheese and, particularly, the rind completely alters the tastes of most reds, especially oak aged ones (though the French, who frequently recommend red burgundy with Epoisses) disagree
Personally I favour a Marc de Bourgogne but if you do want to stick to wine choose an aromatic, unoaked white such as Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer (the traditional pairing with Munster) which will allow the flavour of the cheese and the wine to remain intact. Or, alternatively, don’t allow your cheese to run away with you.
Tarte au Citron
Seemingly innocuous but in practice the intense sweetness and acidity of the sweet lemon filling tends to knock the stuffing out of dessert wines that have a similarly citrussy flavour profile.
Serve some creme fraiche with the tart to offset the sweetness then serve a supersweet Beerenauslese or botrytis riesling. You could also add some tart fruit to the plate such as fresh raspberries or blueberries.
Herrings and other pickled or salted fish and vegetables
Vinegar just doesn’t like fine wine. Add oily fish and you’ve got trouble.
Another food where beer (especially pilsner) has the edge but there are ways to alleviate the problems of the match by serving some boiled potatoes or light rye bread alongside. The wines that will work best are high acid whites like Muscadet Picpoul de Pinet or seafood whites like Albarino. Hot (as in spicy) pickles are bad news though.
It’s not so much the leaves that are the problem as the vinaigrette, particularly with red wines if you’re serving it after the main course French-style.
Soften the acidity in the dressing by using a proportion of balsamic vinegar, cream or, even chicken stock and don’t include raw onion or garlic. It’s also better to use a milder fruity oil at this stage of the meal rather than a pungent, grassy one which can throw a serious red off course. A few walnuts, slivers of parmesan or air dried ham or pieces of crispy bacon will also make a salad more red wine-friendly, especially if it contains bitter greens.
One liquid with another is sometimes one liquid too many, particularly with finer-textured soups
Introduce a little texture to the soup - a few noodles or a raviolo to a consomme, a little cream to a smooth vegetable soup or some chunkier ingredients to make your soup more like a stew. An oaked white will also provide more texture to the combination than an unoaked one.
Mint flavoured desserts
A subscriber to my website drew my attention to this which apparently stumped a sommelier at a restaurant he was dining in. And it’s true, menthol and wine aren’t the happiest of bedfellows
Back to botrytised riesling again. You need sweetness and piercing acidity. Austrian wines of Ausbruch quality tend to have the requisite power too.
And the 5 foods whose problems are overstated
Held to be a similar villain of the piece to artichokes but considerably easier. You can even drink a light red wine with asparagus if you chargrill it and serve it with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and some shaved parmesan. See my list of asparagus pairings here.
Cold dark chocolate desserts rarely cause the same problems as hot ones and can be paired with similar wines to those suggested above. With lighter milk chocolate and white chocolate desserts, especially if partnered with fruit, you can serve more conventional dessert wines.
Virtually no way of serving them that can’t be dealt with by champagne, smooth dry unoaked whites like pinot blanc or inexpensive white burgundies.
There are so many big, porty reds now that you don’t have to stick to port. Amarone, Zinfandel and other very ripe sweet new world reds will all do the job perfectly well, especially with more mellow blue cheeses such as Fourme d’Ambert. Serve a nutty bread alongside.
With the subtly spiced Indian food you find at such fine dining establishments as Cinnamon Club and Rasoi Vineet Bhatia you can pair almost any conventional wine. And all these big fruity new rosés that are hitting the shelves are good too.
This article was first published in the May 2007 issue of Decanter.