Friday, September 5, 2014

Wine and food matching: promiscuity rules

With a nod to nostalgia I thought about starting this editorial: Once upon time there was a supermarket chain called Safeway. I decided not to because a) originality can be so unsettling, b) this is not about Safeway, c) it’s not even about supermarkets. You’re welcome to breathe a sigh of relief at c), especially as I’m about to go off at a complete tangent before I’ve even started – that’s the luxury of a blog. Tangent: one of my favourite, as far as I know unrehearsed, supermarket put-downs was by investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman when she was on stage picking up an award for her writing. As it was presented, she was asked: ‘What would you do about supermarkets?’ ‘Ban them,’ she said without pausing for breath. It brought the house down.  
Where was I? Yes, Safeway. Food. Wine and food matching. During the 1990s, Safeway, which was then the third or fourth largest UK supermarket chain (Asda overtook it in the second half of the ‘90s), decided to revamp its wine back-labels to make them more useful. One of the key changes was to the recommended food accompaniments. Instead of the bland catch-alls along the lines of, ‘this wines goes with fish, white meat, red meat, cheese, puddings…’, Safeway introduced more detailed and specific recommendations. So a label might suggest moules marini√®res or chicken tikka makhani, or lamb kleftiko. Unfortunately, far from finding this helpful, many customers were apparently put off. They didn’t buy a wine if they weren’t having one of the dishes recommended. Boeuf bourguignon or lamb and date tagine not on the weekend menu? Inner voice tells them to put the wine back on the shelf. Safeway backtracked and returned to blander suggestions.
You might have expected, with the increasing interest since then in food, eating out, cookery books, TV cooking programmes, that wine label suggestions would have moved on. A quick look at a few labels suggests nothing much has changed. These are typical: ‘lamb, pasta or casserole’; ‘a great summer aperitif, also good with Mediterranean cuisine’; ‘barbecues, picnics, all types of Asian food’; ‘rich, meaty stews’. You could swap the labels round and it wouldn’t make much difference.
As I’ve said before, matching wine and food is something that many people, even those knowledgeable about wine, aren’t confident about. And, as I've said before, it’s always worth remembering that you’re not seeking the one and only perfect match. Most foods and dishes will go with more than one style of wine. Choose according to budget, occasion, what you feel like. Dishes are promiscuous (or polygamous, or something): they can enjoy several partners, even at the same time.  
This is a shortened version of my editorial in The Wine Gang's April report