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The divorce of food and wine makes for sad tale
By John H. Isacs

My favorite couple may be headed for a breakup. After a long and harmonious relationship, wine and food have hit a turbulent era.

The reasons are diverse and it’s difficult to pinpoint the principal culprit, but there are several suspects. They include globalism, new age celebrity chefs who mix everything and anything, fusion cuisine with no foundation, and “the bigger is better” school of winemaking that makes wines to win awards at competitions and not for drinking or to match with food.

These antagonists have all agitated the traditional symbiotic relationship between wine and food. This week I will focus on the challenges modern celebrity chefs and fusion cuisine pose to wine pairing.

When I was young and first discovering the beauty of wines, I promised myself that I would never become as stuffy or dog-headed as some of my august wine mentors.

I greatly respected their knowledge and palates, but I often found them excessively narrow and inflexible in their opinions. These old-school gents knew enough about wine to put most modern day masters of wine to shame, but that was also the problem. They tended to preach too much and dismiss all they didn’t like.

For me this was a turn off. So it’s with more than a little trepidation that I write this column begrudging what’s new and fashionable in the world of food.

Chefs running wild

Recently I had a many-course dinner at one of Shanghai’s most trendy and acclaimed restaurants. Though several of the dishes were intriguing and tasty, the food and wine pairing was an abject failure.

The dishes were creative yet very restive companions to the wines. While I certainly admire the titans of modern cooking like Ferran Adria formerly of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck and other world-famous, trend-setting chefs, I must also point out they aren’t making the art of food and wine pairing any easier.

Regional European foods and wines have been in harmonic concert with each other for centuries. Just like all good couples when one gradually evolved or changed, so did the other. They were in tune and instep with each other.

Nowadays, just as figure skaters and gymnasts get points for difficulty, chefs gain praise and adulation for untamed creativity and complexity. Yes I’m a little tongue-in-cheek here, but the wildly creative chefs of today have made wine and food paring more difficult and arguably less successful.

One may correctly state that all cuisines are in fact fusion. Historically it’s a fact that trade routes and the discovery of the Americas greatly influenced and changed the cuisines of Asia and Europe. But this happened at a much more gradual pace. The role of the chef has also changed.

Traditionally culinary masters like Escoffier and James Beard weren’t viewed as creative geniuses; rather they were acclaimed for their role in adapting and perfecting traditions of the past.

They helped the art of cooking and dining to evolve to new heights, not radically change.

Two of my favorite chefs in Shanghai are Austin Hu of The Madison Restaurant and Bradley Turley of Goga. Both are talented chefs with advanced creative talents but unlike dishes created by some other celebrated chefs, I rarely have a problem pairing wines with their dishes.

I believe the key is that both Hu and Turley have an innate honesty to their food, they can be creative but they’re also well-rooted in tradition. In other words, their cooking philosophies have a solid foundation.

I’ve shared many glasses of wine with both chefs and they truly care about the relationship between their dishes and wines. This gives them a license to be creative without the risk of composing a dish that resembles a water color painting by a hyperactive five-year-old.

What exactly do you pair with a soy sauce marinated veal chop with foie gras raviolis in wasabi sauce? Got me! Certainly not a delicate Burgundy white or structured Bordeaux red. Many of my wine friends believe the internationally mixed, kitchen sink recipes of many fusion dishes favor more fruit forward and softer wines of the New World.

Some solutions

Boldly flavored New Zealand or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc whites have a terrific food pairing bandwidth, matching well with and not being overpowered by strong and varied flavors.

When funky fusion meat dishes hit the table, California Zinfandel and Australian Shiraz reds are often your best bet. They combine the amble fruit with sweet and slightly spicy qualities that mirror the complex sensations of the dish.

I would argue that some Old World wines also work nicely with many multi-ingredient fusion dishes. With spicy-sour raw fish dishes a Muscadet from the Loire Valley does nicely as does an Albarinio from Spain. Young, fruity and spicy Grenache reds from the south of France, or Grenacha reds from Spain are likewise quite successful with challenging fusion dishes.

Sparkling wines are also up to the challenge. While I would be wary of serving a grand old, oak fermented Champagne with many fusion dishes I wouldn’t hesitate to serve more friendly and fruity Prosecco, CAVA and New World sparklers.

Should you desire something more elegant, Franciacorta sparklers are a fine choice. Again, the combination of generous fruit and good freshness helps make the aforementioned wines more fusion food friendly.   

Though I may bemoan the lost pleasures of traditional food and wine pairings that lived in harmony for decades and even centuries, I know globalism and our fast changing world will not turn back and therefore we must all endeavor to find new solutions. This is a risky task that’s fraught with danger but occasionally it results in something new and delightfully delicious.

For food and wine lovers around the world, the 21st century is most certainly a brave new world.

Experiencing molecular cuisine and multicultural fusion cuisines can indeed be a treat. Still, when I want to experience true synergy just give me a hearty portion of beef bourguignon and a good Burgundy red, half the wine in the sauce and half in a glass.

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