I think when people hear the words "wine" and "pairing" used together, as in "wine pairing", they...I actually have no idea what they do.
Pairing wine with food is certainly an essential part of wine culture. Pairing wine with a certain kind of experience is equally essential. It all fits together. But on those occasions where you're just hungry to gain a little understanding, the good news is that all you need is a bottle and a fridge that isn't totally decimated. Even if it is, I bet there are some condiments loitering in there that could still fetch you some valuable experiential knowledge if you were to grab a spoon, a wine glass, and some wine and let them run wild on your tongue.
Here are a few ideas of food items you can yank from the fridge without going to the store along with corresponding wines that will help you understand what this whole wine-pairing hype is all about.
What it represents: Acidity
Wine to pair it with: High-acid, dry white wines like Muscadet, Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc, or dry Riesling.
What will happen: Although at first you may be transported back to your clubbing days of taking tequila shots with lime-wedges while licking salt off of Chad's torso, that browning, sad, decaying lime buried in the lower compartment of your refrigerator has great purpose yet. I never used the word "acid" when I was working as a sommelier in restaurants because it seems to be largely misunderstood. Even though it is an absolutely essential element of what makes things satisfying and delicious to us as humans, it is often regarded as a 4-letter word by wine muggles. I think the immediate associations with acid rain, acid reflux, and battery acid give it a bad name. People don't want to taste that. They want to taste something flavourful, and acid doesn't always conjure up that idea. However. Acid is what makes a perfect peach, apple, or any piece of fruit taste great. Acid is what quenches our thirst. Acid is what gets us salivating. Just think of biting into a lemon. Boom. You are now salivating. Acid. Now, a lime contains a higher level of acid than even a high-acid wine. So does vinegar. Think salads and slaws. We like those things. Yep. The lime may be an extreme example, but do this: try some wine, swish it around, then bite the lime and try it again. You'll unlock a whole new dimension of the wine, which will now appear to be much fuller bodied and more flavourful that it was before your palate was conditioned to deal with something more acidic.
2. Hot sauce
What it represents: Spice
Wine to pair it with: Off-dry or semi-sweet wines. German Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, oh, hell, try it with your Barefoot for chrissakes.
What will happen: Milk. Bread. Beer. These age-old fake remedies for a mouth-on-fire are child's play. Nothing can douse a heat-wave on a palate like sugar, especially in the form of wine. Sure, you might be short of having reached sweet-wine-Nirvana at this point in your journey, which is even more of a reason why you need to change your approach. What if you stopped trying to like sweeter wines, and you put yourself in a situation where you needed one? Much like the acidic food unlocks flavours in the wine of high acid content, spice puts sweetness to work in your mouth. Instead of your palate being the only thing there to absorb all that sweet, the heat will take the brunt of the sugar rush, and you'll be left with the feeling of an apple orchard at harvest time in your mouth: a kaleidoscopal explosion of flavour that simply cannot exist when the wine is drank solo.
What it represents: Brine, salt, pungency
Wine to pair it with: Fino Sherry, Albariño.
What will happen: All of a sudden, what you thought was something reserved for winos in jugs becomes one of the most refreshing, delightful palate-tickling, appetite-inducing snack wines ever. Fino Sherry, I am talking about. Think it tasted bitter the last time you tried it? Try it with something more bitter like that 2-year old quarter-jar of olives that's been forgotten behind the half-open can of chickpeas, a plastic box of shrivelling blueberries, and your last can of Miller Lite™ (it's always Miller time). Are you noticing a pattern here? Once we stop thinking of wine as something separate from food (wine is a meal, after all), we can start contextualizing it by putting it around foods that can, by comparison, alter the flavour or bring attention to other parts of the wine. Olive=bitter, leads to Fino Sherry=less bitter, because Olive Bitterness > Fino Sherry Bitterness. When I say bitter, I really mean salty, briny, or pungent, or all of them combined. Try it out and you'll no longer need to wonder why they take so long to eat lunch in Spain. They start with Fino Sherry and olives. By siesta, they've had so much fun at lunch they need to sleep it off, sometimes with the person they had lunch with. If you're out of olives, try that old can of tuna. It never goes bad!
What it represents: Fat & Protein
Wine to pair it with: Dry, tannic red wines. Bordeaux, Tuscan wines, Rioja/Toro/Ribera del Duero, Priorat, Douro, Nebbiolo (Barolo, Barbaresco, Langhe).
What will happen: You'll understand finally that once you stop consuming red wine exclusively with chocolate chip cookies while sitting in the bathtub and start enjoying them around the table with a proper meal that includes a hunk o' meat, that your red wine choices don't need to be diabetes-inducing fruit-bombs with food-colouring, 20 grams of residual sugar, and a gargoyle-shaped monster or satanic lettering on the label. In fact, a lot of the red wines you thought were too dry, too bitter, or too rough for your idea of baseball just need a little help, like everything else I've mentioned to this point. You may need help as well, but I'll take your word for it for now that you definitely do. It's OK, I'm here. Now, the tannins in red wine (you know, that make you smack your mouth and make those gross sounds as if you just swallowed a rubber-flavoured can of La Croix™) like to attach themselves to protein and fat AKA flesh. What is the inside of your mouth made of? If you guessed flesh, you have successfully stated the obviously. It's kind of like the hot sauce/sweet wine thing. When you drink the dry, tannic red wine, instead of throwing your own mouth to the proverbial wolves, throw them a hunk of Spam™. Once the wine gets ahold of something else, your mouth can finally relaxed. Since you're no longer having to fight the tannins off with your gums, you're palate is able to pick up on the deeper complexities of the wine itself. I keep feeling like I should have called this wine project Aladdin: A Whole New World. I didn't. Instead, I named it after myself. If you're scared of the Spam, I'll let you know that after wondering about the can I spotted in my parents' pantry at around 10 years old, at 19 I finally opened it on a day where there seemed to be no other food in the house. I fried it up for my dad and plopped it into the middle of a grilled cheese sandwich as good ol' pops nursed a wee hangover. He let me have a bite, and boy, it was prettay, prettayy, prettayyy good.
5. Dealer's Choice
What it represents: You learning something for yourself first-hand through direct experience and experimentation.
Wine to pair it with: Whichever wine you were about to suck down in the next 10 minutes.
What will happen: In classic Drunken Sommelier fashion, the best exercise you can do is to just MESS AROUND. Try something ridiculous. You honestly never know what wonders you may find once you start getting weird. Just pay close attention to the wine before and after you put whatever bizarre food into your mouth that you have lying around. And then, think about why whatever happened, happened, before you revert to guzzling down wine while trying to hack your 12-year old kid's Netflix account to see if they lied about watching Dirty John or not. Some of my personal bizarre favourite pairings have included beet-infused hummus and a light Cabernet Franc, thiccc Barossa Valley Shiraz and Kraft Dinner™ with aftermarket cheese enhancements (still only in Canada?!), and Prosecco with pop-rocks candy. OK, I never tried that last one, but either it would be completely laugh-inducing or would cause your insides to explode. Maybe I'll try it at next year's science fair. Caution, friends.
Get after it and f*** some shit up.