My wife and I were dining out with another couple last summer before the Delta var- iant reared its ugly head. The other couple ordered steak; I chose chicken, and my wife went for pork. As the designated wine person, I was searching through the light reds on the wine list for a suitable compromise when the waiter poured me a taste of a very full-bodied white Burgundy, and suggested that it would go well with everything we had ordered that warm evening. A taste made his claim plausible. I gambled, and he was right!
I agreed to review Big Macs and Burgundy because it promised more such sur- prises, and it does deliver surprises aplenty, of various sorts. This book is an upbeat, approachable collection of basic and not-so-basic information about wine and about the interaction of food and wine, bits of the author’s history, and numerous interest- ing, often thought-provoking recommendations for wine pairings that involve foods ranging from caviar to Cheez-Its. I often found myself trying to imagine (there must be a taste/smell analog to “visualize”!) how this would really taste with that. The style is breezy (more on this to come) but authoritative, and the abundant photographs and illustrations add appreciably to what I found to be a very enjoyable read.
The author, Vanessa Price, starts at the beginning for beginners and those, like me, whose knowledge of wine is based more on accumulated anecdotes than on system- atic study: how grapes ripen, the relationship between acidity and alcohol, and the roles of tannin and sugar. She discusses the influence of climate and terroir and describes the 12 main styles of wine. Turning to food, she explains the relationship between smell and taste and discusses the main elements of taste, adding spicy and fatty to the classic sweet, salty, bitter, savory, and sour.
She then discusses congruent pairings, between foods and wines that share similar characteristics, and contrasting pairings, which involve sensory elements that oppose each other in a way that yields pleasing complexity. Her illustrative congruent exam- ple is Meursault and fried chicken, while Champagne and fried chicken are an exem- plary contrasting pairing. She ends the pairings section with general guidance for developing pairings: think about the dominant components of the food; consider its intensity and heaviness; and then consider the spices, sauces, and preparation involved. And, of course, she reminds the reader that things that grow together geo- graphically generally go together.
What follows and constitutes the bulk of the text is an amiable mixture of auto- biographical anecdotes, bits of wine information, and, mainly, lots of short discussions of recommended wine pairings. The autobiographical anecdotes reveal that the author was raised in a fairly devout Southern Baptist home, took a shot at acting, and fell in love with wine more or less by accident. The wine information includes discussions of methods of making sparkling wine, Burgundy rankings, the origins of Super Tuscans, swirling and decanting, styles of Sherry, storing wine, Pinot Grigio versus Pinot Gris, the Judgement of Paris, and more. I will bet that even readers of this Journal will learn something from all this.
As the book’s title suggests, many of the pairings it presents involve inexpensive foods for which (I think) almost nobody carefully selects a wine. Examples from each of the book’s 16 chapters may give some sense of the wide range of sometimes very quirky pairings the author recommends and the usually sensible rationales she gives for them:
I have two bones to pick with the pairings themselves. First, while the author makes a nice general point about congruent versus contrasting pairings, for most foods she recommends only one wine—most commonly (I think) a congruent pair- ing. It would be good sometimes to have a suggested pairing of the other sort. Second, while most of the pairings sound attractive, I expect many readers will never try many of them—either because they are simply not going to buy a wine to go with Cheetos or Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia or Honey-Nut Cheerios, or because they cannot find the recommended wine, like the Tedeschi Vineyards Sparking Pineapple from Hawaii that’s paired with the honey dipping sauce for Chicken McNuggets or Clare Valley Riesling. I would rather have had pairings for a few lamb dishes than for Cheetos, and a few more “if you can’t find or afford that, try this” suggestions for wines would have been welcome.
But to be clear, I do highly recommend this book to experienced oenophiles and wine newbies alike. It is a light, entertaining read that conveys a great deal of useful information, and most of the suggested pairings are fun to imagine trying.