“Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.”
“You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel old man?”
That exchange was from the second James Bond film “From Russia with Love” in 1963 and I was just nine years old at the time. It was an eye opener for me, at such a young age, especially since I had seen the first film at age eight. Here was a world that was totally new to me and there were rules about dining that I never even knew about. Jim of JVB Uncorked won last month’s Monthly Wine Writers Challenge and the new theme that he decided on was “pairing.”
As I read more and more Wine Blogs and other articles, I have discovered that I am a bridge between the old days when few people drank wines and today, when wines are now just considered part of the dinner. As a child, the only people that I really saw that drank wines were in the cinema, and from a lifestyle that was totally devoid from the first and second generation Americans that I was surrounded by. Whiskey and beer were the normal choices that I saw, and preferably they were from Canada, because that is where my Grandparents were allowed entry into the New World after the Armenian Genocide. James Bond was suave and manly, before the term macho became in vogue, and he offered a new outlook of what was totally foreign to me at the time.
In the old days, the pairing of wines was very simple. White wines before red wines, and white wines with white meat and red wines with red meat, back then I had never met anyone that was a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. It really was simple back then as white meat was considered fish, seafood and poultry; red meat was beef, lamb and pork. The rules worked and it was rather accepted without question. In the old days, if one went and fine dined (as we used to say) the appetizers were usually seafood like shrimp or oysters, followed by the salad and if it was really classy the next course was fish. So white wine was the first bottle to be brought out to the table, then the final course of the meal was red meat, as in lamb chops or a porterhouse steak (even the entrée dishes were simpler then). Before and after dinner usually called for cocktails and one had a great meal, and there were usually only a few choices available for both the dinner and for the wines, so the decisions were totally manageable.
The generation that followed me and has discovered that menus can be small books and that wine cartes can be tomes. Decisions upon more decisions, and food became more creative and inventive. Taste buds started working over time as each dish became more involved and nuanced with complimentary and sometimes forced discord on the plate. Wine selections became more challenging for dinner, and because of it, wine lists began growing.
Appetizers evolved and did one choose a mellow white wine or should the wine become tart? Were we looking for oak and butter, or perhaps grapefruit for a more refreshing taste? The battle lines were changing, because now red wines were being used in the cooking of dishes that were normally done in white wines, and vice-versa. Conundrums at every step of the dinner selection, and the choices in every course grew. In the old days perhaps there were fresh water selections (here in the Midwest) and a few ocean fish, but then fish went from light and flakey to rich and steak-like, and the preparation of the dish might even make it richer or more savory. I am not an iconoclastic wine drinker any more, as I have often wrote how my Bride enjoys red wines with her salmon dishes and that I am always drawn to Pinot Noir for duck. With Thanksgiving around the corner with the tentative menu of turkey and a standing rib roast, I will be serving some white wines and some red wines; and truthfully I enjoy a more subtle red with turkey like Beaujolais, Saint-Emilion or Burgundy then a Chardonnay.
As for red meats, sometimes I prefer a full bodied white wine with pork, though soft red wines can work just as well. Lamb, meat pasta dishes and of course steaks still requires a red wine for my taste. Nowadays the wine may be selected from the country to pair with the dish, as to me pasta should have an Italian red wine, but if it is a heavy pasta dish I might chose Chianti or Barolo, but if it lighter I may opt for an Amarone or Montepulciano de Abruzzi. I am very partial to Merlot or Pinot Noir with venison, but I will also choose either of them or Cabernet Sauvignon for a steak. Today there are no real steadfast rules and I am certainly not one to demand fiats for pairing wine with food.
Even desserts are no longer safe from choices, in the old days a rich sweet wine like Sauternes or Trockenbeerenauslese made sense, but now Zinfandel may be the choice with rich dark chocolate. Experimentation is the new guideline for wine pairing and the rules that I learned in the Dark Ages are just simple suggestions.
Then there is always the cadre that has decided that Champagne is the perfect choice for any meal and that it is festive at the same time. Throughout the years I have tried this concept and sometimes it works very well and sometimes it is just fair and it may overpower some dishes and be too subtle for other dishes, but it is still always festive and fun. Since I am still discussing Champagne I shall end with another James Bond quote that I remember from the time that I was eight, when the world was new.
“That’s a Dom Perignon ’55, it would be a pity of break it.”
“I prefer the ’53 myself.”