ON THIS very day, in some of the most stylish restaurants of Paris, diners of impeccable epicurean credentials are breaking one of the most widely accepted and seemingly sacrosanct of the wine-food affinity rules. They are sipping red wine with their fish entree. This wine-food combination has become a fashion of sorts in the City of Lights, and few sommeliers are raising their Gallic eyebrows.
Drinking red wine with fish is not yet fashionable in America. The times that I have ordered a red with the snapper usually have caused wine aficionados at nearby tables to give me a look which clearly questioned my oenological credentials if not my sanity. Their reaction, I'm afraid, has more to do with fashion than with taste. Granted, a gastronome will sense a disagreeable taste note whenever he or she simultaneously samples relatively large doses of tannin and iodine, as normally would be the case when teaming a high-tannin red wine like a grand cru haut me'doc with Neptune's bounty. But a low-tannin wine such as a young beaujolais, if cooled, doesn't clash with fish. Neither will a high-tannin wine be out of order if the fish preparation is highly seasoned.
For the record, drinking red wine with fish is neither new nor, in some regions, unusual -- and certainly not based on fashion. Outside of Paris I have enjoyed time-honored fish dishes that are made and served with red wine -- matelote in Beaune and lamproie a la bordelaise in Saint-Emilion quickly come to mind.
When did diners begin to take wine-food affinities seriously? There is scant evidence whether our ancestral epicures devoted more than cursory attention to wine-food pairings before the 18th century. The wall paintings in Egyptian tombs, for instance, illustrate how to produce grape wine but not how to marry it with particular foods. Such Greek and Roman scribes as Homer and Petronius wrote much about dining but didn't disclose precise wine-food match-ups.
In the Middle Ages, the aristocrats didn't meticulously partner vine and victuals, for good reason. Virtually all the wine of that period was so coarse that it was customarily doctored with herbs, spices, honey and other masking agents. For medieval bluebloods to have probed for exacting wine-food compatibilities would have been as ludicrous as investigating food affinities for Tang. In wine regions, even today, those who drink the vin du pays every day care most about whether the wine is inexpensive, local and enjoyable.
By the 18th century, European vintners were starting to produce wines of finesse (thanks partially to the widespread introduction of the cork), and cooks were creating new and subtle dishes that fortuitously complemented the improved wines. The growth of the leisured middle and upper classes and the improvement of the wine transportation system in Europe enabled a small but significant percentage of the populace to sample an unprecedented variety of worthy wines. As a result of these developments, the time was ripe for sophisticated diners to consider the subject of wine-food affinities earnestly.
One of the earliest specific references to the pairing of wine and food comes from Jonathan Swift, and, coincidentally, it deals with mixing red wine with fish. He advised in 1738, "They say fish should swim thrice. First it should swim in the sea. Then, it should swim in butter. And, at last, sirrah, it should swim in good claret."
Before the 18th century ended, some sound wine-food codifications were beginning to evolve, and in isolated instances rules were taken to an extreme.. The late William Younger, in "Gods, Men, and Wine," tells us that it was de rigueur in Hamburg in the 1770s "for the rich, even at ordinary meals, to have a particular wine for each course." For instance, a fashion-conscious host was expected to serve malaga with fresh beans and herring, and burgundy with fresh peas.
More sober gastronomes of the 19th and 20th centuries criticized nonsensical match-ups, as did Ali-Bab in his 1906 "Gastronome Pratique, Etudes Culinaires." An affinity that many gourmets of the time did praise was the serving of sweet red wine with seafood and meat. Brillat-Savarin, the savant of fine dining in France, told the world in his "Physiology of Taste" (1825) that he served raw oysters with sauternes; decades later, the same combination was still esteemed at Edwardian dinner tables. In Bordeaux, the union of sauternes with pa te' de fois gras was and remains popular. Menus devised by Escoffier at the turn of the century specified a sweet wine with the fish course. German barons regularly poured auslese wines to accompany their roast Black Forest venison, a custom that survives today. George Saintsbury, the author of "Notes on a Cellar Book" (1920), teamed Chateau d'Yquem with grilled red mullet.
A comparison of books, articles and menus of the past with those of the present emphatically demonstrates the turnabout in the vogue. Consider the contrast between the earliest and latest editions of "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook." The original (published in 1896 under the title of "The Original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book") advises that for the first course (oysters, for instance) a "sauternes . . . may be used." The 1979 edition counsels, "sweet white wines are reserved for dessert." Times change. Fashions change.
Other trends that have gone by the boards include the Victorian predilection for drinking sherry throughout the meal. Mrs. Beeton firmly advised her readers in the 1876 bestseller "Complete Etiquette for Gentlemen" that "sherry is the dinner drink." By the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 and Edward assumed the throne, champagne had replaced sherry as the modish alcoholic beverage for a meal. Rosa Lewis, the real-life Duchess of Duke Street, epitomized the Edwardian insatiable fondness for the bubbles.
Perhaps the evolving Parisian mode of drinking red wine with seafood will cross the Atlantic and take America by storm as did the nouvelle cuisine craze. Perhaps not. What is more certain is that fashion in the 1980s will influence our wine choices less than it has in the past. More Americans will be relying more on their own tastes and, in the process, will be developing their own pet affinities. I make this prediction for several reasons.
Wine is now drunk and discussed daily at many American dinner tables. Consequently, we are more aware of the complexities and subtleties of wine, and have more self-confidence to challenge the engraved rules.
Today we are forced to become affinity pathfinders because no source of information on wine-food match-ups could anticipate all the possible permutations. American cooks are creating new-fangled dishes with their food processors. Adventuresome diners are eating a broad array of dishes from the local, regional, national, and international sectors, and enterprising liquor stores are merchandising a mind-boggling selection of wines from all over the world.
Even cooks who stick to traditional recipes must pioneer new wine and food affinities because the flavor profiles of many of the standard wines and foods that they serve have changed in recent years. Typical Rho ne wines, for example, are lighter in body than they were in the past. Chickens lined up in the supermarket display case now have a blander flavor. The same is true for farm-reared pheasants, trout and other game.
Some oenophiles have been doing a lot of experimentation lately. You can gain a rough idea of their iconoclastic coalitions by glancing through this list: Barolo with grilled bay scallops Beerenauslese with vitello tonnato Cote rotie with stir-fried shrimp Gewurztraminer with roquefort cheese New York State chardonnay with venison Retsina with poached turbot (or, less a curiosity but more apt, a white co te de beaune) Rioja with tempura Zinfandel with lobster-stuffed avocados
But be bold in your own pairings -- perhaps your duet may become a classic affinity in the league of chablis with oysters, co te de nuits with prime roast beef, brut champagne with caviar and vintage port with stilton.
Remember, though, some foods do not harmonize with wine and should be avoided, or used with restraint, especially in the company of delicate wines. These discordant ingredients include anchovies, artichokes, bananas, beets, bell peppers, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cucumbers, egg yolks, endives, garlic, grapefruits, hot spices, kale, lemons, onions, oranges, parsnips, pickles, pineapples, spinach, tomatoes, turnips and vinegar.
Chocolate is also a natural enemy of wine. Lady Godiva and Chevalier Montrachet will never fall in love -- it's a matter of chemistry, not opinion. Although even there some will disagree, and decree fashions that will come and go.