Cheers to Transgressive Drinking
Bill Knott enjoys red wine with his fish as he cocks a snook at the drinks snobs and their prescriptive pairings
By Bill Knott
September 24 2019
“Red wine with fish. That should have told me something,” says Sean Connery’s Bond, held at gunpoint by a villainous Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love. “You may know the right wines,” Shaw says, “but you’re the one on your knees.”
The fish is grilled sole, the wine is Chianti, and they are both consumed by Shaw’s assassin, Donald “Red” Grant, aboard the Orient Express. Bond and his inamorata order the sole, too, but with Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1943. Grant’s choice of Chianti is, the script implies, proof of a dastardly personality. Nonsense. He may be a murderous thug, but I defend his right to pair fish with red wine – or steak with Coca-Cola, pâté de foie gras with a banana smoothie, or spaghetti bolognese with Bailey’s if he chooses.
Open any of the myriad tomes about food and wine pairing, and you find prescriptions for what to drink with every imaginable dish, each carefully calibrated to reflect the smallest details of its preparation – whether the steak has a creamy blue-cheese sauce, say, or the frîtes come with ketchup on them.
What these books fail to recognise is personal taste. If you feel New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is undrinkable filth that stinks of cat’s pee and elderflowers, knowing that it is a perfect match for sole Véronique will not make you like it any better. And I think Gewürztraminer, often fêted as the perfect match for Indian food (which is about as helpful as suggesting a wine to accompany ‘European food’), smells of pungent underpants, and won’t drink it at all.
Should you be in Southeast Asia, you might follow the oft-stated advice that off-dry German Riesling is perfect with Thai or Vietnamese food. This is sound in theory – a little sweetness and plenty of acidity to balance the spices and herbs – but, not in practice. If, by some miracle, you track down a bottle in the backstreets of Luang Prabang or Hanoi, it will probably have been stored upright in fierce heat and bright sunshine for a few years, gathering dust as its aromatic charms evaporate. You might find a carefully-cellared bottle in a five-star hotel, but you will need to fill out a mortgage form to buy it.
Compromise is key, so order a drink that your friendly bartender actually knows how to make. Having travelled extensively in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, I can tell you that the best drink to accompany your som tam, duck laap or chicken pho is a bourbon sour: Every Southeast Asian restaurant has egg whites, sugar and fresh lemon juice, and a bottle of Jim Beam or Jack Daniels behind the bar. If not, it is a terrific way to make the local hooch – Mekong whisky, for instance – more palatable.
These pairing guides also claim an authenticity that is often spurious. Google “wine to drink with pizza”, say, and all sorts of erudite suggestions for Italian wine appear, from Sicilian Frappato to Pinot Grigio; from Alto Adige, via Piemontese Barbera and Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna. Some authors even offer different choices depending on whether the pizza is topped with mushrooms or pepperoni.
I have news for these self-appointed cognoscenti. At Da Michele, the peerless Naples pizzeria, nobody drinks wine with pizza: They drink beer. Nor are the pizzas topped with pepperoni or mushrooms, which Neapolitans would consider heresy. You order a marinara or a margherita, and wash it down with Peroni. The pizza takes 42 seconds to cook, and you finish in 15 minutes. If you lingered over a bottle of wine, your pizza will be cold and congealed.
I am not saying that great food and wine matches do not exist, merely that many of them are ridiculously prescriptive. They also perpetuate a snobbishness that manifests at dull dinner parties, or, even worse, in a sommelier’s wine pairings for a tasting menu. Hapless diners have to suspend their conversation every few minutes to listen politely as the wine waiter drones on about minerality and malolactic fermentation, while the miserable thimblefuls of wine evaporate. One of the joys of drinking a good bottle of wine is that, when opened and exposed to the air, it develops in the glass: A whole bottle unfolds like a movie.
A wine pairing menu, by contrast, is just a haphazard handful of snapshots.In any case, James Bond didn’t know what he was talking about. How can you take seriously a man who orders his martini with vodka, not gin, and then has it shaken, not stirred? Even his wine choices were questionable: In Live And Let Die, the FBI treats him to a dinner of soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, medium-rare hamburgers, French fries and broccoli, a mixed salad with Thousand Island dressing, and ice cream with butterscotch, all matched with “as good a Liebfraumilch as you can get in America”. This is the same man who, in Goldfinger, can come over all snobby about a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1947.
My advice? Drink what you want, with whatever you want. We are all, thankfully, licensed to swill.