Not long ago I was with a couple of friends in the country. It was raining heavily, and we were making a meal of some of the first treats of spring: nettles, delicate little spears of asparagus, bright green watercress. There were oranges and fennel, and we had a chicken. The only problem was that we didn't have a white wine, which all that brilliant spring chlorophyll seemed to demand. I did happen to have a bottle of Saint-Joseph—Syrah from France's northern Rhône—which, it turned out, was a magical elixir.
When it comes to pairing food and wine, there are two basic approaches: the complementary, and the contrasting. Complementary is the easy kind we practice all the time—red wine with meat, white wine with fish, and so on—where the flavors of wine and food overlap in a harmonious, predictably pleasurable way. A pairing of contrast, on the other hand, is rare, complex, and can be completely rapturous. But a pairing of contrast is also almost impossible to plan. You discover it, as if by accident.
Accident indeed. The bottle I had was the 2009 Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph. To my astonishment, it first dispatched a little appetizer of fennel and orange. I would have thought the dish's sweetness and citric acid would have repelled the luxuriant plushness of the Syrah; but rather the prickly bite of the orange just stabbed at the red wine's fabric like the point of a bull's horn at a matador's cape, to dazzling effect.
Next, the nettles, so dark and weedy and full of vitamin greenness. I thought they would war with the deep, purple fruit of the Saint-Joseph, but instead, the contrast was energizing, bringing out a nutty side of the nettles and emphasizing the lush fruit of the wine. Finally, the bird. Northern Rhône Syrah, it turns out, is maybe the best pairing for chicken around. One would think first of Pinot Noir or a lighter red like Beaujolais, and those wines are just fine. But the heady gaminess of a good northern Rhône—its blackberry fruit, dusting of pepper, and enveloping blackness—makes a good foil for delicate, juicy chicken.
I should have remembered this, because good northern-Rhône Syrah is what my friend and coauthor, the great sommelier Rajat Parr, always drinks with roast chicken. I called Raj to tell him about my revelation, and he laughed. "Syrah has a bad rap because a lot of wines are made in bigger, heavy-handed style," he said. "But good Syrah is more delicate, complex, and a rare thing. It's the hunt for the unicorn, that kind of Syrah: not as easy to make as most people think."
And he agreed that it goes with practically everything in a dynamic way: chicken, pork, lamb, and even fish. "Just cook the fish with the skin on and get it crisp. Throw some olives or tomatoes in there, and Syrah's delicious. Just make sure the wine's not too tannic." Syrah is also Raj's favorite red with Indian and Middle Eastern food. "It loves the spices."
Pinot Noir is often credited with being the most versatile red wine. And it is, if you like boring complementary pairings. If you want exciting pairings, go with the King of Contrast.