Best Off-beat Wine Pairings

wine-walrus&carpenter-vertical-crdt charity burggraafFor Boston-based sommelier Theresa Paopao (currently at Ribelle in Brookline, Massachusetts, and previously ran Momofuku’s wine programs), it was a batch of pickled mussels on Momofuku Ssam Bar’s menu that piqued her offbeat wine-pairing palate. “The mussels were pickled in apple cider vinegar and seasoned with bay and clove, among other things,” she recalls. “They were served in a vacuum-sealed jar with shishito peppers, kohlrabi and lots of white onion and garnished with Hungarian paprika oil before the lid went on—it was a nightmare to find any beverage that wouldn’t ruin (or be ruined by) this dish.”

Instincts steered her toward off-dry German Riesling, but that was too easy. “I tried Riesling spin-offs, relatives and other grapes that I thought could match intensity, sweetness and aromatics, but Muscat, Gerwürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc and Scheurebe all failed my test.” For a contrast in texture, she moved on to bubbles, but couldn’t find one that would offer the flavors she was looking for. “Champagnes were too rich, Prosecco’s simplicity was overwhelmed, most of the Pet-Nat that was super-hot in that moment were just a little too similar in flavor to the brine itself.”

Months passed, spring arrived and so did a new crop of rosés. “I tried all of the rosé we had,” she says, “I probably ate a hundred pickled mussels with a hundred different sips of rosé, but still nothing.” And then in a moment of frustration, Paopao steered straight for the dessert wines and pulled a bottle of Bugey-Cerdon. A sparkling rosé from France’s Savoie region, this fruity blend (typically of a Gamay and Poulsard), is bottled with a kiss of residual sugar. “It’s flavors are of ripe strawberries and rose petals, but with a grace and restraint that make it great picnic wine, salami wine, breakfast wine, dessert wine, put-your-kids-to-bed-wine,” says Paopao. “And it was the perfect pickled mussel wine.”

All that trial and error led Paopao to some of the most important lessons she’s learned about food and wine pairing:

1) “Pickles need residual sugar in wine—without it, it all tastes like vinegar.”

2) “You can imagine how tired your palate might become after straight shooting a jar of pickled everything; the bubbles offered relief, at least in the form of texture—always consider texture!”

3) “Although I generally preach flexibility and open-mindedness when it comes to pairing food and wine, sometimes the dish won’t comply. Patience and a willingness to continue the hunt are critical! That dish might be long gone from the menu, but when you find the right pairing, you’ll know—understanding why it works is something that is hard to articulate but as long as you have that sense-memory, you can draw on it for future pairings.”

4) Some of Paopao’s best food-and-wine learning moments have come from eating late-night junk food. “The flavors you can find after midnight in a bodega are usually so assertive, it’s easy to find out which wines DON’T work.” Here’s are some of her best matches:

Peppered beef jerky + Syrah
Teriyaki beef jerky + Zinfandel
Salt and vinegar chips + sparkling wine
BBQ potato chips + off-dry rosé
Chips, salsa and cheesy con queso dip + Gruner Veltliner (or any white that has lots of acidity and tart citrus flavors)
Honey mustard pretzel nuggets + Riesling
Cheese Combos (in cracker, not pretzel) + Pinot Noir