How To Sensibly Pair Food and Wine

It’s my pleasure to share this post of mine recently published by 12most.

12 Most Practical Guidelines for Wine and Food Pairing

Pairing wine and food has been around a long time. For individuals who’ve grown up in homes where wine is a daily part of life, wine and food pairing can come pretty naturally because they have a vast base of experience upon which to draw. For the rest of us, wine and food pairing can be daunting. That’s because not only are we relatively inexperienced, but the way we cook, eat and drink in the real world rarely features the flavors of a single food. Even a simple meal can present a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures.

Let’s begin with expectations. Otherworldly wine pairings – those extraordinary flavor affinities when wine and food work so well together that they somehow create a greater whole, doesn’t happen often. Likewise, truly awful pairings are typically infrequent. That leaves two kinds of pairings – when the wine and food pair in such a way that each makes the other better, and when the wine and food co-exist peacefully, if unexcitedly. The vast majority of pairings fall into these two categories.

Wine and food pairing isn’t an exact science. Much of it falls within the realm of instinct. The good news is that instincts can be acquired by knowing some basic guidelines about how wine and food interact.

If you follow the guidelines offered you’ll not only dramatically increase your chances of creating magic from time to time, but more importantly create more pairings when the food and wine make each other better.

The guidelines aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather the first six guidelines are the foundation upon which the second six more specific guidelines are constructed.

Photo courtesy of Ecosalon

1. Drink what you like

This is the most common first rule of wine and food pairing because wine and food pairing is very subjective. It’s all about what YOU like and/or may be in the mood for. In the worst-case scenario, you don’t like the wine and food together; you can drink the wine (which presumably you know you enjoy) either before or after the meal. Having said that, if you’d like to enjoy your wine and food together, or are looking to add to the repertoire of wines to go with your favorite dishes, read on.

2. Acidity is your BFF

Acidity is the most important factor in pairing wine with food. That’s because wine with good acidity can “cut” foods that are rich, salty, fatty, oily or mildly spicy. They also go better with tart foods such as vinaigrette on a salad. Wines with high acidity leave you wanting to take a bite of food, and after taking a bite of food, you’ll want a sip of wine. Think about how a squeeze of lemon can complement or temper a rich or salty dish. Wines with high acidity such as Sparkling wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, or a dry Riesling do the same when served with food.

3. Choose versatile wines

This is my favorite because it makes it much easier to pair wine and food. I keep versatile wines at the ready because they work with a wide range of foods. If you’re not sure which wine to enjoy with your meal, and you’re looking to avoid the brain damage wine and food pairing may cause, then get to know food friendly wines. Keep them on hand and try them with a variety of dishes. What makes a wine a versatile partner with food? Generally speaking either good acidity (see #2 above), or wines that are fruity with low tannins like Zinfandel, simple Italian reds, Rose, and Rhone blends.

4. There should be one star of the show

If you want to showcase a knockout recipe, then select a lower key wine. On the other hand, if you want to showcase a special bottle of wine, then the food selection should play a supporting role. According to Evan Goldstein in Perfect Pairings, “Much like two people in a conversation, in the wine and food partnership one must listen while the other speaks, or the result is a muddle”.

For those times you’re not showcasing either the wine or the food, it’s best to match humble foods with humble wines.

5. Match the “weight” of the food and the wine

Match delicate wines with delicate foods and robust wines with robust foods. It makes sense that a light-bodied wine like a Pinot Noir wouldn’t be a good match for a spicy curry dish. On the other hand dishes with bold, spicy flavors tend to go well with big, bold spicy wines. For example a bold spicy Zinfandel would make a nice match for spicy Mexican dishes.

Forget the color coding approach to matching wine and food – white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat. It may work, but it’s too limiting. Pinot Noir with a roast chicken or salmon are great examples of pairing “white” meat with a red wine. It works because the wine and the food are of comparable “weight’. And what gives a wine its weight? In a word, alcohol. The higher a wine’s alcohol content the more full-bodied the wine seems. Keep in mind as a wine’s alcohol content increases, food pairing options decrease.

6. There’s no place like home

Food generally goes best with the wines they grew up with. That’s why Italian dishes pair well with Italian wines. Of course, Italian dishes pair with other wines too, and Italian wine goes well with a host of non-Italian dishes; but like peanut butter and jelly, the food of a place tends to go well with the wines of that same place.

7. Pair to dominant taste first, flavors second

When thinking about which wines to pair with food start with the primary tastes – salty, sweet, sour, and bitter before considering specific flavors. So, what’s the difference between tastes and flavor? Tastes are objective, whereas flavors tend to be subjective. For example, the sourness of a lemon, or the sweetness of honey are objective. A lemon is sour and honey is not. On the other hand describing the flavor of a strawberry is personal and subjective.

Just as foods have primary tastes, so do wines – those being sweet, sour and bitter. This opens the door to match foods and wines, or if you desire to set up contrasts. Start with the primary taste for either the wine or the food, then decide if you want to mirror or contrast the taste before getting into the specifics of flavors. Speaking of dominant tastes and flavors, pair to the sauce because that typically dominates a dish.

8. How the food is prepared matters

Bear in mind that cooking techniques can influence dominant tastes, flavors, and texture. For example, steaming and poaching impart minimal flavors, while smoking, blackening, and grilling have a major impact on flavors. Sautéing is fairly neutral, while braising and roasting are somewhere in the middle. For example, I’d serve a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay with Poached Salmon, but a Zinfandel with Blackened Salmon.

9. Spicy and salty foods like sweet wines.

Wines come in varying degrees of sweetness from off-dry (slightly sweet) to semi-dry (medium sweet) to an unctuous dessert wine that could satisfy a sweet tooth.

Wines that are off-dry or semi-dry, such as a Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, or Muscat make a great counterbalance for moderately spicy Indian and Asian dishes. That’s because the sweetness of the wine cuts the heat (unlike carbonated beverages which amplify the perception of heat). Likewise, a sweet wine can provide a nice counterbalance to salty food. For example, the classic wine and food pairing of French Sauternes and Roquefort.

10. Tannins

Tannins in wine are associated with a bitter taste and that “sandpaper” feeling on your tongue. It’s created by the astringency from tannic acid. Tannic wines like a Cabernet, Bordeaux, or Petite Sirah tend to be a good match for bitter foods, which is a reason why foods that have been grilled or blackened along with naturally bitter ingredients like arugula or endive go well with more tannic wines. Tannins also provide a nice counterbalance to fats and protein because the astringency of the tannins “cut” through the fat. Protein is an important partner when pairing a tannic wine with fat because if there’s not enough protein, tannins can react chemically with the available protein on your tongue and inside your mouth, coming across as too tannic. Of course, a classic example would be a grilled steak and Cabernet Sauvignon.

11. Hold the Oak please

Wines raised in oak are more challenging to pair with food because the aging in oak imparts tannins, and oaky flavors are exaggerated by food. Consider pairing that young Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo with grilled meat or other foods that have a bitter taste. And that oaky, buttery Chardonnay you love? It may not taste so good with the meal. Conversely unoaked wines are easier to pair with foods.

12. Sweeter than sweet

An under-appreciated aspect of wine and food pairing is desserts. While dessert can stand on its own, it can be enhanced with the right wine. Just remember the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. Otherwise, the sweetness of the dessert will make the wine taste bitter. That’s why Port matches so well with semi-sweet chocolate.

There you have it, fairly straight forward wine and food pairing guidelines. Remember it’s wine and food – not life and death!

What’s next? Start experimenting. That’s where the real excitement is! The only way to hone your instincts for wine and food pairing is to try lots of combinations to determine what you like. I assure you, if you just pay a little attention, you’ll be rewarded with better food pairings and yes, even a few more “wow” moments!