Most of the time, I open a bottle of wine to enjoy it with one of my other favorite things – food. However, if you’re anything like me, figuring out what wine to pair with what dish can be a somewhat daunting task. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this article, you will have a basic understanding of why some food and wine goes well together while some combinations don’t.
In recent years, wine professionals have tried to reduce anxiety in wine consumers by loosening the rules of wine pairings, often getting down to – just drink what you like with the food you like. While a comforting sentiment, sometimes it leads to funky combinations, and I find that having a few guidelines helps me make better choices. And I’m all for rules that lead me to more delicious food and wine experiences on a regular basis! I know some of you like your Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or ‘insert favorite wine here’ and you don’t have any desire to drink anything else. That’s OK. Frankly, you probably don’t need this article then! But if you are looking for a little more guidance, come along with me for pairing tips.
Some food just screams out for a particular type of wine. For example, this gorgeous steak was a no brainer for a big Cab! Why though? It is not just because a Cabernet Sauvignon is red, and the old wine rule says ‘red wine goes with red meat.’ That rule doesn’t always work. A lean, fruity Pinot Noir just wouldn’t have stood up to this steak.
Which brings us to Rule #1 - ’like goes with like’ in terms of mouth feel. A full bodied meal, like a steak (or lobster in cream sauce), goes well with a full bodied/textured wine, like a Cab (or oaky-style Chardonnay for the lobster). On the other hand, a lighter dish would typically pair well with lighter wine in terms of mouth feel. For example, with a light white fish, I’d move into the realm of Albarino, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc while Pinot Noir can handle slightly heavier fish, like salmon, and even chicken, such as one of my favorite Julia Child recipes, Coq Au Vin.
A side note for you meat eaters out there, foods high in protein and fat reduce the perception of tannin (the drying sensation) in wine. So eating steak actually helps balance out highly tannic wines, such as Cabs and Malbecs, which allows drinkers to taste the wine’s other qualities (fruit, spice, earthiness) that can be overshadowed by tannins when drinking those wines alone.
Rule #2 – Acid often helps! Acidic wines typically pair well with a variety of food. For example, acid offsets other acid, which led the WWG to suggest seafood ceviche with Sauvignon Blanc in my last Wine of the Week. The citrus flavors in the wine can offset the lime in the ceviche, making the seafood sing and creating harmony throughout the tasting experience. Acid also cuts fats, such as grease and oil, so if you are looking for something to go with your fried chicken, don’t forget the acid. Check out this Snooth post for in-depth KFC pairings. You’ll notice that the big wine winners of this fried chicken pairing were typically noted for their crispness and acidity. Also, acidity stimulates the salivary glands, making you want to eat more, which (if you like what you are eating) can be a good thing. Besides the light white wines mentioned above for pairing with a light white fish (the Albarinos, Pinot Grigios, and Sauvignon Blancs of the world), dry Riesling and reds with relatively high acidity (such as Pinot Noir and Sangiovese), often making good complements to a variety of foods.
Rule #3 – Wine flavors can act as mirors or contrasts to flavors in food. OK, so that isn’t super helpful, but think about your favorite food combinations. For example, you may want to use a spicy Shiraz to highlight the spices commonly used to season red meat. In Australia, one producer the WWG visited in January–Oakvale–clearly didn’t want anyone to forget the spicy tones in one of its key reds, named Peppercorn Shiraz. So if you are seasoning with pepper, you might want to bring out a spicy Shiraz for a mirror to the spice in the dish. In contrast, some spicy (hot) foods like tacos or curries may scream out for neutral foil, such as a dry Reisling to calm down the spices in the food. Of note, beware of high alcohol wines with spicy (hot) food. If you are having tacos or curry, you should probably avoid wine pairings with high alcohol (>15%) because that alcohol will only add to the heat of the food. Going with a neutral, low alcohol option is probably your best bet; you could even go lower than the normal 12%-14% table wine standard for particularly hot foods.
In a similar vein, sweetness can be an intriguing mirror to other sweetness (if the wine is sweeter than the food) or as a compelling contrast to saltiness. One pairing mentioned in class that I can’t wait to try is the sweet sparkler Moscato d’Asti and grilled peaches over ice cream. Also, during class this week, we tried contrasts, such as a potato chip with a syrupy Muscat dessert wine, which was working in the same vein as a chocolate-covered pretzel. Yum! While I wouldn’t want to taste that combination all night, it got the point across to me in wine terms. Another traditional contrast pairing would be an intense bleu cheese, Stilton, with Port, a sweet, intense, fortified wine. Double Yum, but when don’t I love Port?!
So overall, wine and food pairings are more art than science, but hopefully, those three basic rules will help you get in the right wine neighborhood for your dining experiences. So remember 1.) Stay in the same realm for both the food and wine in terms of mouth feel, 2.) Let acid in the wine balance out acid and grease/oil in your food, and 3.) Use wine flavors to either mirror or contrast flavors in your food. These guidelines should help you make more informed decisions going forward. If you aren’t there yet, don’t worry - I plan to make food pairings essential to my WWG wine posts going forward. Also, if you are shopping, check out the back of the wine labels; many wineries put helpful food pairing hints on the back of their labels these days. And if all else fails, get to know your wine shop owner or favorite restaurant’s wine director. I’m sure most will be happy to help you navigate the world of food and wine pairings. Until next time…
Your Wandering Wine Girl