One of the most complicated aspects to wine is pairing it with food. For decades, most of us have served and purchased wine with the belief that white wine pairs best with white meat and red wine with red meats, and while it’s not a bad rule to follow, especially as you’re learning about food and wine pairings, you’re missing out on so many wonderful food and wine combinations by following that old rule.
Before I dive into my methods of pairing food and wine, it’s always fun playing around with different pairings; finding what works and what doesn’t. Most pairings will taste just fine as taste is subjective to the person doing the tasting. However there are some general pairings that you should avoid, and I’ll explain more of that later.
It’s important to realize that pairing the two together is not an exact science, and what tastes wonderful to one person, another will accuse you of attempting to poison them. Having at least a basic understanding of the characteristics of food and wine, will give you superior confidence when selecting your pairings.
Balancing your food and wine can be a bit tricky in the beginning; the whole point of pairing the two together is to benefit both the food and the wine. Pairing the wrong wine with an overly simple dinner can not only ruin your dinner, it could also ruin your perception of a particular wine. If you cannot taste both the food and the wine, you’re missing the point.
A complex dish made for special occasions such as birthdays or holiday dinners deserves a complex and special wine. Meanwhile, simple everyday dishes would be overwhelmed by complex and special wines. Drinking Merlot would be
One of my favorite (and easiest) ways to pair wine and food is called mirroring. Just like it sounds, mirroring involves a food and a wine with similar characteristics—for example you’re cooking a dish where you use a lot of pepper or star anise. For dishes heavy on the black pepper, seek wines that also are characteristically known to have aromas of black pepper (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, and Petite Syrah.) Most wines these days tell you what characteristics and aromas you should expect in a glass of that particular wine. Zinfandel also pairs well with black pepper-heavy dishes. For Star Anise, Barbera or Syrah are both known for their Anise aromas. (For what it’s worth, Star Anise and Moscato also go hand-in-hand for you white wine drinkers.)
Pair regional dishes with wines from that region, chances are they were made to go together. For Spanish cuisine, think Garnacha!
Acid or Tannin To Combat Fat
Salmon, chicken, pork and cream sauces are typically considered to be lighter dishes that can have higher levels of fat (hello, butter), therefore they are best paired with wines that contain high levels of acidity: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir all fit into that category. The acidity cuts through the fattiness in a dish revealing more of the flavors in the dish while the fat in the dish will diminish the acidity of the wine.
Heavier dishes such as filet mignon, beef stroganoff and lamb dishes have a tendency to have higher levels of fat, so you might think you need a wine with higher acidity. Due to the heaviness of the food, a heavy wine is needed to balance the higher fat in the dish, therefore seek out a wine high in tannins. The tannins in the wine will act as a barrier against the fat (tannins settle on your tongue, which is why drinking tannin-heavy wine can leave you with a dry mouth). Enjoying a tannin-heavy wine with a dish with higher fat levels will soften the wine.
Serving a dish such as scallops would be hindered by a full-bodied white wine (such as Viognier or Chardonnay), however light-bodied white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc or Albariño would be the perfect balance.
When selecting a wine, simply remember this: the higher the fat levels the higher levels of tannin needed to round out the flavors (and vice versa.)
Sweet & Spicy
Pairing wines with spicy dishes can be complicated. A tannin-heavy wine is only going to make the flavors seem spicier and the wine won’t be enjoyed at it’s true potential. Select a wine that is slightly sweet as the sweetness will take the spice and bring out more of it’s flavor. Some sweeter wines to consider: Viognier, German Gewürztraminer and Rieslings from Alsace, France.
Generally speaking, lighter dishes such as seafood will pair nicely with lighter white wines, however full-bodied whites like Viognier or Chardonnay will over power the soft flavors of the dish. For heavy flavored dishes, such as chicken with intense flavors will overwhelm lighter white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc or Albariño.
Always Go Sweeter
Pairing wines with your desserts are far more simple: your wine should always be sweeter than the dessert they’re being served with. Have you ever tried a piece of bittersweet chocolate alongside a glass of Cabernet Franc? It doesn’t taste too good. By selecting a wine sweeter than your dessert, you’re ensuring that the wine is going to retain its natural sweetness without tarnishing your dessert.