Basic Wine & Food Pairing Principles
When pairing wine to food try to match similarities of richness, texture, intensity, and flavor of the food to the wine. Here are some tips:
Similarities: Match wine and food with similar richness and texture such as fish in a butter sauce with a buttery chardonnay.
Flavor: Pair wine and food with similar flavors, such as a pepper crusted steak with a strong peppery syrah. Earthy foods, such as mushrooms, go well with earthy old wines. The dominant flavor is the key, especially when the food has a sauce. Typically the sauce is the dominant flavor.
Balance: Always try to balance the acidity and sweetness of the food to the wine. For desserts the wine should always be as sweet or sweeter.
Regionality: Typically a regions food goes well with local wines. For example an Oregon or Washington pinot noir goes well with Northwest salmon.
Cooking Method: Light wines go well with steamed or poached foods. Medium and full bodied wines go better with grilled, roasted, or braised dishes that have intense flavors.
The Keys to Flavor Matching
One of the most important elements to harmonize between wine and food is flavor. For example, a tangy tomato-based pasta sauce requires a wine with comparable acidity. Without this balance between the acidity of the dish and the wine, the partner with lower acidity tastes flabby and dull, while the other, too tart.
To find an acidic wine, you can choose one that is made in the same area as the food. Years of matching the regional cuisine and wine as well as similar soil and climatic conditions make this a safe bet. For example, you could pair a tomato sauce fettuccine with a Tuscan chianti. Or you can select a wine from a cool climate where the grapes don’t ripen to great sweetness, and maintain their tart, tangy edge. Crisp New Zealand sauvignon blancs and French chablis serve these dishes well.
Acidic wines also work well with salty dishes. For example, oysters are both salty and briny with an oily mouth-coating texture that can smoother most wines. However, a sparkling wine from California , a Spanish cava or French champagne can both refresh and cleanse your palate when eating fish. Carbonated wines also work well with spicy foods. Hot spice in Asian, Thai, curry and chili pepper dishes can numb the palate. Many of these foods also have high acidity from citrus ingredients such as lime juice as well as sweetness. Therefore, you need a wine with an acidic backbone as well as a touch of sweetness such as an off-dry California sparkling wine with lots of fruit.
While off-dry, acidic wines go well with many dishes, the two most difficult wines to pair with food are also the two most popular: chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. New World chardonnays can taste of oak, and are buttery, flavorful wines that overwhelm many dishes. But you can still enjoy chardonnay with your meal. Pair it with butter and cream sauces to marry similar textures and flavors.
Conversely, cabernet sauvignons can have bitter dark fruit flavors with mouth drying tannins (the same sensation you get from drinking well-brewed tea). Therefore, they find their happiest match in foods with juicy proteins such as a rare steak. The protein softens the tannin making the wine taste smooth and fruity. Steaks done with crushed black peppercorns sensitize your taste-buds, making the wine taste even more fruity and robust. However, the way in which the dish is prepared also has an impact. A well-done steak, for example, may taste too dry with a tannic cabernet.
Proteins are also at work with the marriage of wine and cheese, the cocktail classic. Red wines tend to go better with hard cheeses such as blue cheese as they can accommodate more tannins. However, whites suit soft cheeses such as brie and camembert as the creamier textures require more acidity for balance.
Game birds such quail, pheasant, turkey, duck, squab and guinea hen have earthy flavors that are more robust than chicken. Wild game often goes better with racy red wines that have a gamy quality to them, the classic being Burgundian pinot noir. The flavors of pinot noir — plum, cherry, mushrooms, earth and even barnyard (that’s a positive adjective) – accentuate the same gamy flavors in the food. Other wine options for game birds include Spanish rioja, Oregon pinot noir and lighter-style Rhône Valley wines such as Côte-Rôtie.
One of the most challenging flavors to balance is sweetness. Dishes with a touch of sweetness such as glazed pork do well with off-dry wines such as riesling and chenin blanc. However, rich desserts such as chocolate and crème brulée demand a wine that is sweeter than the dessert, or the wine will taste thin, even bitter. Sweet wines such as sauternes, Canadian icewine, late harvest wines and port will work not only for their sweetness but also for their unctuous texture.
Wine Variety Guidelines
When the marriage of food and wine works well, each enhances the other, making the meal greater than if you had consumed them separately.
Following are some suggestions for help deciding the best food matches for several popular wine types:
Cabernet Sauvignon: Roasts & spicy red meat, spicy poultry, duck, rabbit, pate, sausage, kidneys, and cheeses like cheddar & blue.
Pinot Noir: Roasted beef or turkey, braised chicken, cold game birds (duck, rabbit, partridge), veal, truffles, and cheeses like Gruyeres.
Merlot: Roasted beef or turkey, braised chicken, cold duck, lamb, veal, venison, liver, stew, meat casseroles.
Shiraz : Heavily spiced or barbequed meats, braised chicken, chili, goose, meat stew, garlic casseroles, ratatouille.
Chardonnay: Seafood with butter sauce, pasta with cream sauce, veal, chicken, turkey, ham, and cheeses like Emmenthal & Gruyeres.
Riesling: Ham, pork, clams, muscles, Tandoori chicken, lobster Newberg, Coquilles St Jacques, Asian dishes, sashimi, and mild cheese.
Sauvignon Blanc: Ham, quiche, Irish stew, grilled or poached salmon, seafood salads, and strong cheeses like goat.
Gewurztraminer: Spicy dishes, Thai food, curry, pork & sauerkraut, smoked salmon, and spiced/pepper cheeses like Muenster.