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- Written by Fred Swan
Pairing wine with food is a hot topic these days. It can be a lot of fun to discuss, read about and do. However, it can also be needlessly complicated and frustrating.
Books have been written about wine pairing and this article isn’t designed to replicate them. If you’d like to dive in more deeply, check out our suggested reading page for books that include extensive information on food and wine pairing. If you’re looking for some quick guidelines, this page should do the trick though.
The most important thing is to enjoy your food and wine. This means that you shouldn’t get too stressed about finding the right combination. Stress doesn’t taste good. And, the reality is that most meals have so many flavors and textures, that there simply is no “perfect pairing.” Nor should you should feel compelled to eat a food or drink a wine that you know you don’t like, just because someone said that it’s a “perfect pairing.” The whole point of pairing is the enhancement of your pleasure. That’s not going to happen if you start with something you don’t like.
The next most important thing is to do no harm. The ideal pairing can be elusive, but horrible combinations are easy to create. Fortunately, they are just as easy to avoid. Here are some guidelines that should help with that:
Try to match relative quality or sophistication. You wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a NASCAR race. And, while Pinot Noir can be a great match for some sausages, you shouldn’t be breaking out your prized Marcassin Vineyard Pinot Noir to go with that ballpark frank you’re grilling. Nor should you pour a $7 Merlot with the braised beef cheeks your significant other just spent three days preparing. Pair big flavors with big flavors and subtle with subtle.
In a nice pairing, the wine and food will be as in-step as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. If either the food or the wine is much too bold for the other, the combination may be more like a sheep in the lion’s den. That makes for spectacle, not harmony.
Pair sweet foods with sweeter wines. The sugar in most desserts will make dry wines taste drab and lifeless. That’s not good. If you don’t have an appropriately sweet wine, enjoy dessert without wine or consider a cheese plate instead of the cake. The Europeans have it a bit easier when it comes to the final course, because their desserts tend to be much less sugary than those in the United States.
Pair acidic foods with acidic wines. Wines that have relatively low acidity, especially those red wines with high tannins, will feel even more tannic and taste less fruity if paired with acidic food. Wines higher in acid, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Sangiovese will hold up better. Use vinegar sparingly or not at all. It’s super high acidity will make almost any wine taste bad. Instead, try to use fresh lemon or lime juice. It is less aggressive and compatible with some white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc. You can also use verjus. This is grape juice made from grapes intentionally picked before ripening. The juice has acidity but is less aggressive than vinegar and the light grape flavor works well with wine. If you do need to use vinegar, use one that has been aged in oak. That takes the edge off quite a bit. Very old balsamic vinegars which are more sweet than tart can be fine if used sparingly. Though in that case, you really want the balsamic to star and wine may detract from it.
Use salt delicately. There are very few wines that hold up well to heavy salt.
Avoid drinking wine with very spicy (hot) foods. The capsaicin in the peppers deadens your taste buds, so you will experience less of the wine’s flavors. And, the alcohol in the wine makes your tongue even more sensitive to the heat. That’s a recipe for all pain and no gain. For somewhat spicy foods, such as those from Asia, pair a sweetish white wine with good acidity, such as a late-harvest Riesling. If you need a red wine to go with a zesty dish, try a Zinfandel.
If you follow the guidelines above, you should avoid any disastrous food and wine combinations and will usually find that your pairings are at least acceptable and often quite good. If you’re ready to put a bit more thinking in though, you can take pairings to another level.The following tips should head you in the right direction.
One approach is to choose a wine that somewhat mimics one or more significant element in the food. If this pairing were a musical duo, it might be the Everly Brothers. Let’s say that the dish you are pairing is poached salmon with Hollandaise sauce. In this case, a somewhat buttery but not too oaky Chardonnay would be a great choice. The rich body and butter flavors in the wine will complement the fatty salmon as well as the thick buttery sauce. And the fruit in the wine will go nicely with the lemon aspect of the sauce.
Or you can do just the opposite. Select a wine that provides a counterpoint to major elements of the dish without clashing. This combination is more like Elton John and Kiki Dee. Take the same dish: poached salmon with Hollandaise. Pair it with a light-bodied Pinot Noir. The lighter body and above average acidity will cut through the buttery sauce and fatty salmon, refreshing your palate between bites. The fruit will provide a nice counterpoint to the salmon while the earthy notes in the wine will complement those aspects of the salmon. You’ll definitely want a cool climate Pinot Noir for this, something from the Sonoma Coast for example. A bigger wine would have too much body, alcohol and ripe fruit, but not enough acid and delicate spice.
Though you’re going easy on the salt, some dishes just have a naturally high level. Smoked salmon and smoked pork chops are good examples. Sweetness and acid are good counters to salt. In the case of the salmon, an off-dry Riesling could work very well. With pork (the other white meat...) the very same Riesling could still be great. But if you want something red, you could try a fruity Pinot Noir or a Zinfandel that is on the light side and isn’t too oaky. Those reds will have enough sweet fruit to counterbalance the salt, but aren’t too tannic.
Tannins and salt don’t mix well. If you are dealing with an opening course with salt, you could go with either a Champagne-style sparkling white or, if the food is a bit earthy or vegetal, a Fino Sherry. If you have a meal with a lot of varied fruits and sauces, you will want to go with the flow. Choose a wine that is fruity, has a bit of sweetness (real or perceived) and has enough extra spice or floral notes to let it rise above the fray. Riesling would again be a good choice. So would the other aromatic grapes such as Viognier, Muscat, Gerwurztraminer, and the ever-adaptable Riesling.
Sometimes there are just too many flavors and textures going on in the dishes being served to be able to clearly highlight one. This is especially true if you’re going to be having one wine with multiple courses. Select a wine that is happy being a versatile food wine and doesn’t need to be the star of the show. While a big Cabernet Sauvignon may be delicious on its own or with a slab of beef, it will overwhelm a lot of foods and be made unattractively tannic by others. Think about relatively light-bodied red wines with good fruit and acidity. Sangiovese might be a good choice. So would a Grenache-based wine. If you need something more powerful, Zinfandel with less than 14.5 alcohol could work. If you need a white wine, think about good, dry or off-dry versions of Riesling or Chenin Blanc.
By now, you’re probably wondering when you will ever get to open that trophy Cabernet Sauvignon or burly Syrah. You want meat for big red wines. Red meat that is well-marbled or has a good layer of fat on it. Think rib-eye steak or lamb. And don’t be afraid to grill them. The smoke from the grill won’t overwhelm the smoke from the oak. Rich braised dishes are also a good bet.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve got more than enough information to put together some great combinations to wow your friends and get the most out of both your food and wine. Have a great time experimenting! And please, send us an email to let us know what your favorite pairings are.