There are those who are intimidated by the idea of pairing food and wine. They’ve been intimidated by those wine snobs who make a big production about smelling the cork, swishing the wine in their mouth and practically gargling at the table. The whole point of pairing food and wine is finding food and drink that complement each other. It is a little more complicated than “white with fish, red with meat”, but not so much that you need to feel intimidated. These are not so much rules, but guidelines, to help you get the most out of your meal.
Knowing about how to choose the right wine is all about knowing how food and wine pairings work. The flavor of a particular wine is derived from four specific components: acid, salt, sweet, and texture. The flavor components of food include fat, sweet, acid, salt and bitter. Successful food and wine pairings allow complementary components to work together, either by pairing similar elements or by contrasting them, as in pairing a soft Chardonnay with a cream sauce, versus something that will cut through the richness, like a crisp, dry wine, such as a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio.
Understanding how these factors make wine pairings work is fundamental to learning how to pair food and wine. With a little knowledge of the characteristics of grape varieties, you can find the match that pleases you.
Acid in both food and wine perks up the taste buds. If you’re enjoying a dish with a hint of acidity, say a lemony fish dish or a salad with a vinaigrette dressing, choose a wine with an acidity level at least equal to the wine, such as a Sauvignon Blanc or Sémillon.
Salt activates the taste buds making the flavors of food more intense. That’s why restaurant food always seems to taste better; chefs use way more salt than the home cook. While it augments the taste of food, salt tends to have the opposite effect on wine; reducing the fruitiness of a red, or bringing out too much oakiness in a Chardonnay. Sweet wines, such as a Sauterne hold up against food rich in salt, such as cheese. Sparkling wines also pair well to salty food, the carbonation brings out more flavor nuances, much in the same way beer does. That’s why champagne and oysters go together so well, or sushi with saki (which is, technically speaking, not a wine but has some of the same properties).
For entrees and salads with a sweet component, say a fruit sauce, try a rich, white wine, such as Chardonnay. Wines with a higher alcohol content will also balance sweetness in a dish nicely. For dishes with a higher level of sweetness, such as desserts, try to find a wine that is sweeter than the dessert. A late harvest Zinfandel can balance a sweet chocolate dessert or a meat dish with a fruit sauce.
Just as you don’t mix a pair of lightweight linen pants with a heavy wool coat (you wouldn’t, would you?!?!?!), keep your wines aligned with the heaviness of your dish. A big slab of prime rib goes with a full-bodied red, such as a Petite Syrah or a Malbec. If you can’t see through the wine when it is poured into the glass, it is full-bodied. A lighter dish, such as a grilled chicken breast or fish with pasta calls for something lighter and airier, such as a Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer or a Torrontés.
Americans tend to have coffee or tea with dessert, but in Europe, wine is the preferred beverage. A good rule of thumb is that as the color of the dessert gets darker, so should the wine. For example, a cheesecake would pair nicely with a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, while flourless chocolate cake can stand up to a fortified wine like a Ruby Port or a Sherry.
As you become more comfortable, you can play with these guidelines and see what you like best. No one’s going to call the wine police if you want a glass of Pinot Grigio with your pot roast, or a hearty Cabernet with your fish. The whole point of food and wine pairings is to enhance the enjoyment of each.
If you still feel you need some guidance, see the chart accompanying this article. For more complete listings, winefolly.com offers a number of helpful charts.