One of the most common questions I am asked when speaking to consumers (other than “What’s your favorite wine?” which is #1) is what food would go with this wine. The very basic “white wines with white meats and red wines with red meats” has served its purpose as a simple and easy way for the beginning wine consumer to learn about wine. It is also generally (VERY generally) correct. However at some point, people want to break outside the lines of the basic food pairing and experiment a bit. So I’ve put together some thoughts on how I decide to pair wines and foods. The following list is to be considered a “Pirate’s Code” of wine and food Pairing; more guidelines than actual rules.
The first thing I look at is the weight of the dish and try to pair that to the weight of the wine accordingly. Salads and other “summer” foods tend to be very light so they pair well with light bodied wines. These are typically whites and light reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay. Heavy foods like stews, cream sauces on pasta, and steaks need full bodied wines like Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Malbec. Try to gauge the weight of your dish and find a selection of wines that are similar in weight.
Flavors, Aromas, and Intensity
Next I try and match the flavors and aromas in the dish to the predominant flavors and aromas of the wine. If green herbs are being used then try a variety that leans toward the herbal side such as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot or Cabernet. If it is a fruity dish try Gewurztraminer or Muscat. Keep in mind however that the intensity of the food and wine must also match. If you have an herb crusted salmon dish and pair it with a Semillon, the Semillon will probably be overpowered by the intensity of herb flavors. Smoked foods and strongly flavored cheeses need very powerfully flavored wines to match with them.
Acid is tricky. Acid in food is hard to pair wine with because the wine can be over powered by the acid and taste flabby. Again balance is the key. Try to match acid levels by using acidic wines to pair with acidic foods. In foods with high citrus flavors such as lemons, limes, or grapefruits try Riesling, especially from cooler climates so that the acid will balance. For Tomatoes or tomato sauces think Italian reds. Vinaigrette is very tricky and if you must have wine to pair with it, choose a high acid variety in the same color as your vinegar that is being used.
Protein and Tannins
The more protein a dish has, the more tannin can be in the wine without it being harsh. The astringency (or drying sensation) that people experience when drinking wine by itself is due to tannins in the wine binding with the protein in your mouth. When you drink the same wine with protein (i.e. cheese or meat) the tannins bind to the protein you’re eating and not the protein in your mouth. This makes the wine appear softer on the palate and can be a good way to enjoy that big red in your wine cabinet without having to wait for it to soften on its own.
Desserts and Sugar
Again balance is the key here with similar sugar levels in both the wine and the food. This is why sweeter wines are usually called “Dessert wines”. They pair well with dessert. If wines are served with an imbalance of sweetness, the wine can seem too sweet or sour if not sweet enough. Although I follow this rule generally I do love a good full bodied red with chocolate cake regardless of sugar levels.
Artichokes and Asparagus
I had to put a quick note in about these two special veggies. Artichokes make whatever you are eating with them taste sweeter so I typically choose a very dry, high acid white wine for these. If they are grilled then make sure the wine has the intensity to hold up to the smoke. Although a herbal Sauvignon Blanc is the obvious choice, Asparagus can be lovely with sweeter wines. One of my favorite pairings is grilled Asparagus with a hollandaise sauce paired with Sauternes. Trust me, it’s awesome!
So I hope this helps ease the stress of the next dinner party. Don’t forget to experiment on your own with wines and dishes that you like.