Wine is wonderful. It can also be incredibly intimidating when you start pairing wine with food.
What do you mix with what to get the best tastes? Are there are any terrible pairings that will spoil the enjoyment of the food and wine?
Yet, the good news is that it’s remarkably easy to pair food types and wine together for what are traditionally considered the “best matches” and better still, you can’t really get things wrong.
These are longstanding guidelines but they’re not absolutes. A non-traditional pairing won’t ruin a meal or the wine – and your guests are unlikely to know.
The Theory of Food and Wine Pairings
Wines derive their flavor from five specific elements within them: alcohol, acid, fruit, sugar and tannins.
Foods also have five elements that provide their flavour: acid, bitter, fat, salt and sugar.
The idea when you pair food and wine is to try and get these elements to complement each other. So that they add richness and texture to the overall meal.
There are two ways that sommeliers attempt to achieve these effects and because wine buffs like to be contrary – they are the absolute opposite of each other.
The first is to create two very similar feels and combine them, the second is to create two very different feels and combine them.
This is less confusing than it might sound but it does show you that you can get away with a wide margin of error and still “pair” properly.
Let’s take an example. You serve a classic pasta carbonara. It’s a very creamy sauce with a real richness about it.
If you wanted to, you could grab a nice bottle of white dry, and without any oak and tackle the fattiness within the sauce.
Alternatively, you could roll with the sauce instead, and opt for a solid, ripe white to get to grips with the richness of things.
How the Elements of Food and Wine Pairing Work Together
The elements of food and wine pairing apply equally to reds and whites.
It’s worth noting that reds and whites, in general, contain these elements in different amounts and thus there are times when you’re more likely to choose one over the other.
The Acid Element
Acid is something we don’t consider very often but it’s a very strong part of what makes both food and wine special.
If you seek out acid in wine you’re looking for something fresh that brings a certain lift in the taste.
In the same way, acid, brings similar qualities to food (think when you squeeze citrus fruit over a dish, for example).
When you’re looking to match acid from wine with acid from food – you must make certain that the wine is the more acidic of the two or at a minimum it is no less acidic than the food.
Why? Because you’ll find that if you don’t – the flavour of the wine is lost, and it will feel bland and uninteresting.
This is why a salad can sometimes be problematic to match with wine.
If you drown it in vinegar or lemon juice, the wine can’t compete with the acidic strength. If you want salads and wine just use more bitter greens and dial back on the dressing.
The Bitterness Element
Bitterness isn’t something that we necessarily seek out in food. In fact, it’s something that we often have to get used to through practice before we appreciate it. Think broccoli and a child’s face the first time they try it.
The bitterness feels wrong in their mouths and because they’re too young to disguise it, they’re happy to let the world know it too.
While bitterness in food is an acquired taste. Bitterness in wine is often an indicator that the quality of the wine is not great. The grapes may not have ripened properly or there may have been matter that wasn’t properly removed before the fermentation took place.
This means that bitterness in wine is not desirable and, in fact, when it comes to bitter flavors in food – you don’t want to pair it with bitter wine, because it won’t cancel the bitterness out but rather it will enhance it.
The Fat Element
Fat is responsible for much of what makes food so delicious. Meat and dairy, in particular, tend to bring large amounts of fat to the table, quite literally, and we are delighted that they do. Life would be so much poorer with cheese and ice cream, for example.
Fat is a challenge for wine. Wine doesn’t contain any fat, so it can’t bring any of its own to glass and try and cancel out what’s present in the meal. So, you need to try a different approach – namely you can balance it out with the acidic component of wine, cut the fat with the tannins or try to match it for richness using the alcohol content.
This is why everybody tends to like deep, rich reds with their steaks and roast beef – the heavy tannin load neatly cuts the heaviness of the fat and protein. The fruity berry components of the wine also provide a neat counterpart to the smoky, meat flavors.
The Salt Element
Salt flavors may be the biggest challenge for wine pairings. It’s fair to say that salt can make whites taste downright peculiar, it can make reds feel absent of their wonderful fruity textures and even high alcohol wines can seem bitter in conjunction with salt.
However, the trick is to look to that often ignored category of wine – the sweet wines. Everybody loves a Sauternes when it’s been paired with a strong piece of Cornish Blue, for example.
You can also go for a sparkling wine. It’s a bit like downing a pint of lager alongside a plate of salty potato chips. The carbonation strips the salt from your palate and the wine offers up new textures in return.
The Sweetness Element
Sweet flavors would, at first glance, be easy to handle All you need to do, obviously, is bring out a nice sweet dessert wine and you’re cooking with gas, so to speak.
Sadly, it’s not quite that simple. There are plenty of sweet flavors that aren’t all that sweet. Think a redcurrant sauce on turkey, it’s sweet but not very sweet. Here you’d be better off going for something with a high alcohol content than a truly sweet wine. The rest of the meal is more likely to balance with it.
However, once you get into truly sweet territory – you need to opt for a wine which is sweeter than the food. If you don’t you’re going to find that the wine robs the food of its sweetness and may make it seem to have turned bitter.
The Textural Element
Textures are the easy bit of wine pairing. Mainly because it’s very much common sense. If you have a light meal to serve, serve a light wine alongside it. With a heavy meal? Go for broke and serve a substantial heavy wine with it.
Now, once you’ve mastered the basics of wine pairing, you can start to play with this rule. It’s possible to match light and heavy together but it’s a fine art and you risk one flavor overwhelming the other.
The only way to get this right is to practice! Which, coincidentally, is our favorite part of wine-pairing.
Some Classic Pairings to Help You Get Started
OK, now you know how the pros make up their wine-food pairings but if you just want to get started – we’ve got some great classic pairings that you can try.
Cabernet sauvignon: Got steak? Then get to pairing it with some wonderful Cabernet sauvignon and lamb chops, venison, etc. go well with it too. The tannins are your friends here.
Sauvignon blanc: When you’ve got some tart edge to deal with such as a citrusy salad; rely on the might of the sauvignon blanc to put it in its place.
Dry Rose: Rose wine is often overlooked but it’s the near perfect partner to rich dishes full of cheese. In fact, if you can’t decide between red and white for a cheese – you can’t go wrong with a rose.
Pinot Noir: For anything with an earthy taste to it – think mushrooms or even truffles to go with this light, savory red.
Chardonnay: Rich fish dishes are the classic pairing for the silky white wine. This can either be from fatty fish or from a nice fatty creamy sauce.
Champagne: I think we touched on this earlier but if you’re serving something salty, champagne can really take the salt away. It doesn’t have to be expensive either, try a Cava (which is pretty much the same thing) if champagne’s out of the budget.
Pinot Grigio: If you’ve got some seafood and it’s a nice light airy dish, this is the time to grab a nice delicate white and settle in for the duration.
Gruner Veltliner: This is a funny grape and it needs accompanying with lots of fresh herbs or it can lose its subtlety. This is for the freshest of salads with little dressing, for example.
Zinfandel: Zinfandel is an oddly rich wine and it’s a super pairing with pate, mousses and terrines of meat. Think rustic meat spreads on crispy bread and you’ll be fine.
Off-Dry Riesling: This is your go to wine for foods without the traditional wine culture – Indian and Thai are sublime with the cooling effects of this grape.
Malbec: Spicy and sweet BBQ sauces are quite intimidating for wines because of their intensity, this is the time to bring out the big guns of a bold grape like a Malbec.
Moscato d’Asti: A nice sweet sparkling wine, needs a fairly sweet but not too sweet companion. This means fruity rather than sugary puddings.
Syrah: Syrah is a very robust and spicy red and it needs matching with something similarly spicy to do it justice. When you marinate meat in spices, it is to Syrah you should turn.
Rose Champagne: There’s nothing that you can’t serve with a rose champagne, it’s so flexible. It’s worth the investment when you have something really special for a main course.
One Last Thing About Wine Pairing
Tim Hanni – the master sommelier – wants you to know one thing about wine pairings!
“A perfect wine pairing doesn’t exist. We’re doing a lot of damage the way we’re matching wine and categorizing it… A lot of people enjoy being arrogant about wine and consider entry-level wines as being unsophisticated… We need to celebrate the diversity of consumers, not make them feel stupid. You can serve Sauvignon Blanc with steak—why not?”Tim Hanni
So, please remember – you can’t go wrong. It’s great to have fun with wine pairing but some people can take it much, much too seriously. Enjoy yourselves.