For a lot of reasons, pairing wine and food is one of the big “mysteries” about wine. Without getting cynical, the majority of these reasons come down to our own insecurities and lack of confidence in our own palates. Granted, coming up with a winning wine and food menu does get more stressful when you are doing so for a larger group than just yourself!
Like many things we humans get involved in, the science and art of pairing food and wine can be extremely detailed and complicated. I want to stress the words “can be.” It does not mean it has to be complicated. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to share some basic guidelines that a wine guy with limited competence in the kitchen uses. So, below is a very basic approach to pairing foods with wine.
1. Drink and eat what you like!
Choose wines that you would want to drink by themselves rather than hoping food will improve a wine made in a style you don’t normally like. Usually doesn’t happen. If you live by this rule, worst case is that you will enjoy the wine even if the match isn’t perfect!
2. Look for balance
Consider the weight—body or richness—of both the food and the wine. The wine and the dish should be equal partners. This equality raises the odds dramatically that the pairing will succeed. This is the secret behind many classic wine-and-food matches. A lot of this is instinct: hearty food needs a hearty wine. Subtlety in a wine calls for the same in food.
3. Match the wine to the prominent element in the dish
This is critical to fine-tuning wine pairings. Identify the dominant character; more often it is the sauce, seasonings or cooking method, rather than the main ingredient. Consider two different chicken dishes: Chicken Marsala versus a chicken breast poached in a creamy lemon sauce. The Chicken Marsala, with its caramelized, earthy flavors and a sauce of rich wine and mushrooms wants a soft, supple red wine. The lemon chicken with simple citrus influenced flavors calls for a fresh, crisp white wine.
4. Isn’t it always red wine with meat, white with fish?
Absolutely not! There are so many myths associated with matching wine and food and the first is probably “red wine with meat, white wine with fish.” While many red wines work well with meats and some white wines are great matches for seafood, it doesn’t have to be that way. I love grilled salmon, but this big, dense, flavorful fish simply overpowers most white wines. I drink Pinot Noir with salmon. Pinot Noir has the body to stand up to assertive fish, but it also has a richness and balance that helps especially with the oiliness of the salmon.
5. Some simple pairings ideas to try
Here are some simple pairing ideas you can try to see what I’m talking about. Use wines that you are familiar with and see how they work together with the foods. For me, these are some of the more common wine and food pairing situations you face “in the wild.”
Salty foods need a crisp wine…
Food: A selection of olives, feta cheese and baguette
Wine: Fruity, crisp Sauvignon Blanc
Richer sauces need rich, balanced wine…
Food: Chicken with a mushroom sauce
Wine: Rich, balanced Pinot Noir
Bolder red wines softened by a bold, tangy sauce…
Food: Pasta with a tangy, red tomato sauce
Wine: Bold, balanced Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel
Sweet, fruity foods need a wine with similar sweetness…
Food: A selection of apples, dried apricots and candied walnuts
Wine: Slightly sweet, fruity Riesling
As always, you can email me with questions or comments at [email protected]
Greg Walter, a Sonoma resident for more than 20 years, has been in wine and food publishing for more than 30 years, 15 of which were spent as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter (Pinotreport.com) and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (Carnerospress.com).