The Basics of Food and Wine Pairing
The general consensus among most wine-drinking, food-loving people is: “Drink what you like.” This is generally the case, yes. But knowing the basic principles of pairing wine with food can drastically improve your experience. The key in pairing is viewing the wine as an additional ingredient to your meal. Knowing how the food and wine interact gives you more control over the experience of your meal, and can bring your meal to an entirely new level of culinary bliss. This nether world of dining nirvana is the product of stellar food and wine pairing, and by reading on, you too will be able to unlock its mysteries and savor its rewards.
So, you love a good Pinot Noir, and you adore a spicy red curry dish, but do you know what do to each other? Do you know how to pick the right wine that enhances your meal, not detract from it? If you love several different types of wine, whether they be red, white, or rosé, knowing which type of wine to pick can highlight that food that you love so much, and vice versa. We will go over the basic rules of pairing, go through several examples of effective food and wine combinations, and finish with some tips to keep in mind in the future. So, let’s get started on the basics of wine pairing!
Pairing wine with food is most definitely a creative exercise with few rules and lots of experimentation. That said, there are a few basic rules and principles to keep in mind when pairing wine with food: weight, flavor intensity and characteristics, acidity, salt, tannins, and sweetness. Keeping these main elements in mind, you will be pairing wine like a pro.
One of the golden rules when picking out a wine is to try to match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food you are planning on eating.
Rich and heavy dishes, such as red meats or casseroles, are most well paired with full-bodied wines. Normally, when one thinks about what kind of wine to pair with a heavy dish, he or she thinks immediately of a red, which is usually the case, but in reality it is the weight of the wine, not the color or flavor, which is the most important consideration. For example, a full-bodied white wine, like a Chardonnay or Meursault, pairs better with meat than a light-bodied red wine.
On the other end of the spectrum, more lightweight wines better complement delicate dishes such as fish and poultry. While a white wine is the most instinctual choice for these types of dishes, lighter, low-tannin red wines also pair nicely.
Flavor Intensity and Character
Flavor intensity, although similar in certain aspects to weight is not the same thing. The most important thing to keep in mind when concerning this principle is to pair low intensity, mild wines with mild flavors, and full-flavored wines with the same type of food. For example, a mild flavored wine like a Muscadet would pair smashingly with oysters. On the other end of the spectrum, a full-flavored Sauvignon Blanc would most certainly complement a plate of asparagus.
Keep in mind the ingredients that make up a dish when deciding upon its intensity. Case in point, potatoes or risotto without a dressing or sauce to complement it would be certainly heavy in weight, but light in flavor. In contrast, red peppers are lightweight but have lots of flavors. This same principle applies to wine, as well. Rieslings are light-bodied yet profoundly flavored, while Chardonnays are heavy yet lightly flavored.
When considering a wine, the main ingredient in a dish is not necessarily the most flavorful item. Reduction sauces and glazes, such as those often-used in steak houses require a full-bodied fruity red, like a Australian Shiraz or a Brunello di Montalcino. Many foods and wines have very similar flavor profiles, thus they make great pairings. This can be seen, for example, in cream-based or butter sauces that pair swimmingly with wines that have been aged or fermented in new oak barrels, which pass on vanilla, buttery, and creamy flavors to the wine. Another instance where this characteristic is present is in lighter, fruity desserts. These can be successfully paired with a light, grape flavored Muscat.
Acidity is one of the most important characteristics to keep in mind when finding that perfect complement. Any food with a high level of acidity is an excellent accompaniment for a high acid wine. A dish that you would find yourself squeezing a lemon on is just screaming for that wine with high acidity.
If chicken picatta is the dish of choice, pair it with Chianti or Barolo. This pairing will effectively bring out the citrus notes in the food and wine. Another instance is a glass of Champagne served with smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon. If you prefer red wines and are eating an acidic chicken or pork dish, choose a high acid, low tannin for a nice red wine, white meat pairing.
A classic example of this rule of acidity is in Italy, where much of the food is prepared with a generous amount of olive oil. Barbera, Valpolicella, and Chianti, for example, are noticeably acidic grapes, which complement the regional food nicely.
The main thing to keep in mind when considering the saltiness of a meal is that the dish is almost always enhanced and balanced out by a hint of sweetness. A perfect example of this combination is melon wrapped in prosciutto. This same principle can be easily applied to wine.
Salty, Roquefort cheese is nicely matched with the famously sweet wine from the Bordeux region of France, Sauternes. Alternatively, pair a Riesling with sweet Asian foods such as fried rice or Pad Thai, or for a nice dessert pairing, try combining pretzels with a tawny port.
Tannin is the astringent compound in red wine that gives it its bitter, pucker feeling in the back of your throat and gums. This feeling can be balanced with fatty flavors, as the fat will soften the tannins and allow the wine to have a smoother, less bitter taste and mouthfeel. So, tannin is at home and moderated by foods with fatty, chewy textures, such as duck, steak, and other red meats. If you are drinking a tannic red wine and eating a fatty food, the tannin molecules attach to the protein molecules and strip them from your mouth, leaving your palate clean and refreshed. A Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux that can be perfectly partnered with steak, lamb, or any other red meat to make it seem supple and complex is a great example.
When considering the sweetness of a dish, always keep in mind that the wine should be consistently sweeter than the food. Dry wines seem tart and acidic when consumed alongside sweet food. Even if you aren’t partial to sweeter wines, taking a sip of a sweet and rich port before and after a bite of a dark chocolate cake will totally alter the flavors of both components.
Fruit-based desserts such as puddings and compotes pair best with lighter sweet wines like Riesling and Moscato. Sweetness in savory foods, such as foie gras and pate, can be tasted in combination with sweet wines with a decent level of acidity, like Sauternes or Barsac. The acidity in the wine cuts directly through the fattiness in the pate, and the sweetness of the wine brings out the richness of this food. Keep in mind that sweetness also balances salty flavors, so sweet wines are great companions with cheeses such as a nice bleu.
Things To Keep In Mind
Now that we have the basic rules and principles of wine tasting out of the way, a few tips to keep in mind for your future wine pairing endeavors are in order. First, always look for balance. Whether it be sweet and salty, sweet and sweet, or tannic and fatty, the best wine pairings always effectively balance out the food. Second, remember to always match the wine to the most prominent flavor in the dish, not the main ingredients. Third, structure and texture matter. A good pairing needs to be able to create a pleasing mouthfeel and flavor, whether it’s a heavy, complex dish or a sweet, light dessert. Always look for flavor links between the wine and the food, and you will have no issue creating fantastic pairings.
Like human beings, wines come in all dimensions. To match them with food, it’s useful to know where they fit in a spectrum, with the lightest wines at one end and fuller-bodied wines toward the other end. This same idea applies to food. Keep these basic principles in mind, and soon enough you will be creating the most delightful, delicious, and functional wine and food pairings.