6 Tips for Pairing Wine with Food

The first rule of food and wine pairing is that there are no rules. 

Fight Club aside, I can give you some tips.  Before that, however, I’d like to make the point that food and wine pairing should not be a stressful undertaking.  Wine tasting is a very subjective business and pairing, even more so.  Worst case scenario; the pairing is a flop.  Outcome; eat the food first and then drink the wine, or just skip the food altogether, and drink up.

1. Weight class.  You have a better chance of being successful if you match the weight and intensity of the wine with the weight and intensity of a dish.  What influences a wine’s intensity?  Body, tannin, sweetness, alcohol, acidity, olfactory components.  Sounds like a lot, but we can break it down. 

The body of the wine can be compared to the body of milk, meaning having a glass of a light-bodied wine might be like drinking skim milk, while imbibing a fuller-bodied wine could be compared to drinking half and half (not that you’d want to…).  You can equate the body of the wine with how heavy it feels on your palate.  The fuller-bodied the wine is, the more intense it seems to most consumers. 

Tannin is that mouth-drying effect we get from the skins of red grapes used in red winemaking.  More tannic wines tend to be more intense. 

Sweetness in wine can make the wine seem more intense, by contributing to how full-bodied we perceive the wine to be. 

Alcohol in wine also contributes to our perception of the body of the wine.  More booze = more viscosity = fuller-bodied wine = more intense experience.

Acidity is the refreshing, mouth-watering quality of wine that keeps us going back for more and it may make the wine seem lighter. 

Olfactory components can make a wine seem intense.  Does the wine smell fruity? Oaky? Earthy?  Smelling more stuff = more intense experience.

Generally speaking, white wines are more intense than sparkling wines.   The carbonation makes these wines light and lively on the palate – think scrubbing bubbles!  Red wines are more intense than white wines, often because of the tannin component, and fortified wines (think Sherry or Port) are more intense than red wines, because of their elevated alcohol content.

How do you determine a dish’s intensity?  Salads and fish seem ‘lighter’ than poultry and red meat. The difference is not one of calories or protein, but of fat content, which boosts textural richness and perception of flavor.   

Don’t forget to take all aspects of the dish into account.  The cooking method will also dictate the dish’s intensity.  Braising or grilling will yield greater intensity than poaching.  The finishing sauce(s) or seasoning(s) need to be taken into consideration as well.  A light white fish finished with a tarragon cream sauce will need a different wine than a light white fish finished with a squeeze of lemon. 

2. Compare vs. Contrast – two basic ways to attack the pairing scenario.  It can be easy to find comparable flavors in wine and food.  Think about the herbaceous nature of Sauvignon Blanc.  If you are making a lighter dish, finished with fresh herbs, Sauvignon Blanc would be a good pick.  When similar elements are present in the flavor of both wine and food, they tend to balance each other. This is generally a flattering effect, creating a perception of harmony.  Sweet wines do best with sweet foods.  High acid foods do best with high acid wines. 

Going in the other direction, you can select a wine that has opposite qualities from the dish.  Pairing fried chicken with a crisp white is a good example – the acidity in the wine will cut through the fattiness of the fried dish.

3. Regional pairings or “what grows together goes together”.  This one is pretty self-explanatory.

4.  Order of the courses.  When doing a professional wine tasting, whites are tasted before reds, dry wines are tasted before sweet wines and light-bodied wines are tasted before fuller-bodied wines.  A similar rule of thumb is used when creating a multi-course menu – lighter dishes precede heavier dishes and dessert is served at the end of the meal. 

5. Seasonal component.  You should be a seasonal drinker, like you’re a seasonal eater.  It works.  Meaty, braised dishes that we crave in winter will work well with robust reds.  Spring vegetables do better with white wines.  When grilling in the summer, utilize rosé wines or lighter-bodied reds, served with a slight chill.  For the fall, refer to other tips presented here.

6.  Big Players – salt, sugar, spicy heat and fat.  Salt is present in almost everything we eat, in the main ingredients we cook with, and especially as a seasoning.   If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you definitely know what I’m talking about!

Salt triggers salivation, and our food tastes better as a result. Salt can overwhelm the taste buds on the tongue, in particular those that perceive sourness, or acidity. Since all food is salty to some degree, wine will always seem less acidic with food than it does alone. This helps explain why so many of the world’s classic food-oriented wines can seem too sharp or tart on the first sip.  Most are high acid styles, produced by winemakers who assume we’ll pair their wine with a meal, instead of chugging it in front of the tv.

For lower acid styles of wine that may seem delicious alone, this effect is less flattering, as whatever refreshing edge was present in the wine is lost. In general, when pairing wine and food, sommeliers or restaurateurs will choose a style that seems too sharp/tart alone, knowing the perceptions of salt and acidity will balance each other on the palate. 

Instead of making wine seem less acidic, sweetness in food draws dramatic attention to wine’s acidity. Sugar in food blunts the tongue’s ability to perceive sweetness in wine, and vice versa. Typical ‘dry’ wines will seem even drier with sweet foods than they do alone. ‘Off-dry’ or fully sweet styles, may taste ‘bone dry’ if the accompanying dish is sweet enough. 

Pairing sweet foods with the bone-dry classic wines of the Old World (think France, Spain, Italy, Portugal) can be particularly unflattering, like having a sip of orange juice immediately after brushing your teeth.   Most New World styles (think U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Argentina) fare better with sweet foods and sauces, since they are not quite as dry and tend to have riper fruit flavors. Sweet foods are apt to throw most wines out of balance by playing up the wine’s acidity and playing down its sweetness.

Spicy heat in food can be difficult to pair with wine. Think about what you find most often on beverage menus in Asian restaurants.  Beer!   It often works better than wine with the spiciest cuisines, as its average alcohol content is much lower; 4-8% vs. 12-15% in table wine.

The fiery heat of hot sauce or chili peppers creates a mildly painful burning sensation on the lips and tongue, and alcohol intensifies this burn.  Remember when your mom would pour alcohol over a cut or scrape to clean it and it would burn?  Same idea. The higher a wine’s alcohol, the more painful and lingering the spicy heat appears to be.  

Two strategies may be employed in pairing wines with spicy food: choosing lighter-bodied, lower-alcohol wines or choosing wines with noticeable sweetness (a touch of residual sugar).   Sugar helps to tame the burning sensation caused by spicy food.

Fat plays a major role in making the foods we like to eat taste delicious!  Fats and oils have a special relationship to red wines in particular; they minimize the astringent effect of tannin. By drying the mouth of saliva, tannin can limit the sensations perceived by the taste buds and the olfactory center. Fat’s ability to release red wine’s tannic grip on the mouth allows our food to seem juicier and more flavorful.   

Fat in cheeses and meats will soften red wine’s harshness. Tannic wines will cut through the oily mouthfeel of rich foods and cleanse the palate.   Animal fats, like those found in dairy products and meats, are the strongest in countering tannin. The easiest way to remember this tip is to think about the wine list at a steak house.  It’s full of big, fat red wines that will purr like kittens, once paired with a fatty steak.

Oils derived from plants, like olive oil or sesame oil, can achieve a similar effect, but to a lesser degree. However, the oils found in fish and seafood are different in composition, and are inadequate to offset tannin’s drying effect. This is the root of one of the oldest ‘rules’ of wine and food pairing, “white with fish, red with meat”.  While the general principle is sound, there are exceptions: Red wine can be delightful with fish if low tannin wines or fatty sauces are chosen and white wines can be better partners for ‘low-fat’ meat dishes.

What makes a good food and wine pairing?  Well, it depends on your goal.  Are you pulling a special bottle from the cellar that you’d like to highlight?  You’re better off creating a very simple dish that won’t steal the wine’s thunder.  Been slaving over a hot stove all day?  Pick a simple wine that won’t overshadow your handiwork. 

For me,the best pairings are when the food and the wine taste better together than each did on its own.

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1 Comment

Filed under Lessons, Wine

One response to “6 Tips for Pairing Wine with Food

  1. Dena

    I was once smitten by a description of a wine, Savennieres, and got a bottle, planning a meal around the wine–chicken roasted with tarragon and a potato dish with a sort of vichyssoise sauce. I’ve done this before, read about a wine, become intrigued, and then cooked what’s appropriate for the wine. I think that approach almost works better.

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