Food & Wine Pairing Guide
Famous American cooking teacher Julia Child was right when she said, ‘’Wine is meant to be with food – that’s the point of it’’. After all, the right bottle of wine can really enhance a dish when picked well.
However, with thousands of wines across the country, all stemming from different grape varieties or regions, and resulting from different winemaking techniques, food and wine pairing can seem complex and daunting at first.
The great news is; it doesn’t have to be. Indeed, applying a few basic principles can go a long way in turning an average meal into an indulgent feast.
All you need to do is follow the simple steps below to make your next dinner a success.
Key Characteristics to Consider
Salty foods are wine-friendly. However, for the ultimate food and wine pairing, you should be aware of the fact that wine characteristics can change when you eat particularly salty food. Indeed, the salt found in food decreases wine’s acidity and bitterness and increases your perception of a wine’s body (light, medium, or full body). Therefore, salty foods such as prosciutto should be matched with high-acid reds like Oregon Pinot Noirs.
Acidity in food increases your perception of body and sweetness and decreases the acidity in wine. If you’re planning to cook a particularly acidic meal, you should, therefore, match it with a highly acidic wine. Indeed, matching acidity levels will allow you to better taste natural flavors as wine and food acidity will cancel each other out. For an incredible food experience using an American classic, pair a delicious Finger Lake Riesling with a mustard and sauerkraut hot dog.
Note that acidic wines also pair well with sweet and fatty foods.
Bitterness in food increases bitterness in wine, and bitter foods are more difficult to pair than acidic or salty foods. Therefore, if you’re cooking bitter food, opt for lower tannin red wines or simply select a white wine as they don’t taste as bitter as tannic wines. Salads with vinaigrettes can, for instance, be matched with Sauvignon Blanc.
Umami (or savory flavors) increases the bitterness and acidity in wine while decreasing its body, fruitiness, and sweetness. Umami flavor found in foods such as grilled meats or aged cheese can dramatically increase bitterness in wine. Therefore, choosing warm climate reds such as Californian Pinot Noirs will allow the sweetness of the rich and ripe fruits to balance the meat’s umami flavor.
Sweet foods decrease the sweetness and fruitiness in wine while increasing the perception of acidity and bitterness. As a result, if you’re baking a decadent dessert, make sure to match your creation with an equally sweet or even sweeter wine. This will prevent your dessert from tasting tart. For instance, you can opt for a Sonoma sparkling wine to complement a fruit or mousse dessert.
Balance the Wine and the Food
When picking a wine to complement a dish, you should always consider the wine’s body and the richness of the food you want to pair it with.
Therefore, the first thing you need to do is to define the weight or richness of your food by assessing fat levels, which usually stem from cooking techniques and sauces. You also need to pay attention to whether your wine is light, medium, or full-bodied. As a general rule of thumb, looking at the alcohol content and the grape variety is a great way to determine the weight or body of a wine.
The idea is to avoid having one element overpowering the other. Looking for balance when pairing food and wine is, therefore, critical to the success of your meal. Rich foods require richer wines so that they don’t mask the wine flavors. On the other hand, a lighter meal will pair well with a lighter-style wine as it will allow you to taste the natural flavors in the dish.
As a result, California Cabernet Sauvignon perfectly complements burgers with smoky barbecue sauce and aged gouda or braised beef short ribs cooked in a red wine sauce. In contrast, choose to pair your delicate poached fish or light seafood dishes with an equally delicate Pinot Grigio.
Identify the Dominant Element in a Dish
When picking a wine, it’s also critical that you take into consideration the most intense and flavorful element of your dish.
If you cook a meat-based dish with a sauce, for instance, chances are the flavor and intensity will mostly stem from the sauce. Indeed, cooking methods, sauces, or seasonings are all key ingredients in a dish that must be considered when choosing a wine as they usually maximize flavors and add intensity to your plate.
Let’s take a couple of chicken-based meal examples to illustrate our point; a chicken satay with a spicy peanut sauce will see intensity and flavors mainly come from the spicy peanut sauce and will therefore pair well with a sweeter-style Washington Chardonnay to balance the heat. However, the fresh and subtle salty tang of Finger Lake Pinot Grigio wines will perfectly complement the citrus flavors of a grilled chicken with lemon butter sauce. Both dishes are chicken-based, but the sauces are the most prominent features and should, therefore, dictate the type of wines you compliment them with.
Buy What You Like
Although food and wine pairing can enhance your food experience, you shouldn’t preclude yourself from buying or ordering a wine you like just because it doesn’t pair well with the food you’ve ordered or cooked. Instead, enjoy the food first and delight your palate with your favorite wine afterward. That way, it won’t tarnish the taste of your food, and you‘ll still get to treat yourself to a wine you really enjoy.
Likewise, buying a wine you don’t really like based on the grape variety or style in the hope that the food you prepare will enhance its taste is not recommended. Opt for a style or grape variety you like and see whether it matches the food you’ve got. If not, drink it later on, in your own time, or with another dish.
Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing? If so, we’d love to read about it in the comment section below!
If you’ve ever gone wine tasting and heard all these different wine terms, words and phrases, but had no idea what any of it meant, don’t worry about it,