Food and wine pairing is a highly subjective and inexact process. The old rules — primarily red wine with red meat and white wine with fish and poultry — don’t take into consideration the complexity of today’s multi-ethnic and subtly flavoured foods and the corresponding wide range of wines from around the world that are now conveniently available to almost everyone.
These days you’re more likely to hear food and wine pairing suggestions than hard and fast rules. There’s considerable room for experimentation and expression of your own personality in pairing food and wine.
Vineyard tours and wine tastings are a great way to try different wines and learn which you favour. Then begin with the foods and wines you like. Pick a good wine and pair it with a meal you enjoy and you probably won’t go wrong.
Next, consider some rules-of-thumb — remembering that rules were made to be broken. Going contrary to a rule-of-thumb to achieve a particular effect, or even just because you have found the results pleasing, can sometimes be the mark of a true artist. But, first you have to develop a familiarity with convention and an understanding of why the suggested combination usually works.
When pairing food and wine, the goal is synergy and balance. The wine shouldn’t overpower the food, nor should the food overpower the wine. More often than not, food will threaten to overpower wine.
Think of wine as if it were a condiment — it should complement the food. Wine drunk by itself tastes different than wine with food, because wine acts on food similar to the way a spice does. Acids, tannins and sugars in the wine interact with the food to provide different taste sensations.
Wine can enhance the flavour of food. A good match will bring out the nuances and enhance the flavours and unique characteristics of both the food and the wine. A memorable food and wine pairing is achieved when you find similarities and/or contrasts of flavour, body (texture), intensity, and taste.
Above all, don’t stress over the perfect food and wine pairing. The best pairing is good food, good wine and good company. Friends and loved ones are the most important ingredients.
Let’s begin with some of those suggested rules-of-thumb to use as guidelines, and then follow that with a discussion of why certain flavours are found in, or are more dominant in certain wines.
Ten rules-of-thumb for food and wine pairing
Flavours found in wine
The basic flavours that occur in food are also found in wine which is, after all, another type of food. They are sweet, tart (sour, acidic), bitter (puckery, astringent sensation) and salty (which isn’t found in wine, but affects its flavour). In addition, wine has alcohol which adds aromas and body, making the wine feel richer.
The sugar that is present in grapes is converted during fermentation to differing degrees. A wine with very little sweetness is called “dry.” Sweet white wines include certain styles of chenin blanc, many rieslings and Spumante. Sweet red wines include Lambrusco and Port.
If a dish is acidic — citrus or vinegar — then an acidic wine would be appropriate, although a lightly acidic dish can be balanced with a lightly sweet wine. Acidic white wines are Sauvignon Blanc and most sparkling wines. Acidity in wine cuts saltiness, so sparkling wines generally pair with salty foods better than less tart wines such as most red wines.
Tannins from the skins and sometimes stems of grapes and the oak barrels used for aging cause the bitter or astringent aftertaste in some red wines. Tannins mellow with age and are one of the components that add complexity to a mature wine. Foods with a prominent salty, sour or bitter taste will make a wine seem sweeter and less tannic. Bitter red wines include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel and syrah.
Alcohol gives wine a sense of body and weight: the higher the alcohol, the more full-bodied the wine. Rich meat, fish or chicken dishes that include cream are well suited to full-bodied wines (13–15 percent alcohol) whereas light, simply prepared and flavoured dishes pair better with low alcohol wines (7–10 percent).