Food and Wine Pairing: There are no hard and fast rules

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


  • If you are taking wine as a gift to a dinner party, don’t worry about matching the wine to the food unless you have been requested to do so and have enough information about what is being served to make an informed choice. Just bring a good wine. Match quality of food and wine. A grand dinner party with multiple courses of elaborately prepared dishes deserves a better wine than hamburgers on the grill with chips in a bag.


  • When you’re serving more than one wine at a meal, it’s customary to serve lighter wines before full-bodied ones. Dry wines should be served before sweet wines unless a sweet flavoured dish is served early in the meal. In that case, match the sweet dish with a similarly sweet wine. Lower alcohol wines should be served before higher alcohol wines.


  • Balance flavour intensity. Pair light-bodied wines with lighter food and fuller-bodied wines with heartier, more flavourful, richer and fattier dishes.


  • Consider how the food is prepared. Delicately flavoured foods — poached or steamed — pair best with delicate wines. It’s easier to pair wines with more flavourfully prepared food — braised, grilled, roasted or sautéed. Pair the wine with the sauce, seasoning or dominant flavour of the dish


  • Match flavours. An earthy pinot noir goes well with mushroom soup and the grapefruit/citrus taste of sauvignon blancs goes with fish for the same reasons that lemon does.


  • Balance sweetness. But beware of pairing a wine with food that is sweeter than the wine, although I do like chocolate with cabernet sauvignon. I also like chocolate with good dark beer. Come to think of it, I like chocolate with just about anything!


  • Consider pairing opposites. Very hot or spicy foods — some Thai dishes, or hot curries for example — often work best with sweet desert wines. Opposing flavours can play off each other, creating new flavour sensations and cleansing the palate.


  • Match by geographic location. Regional foods and wines, having developed together over time, often have a natural affinity for each other.


  • Pair wine and cheese. In some European countries the best wine is reserved for the cheese course. Red wines go well with mild to sharp cheese. Pungent and intensely flavoured cheese is better with a sweeter wine. Goats cheese pairs well with dry white wine, while milder cheeses pair best with fruiter red wine. Soft cheese like Camembert and Brie, if not over ripe, pair well with just about any red wine including cabernet, zinfandel and red Burgundy.


  • Adjust food flavour to better pair with the wine. Sweetness in a dish will increase the awareness of bitterness and astringency in wine, making it appear drier, stronger and less fruity. High amounts of acidity in food will decrease awareness of sourness in wine and making it taste richer and mellower — sweet wine will taste sweeter. Bitter flavours in food increase the perception of bitter, tannic elements in wine. Sourness and salt in food suppress bitter taste in wine. Salt in food can tone down the bitterness and astringency of wine and may make sweet wines taste sweeter.


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).



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