Wine lovers are often foodies too, and for them, there is nothing more satisfying than a wine perfectly matched to a dish, complementing and enriching the flavors of the food. Such a meal is truly one of life’s great pleasures, feeding both the stomach and the soul. But with so many wines and so many dishes to choose from, forming the perfect pairing can be an overwhelming challenge. (Stuck on choosing the perfect wine? Here are our tips on how to navigate a wine list.)
“Serve white wine with white meat, and red wine with red meat,” is the old adage. But not only does this not account for meats like veal and Ahi tuna, which are really neither white nor red, it’s very limiting and leaves out considerations like sauces, spices, and how the food is prepared. Food and wine pairings vary with each combination, and rather than memorizing a rule, wine lovers should consider several difference aspects of the way the food and wine will work together.
A good pairing is balanced, with neither the wine nor the food becoming overwhelming. The flavors of the food and wine should enhance each other, bringing out the best flavors of each. Here are some tips to consider when pairing food and wine:
Match flavors. A wine with earthy notes such as a Pinot Noir will bring out the earthy flavors in mushrooms. Just as a squeeze of lemon enhances grilled fish, the citrusy acidity of a Sauvingnon Blanc will brighten a seafood dish.
Consider how food is cooked. Steamed or poached fish and vegetables need a delicate wine. Braised or roasted dishes are heavier and can stand up to deeper and more intense flavors.
Match the flavor intensity of the food and wine. Light foods such as chicken breasts, for example, would be overwhelmed by a rich Cabernet Sauvignon: you want to taste both the food and the wine.
Match the wine to the sauce. A creamy sauce should never be paired with an acidic wine (think about how acid curdles milk.) A rich tomato sauce, which is high in tannins, wouldn’t match well with an acidic wine such as a Zinfandel, which is also high in tannins. The two together would create an overwhelming bitter, astringent taste.
Consider matching opposites. The flavors in rich and spicy ethnic foods can work well with a sweeter wine like a Gewürztraminer.
Match by geographic region. The foods and wines from the great culinary regions of the world, like Spain, Provence, and Tuscany, have developed together for hundreds of years and often have a natural affinity for each other.
Consider how the flavors interact. Wine and food are both made of chemical compounds. When imbibed together, these chemicals react with each other, forming new tastes. Sweet notes in a dish will magnify bitterness and astringency in wine, making it seem drier and stronger. Highly acidic foods decrease the sour notes in wine and make it seem richer and more mellow. Bitter flavors in food increase the perception of bitter flavors in wine, while sourness and salt in food decrease it.
Consider using wine as a palate cleanser. Acidic wines remove the lingering fat compounds the foods leave behind. A sparkling wine before the meal or during the appetizer course prepares the taste buds for new flavors. A wine with acidic qualities served with a rich, heavy dish can make it taste fresher and brighter.