Even for a Sommelier, wine and food pairing is very subjective, but for many people, a perfect match between the wine and the dish being served is of utmost importance. Chefs being the artists that they are continue to push our taste buds to new sensations, broadening our culinary horizons, and inspiring the need to discover wines to complement their latest creations. Hopefully this guide can help.
Since it is much more art than science, we understand that we may seem imprudent to try to establish rules for pairing. However, what follows are some concepts and ideas which may help you choose the right wine to serve with your meal. Bear in mind these are mere suggestions and not hard and fast rules that can neither be bent nor broken. Even though we admit the fact that the best judge for pairing is our own palate, we cannot agree with the idea that any wine goes with any food. We have a motive for not putting vinegar in our breakfast cereal.
To start, we will focus on the simplest principle regarding a wine or a dish: the taste (or tastes) we find in them.
There are rudiments that give personality and characteristics to a wine. Basically, the tastes we find are sweet, sour (or tart), bitter (or astringent) and umami, which is the seasoned touch of the glutamate. The salty taste, which is also a component of flavor, is much more noticeable in the food than in the wine. Among the elements we find in the wine (sugar, alcohol, tannins and acid), sugar is obviously perceived as sweetness and (most of the time) alcohol is also perceived in the same way. However, a high level of alcohol may make the wine taste bitter. Alcohol also gives us a sense of texture in the mouth. Some wines may seem viscous due to a high level of alcohol. Acidity is perceived as sourness and tannins as bitterness. Perhaps the most important thing to remember when pairing wine with food can be described in one single word: balance. Hopefully, some of our suggestions will help to achieve this state of “balance” as one discovers what has worked for others in the past. Great wines have it, and so should great pairings. It happens when both the wine and the food are enhanced by each other, rather than when you have them individually.
Tips that will enhance the wine experience:
It is not enough to have chosen the right wine for the food pairing; we must consider the correct serving temperature as well. The selection of the right glass(es) to match the occasion can set the stage for the food presentation. Great wines were once served in pewter mugs and glass tumblers and depending on the occasion, they still are! However, today’s glass makers provide an array that beautify the table and enhance the taste of a wine. If you will be serving different wines during the course of a meal, a good plan is to start with lighter wines (meaning in flavor and in alcohol content) before you serve full-bodied ones. We are not saying that you will spoil your evening if you serve red wine in a glass for white wine, or that you will embarrass yourself if the temperature of the wine is not the most appropriate, or that it will be catastrophic if you mix up the order of the wines being served. What we want you to know is that if all these details are observed, you will surely be able to tell the difference.
It is not enough to have an excellent wine and a well elaborated dish if the flavors do not match. The individual taste should be considered and simple suggestions can be put into practice in order to simplify the combination. A good basic suggestion is to associate equivalent flavors and textures that are present both in the wine and the food. You should also try to pair strong flavored food with full-bodied wines, as well as light-bodied wines with more delicate dishes. This association generally brings good results. But with practice or the advice of a Sommelier, pairing opposites can create astonishing effects in your palate. Matching the geographic location of the wine and the food works wonderfully well. The reason for this is simple. These combinations between the local food and the correspondent local wine have been proven successful over the years, and that also includes cheeses. Another important thing to be considered is to associate the best with the best. A simple hot dog does not call for an expensive wine.
When dealing with meats, lamb is one of the most flexible for pairing with wine. Heavy dishes such as roasted, braised, or grilled meat and game require full-bodied wines. Red meat pairs with acidic wines, and a succulent rare steak gets even better when enjoyed with a tannic wine. Light dishes such as poultry and fish fair well with a light-bodied wine (red or white). However, be careful when choosing a fish: a common rule of thumb is to avoid it if you are having red wine; the exception to this rule would be some light-bodied reds with low acidity. Smoked meats pair well with opulent wines that are aged in oak; the stronger the smoked taste in the meat, the stronger the taste of oak in the wine can be.
Remember that the main flavor of the food is typically the sauce with which the dish is prepared. Always keep this in mind before choosing a wine. Full-bodied wines go well with rich sauces, while the opposite also holds true.
The food can alter the taste of the wine in many ways. For example, try to pair wines with high acidity with sour dishes. When the food has sour elements, it lessens the acidity present in the wine. A citrusy tasting wine begs for dishes prepared with lemon (like a pan-seared sole). Along the same line of thought, an earthy wine calls for an earthy dish (such as pasta with mushrooms). Also, a salty dish can make tannic wines taste bitterer than they do by themselves.
The all encompassing wines, sparkling wines, are good on their own, but dry sparkling wines also pair well with the main course of a meal because they cleanse your palate with their energizing sharpness. Wines with high acidity (sparkling or not) pair well with fried, rich and fat dishes; and they work perfectly with spicy dishes too.
Salty foods, like olives or salty nuts, benefit from wines with low acidity. However, the salt in the food (as well as sourness) will reduce the astringent and tannic personality of some wines. That’s why a number of European wines are called “food wines”; they are not “great” by themselves. Interesting enough, salty foods also improve with a touch of sweetness from the wine, but beware that they can make sweet wines taste even sweeter. On the other hand, sweet food increases the perception of bitterness and therefore, requires a wine of similar or superior sweetness. That’s why sweet wines are the best pairing for desserts. Nevertheless, with all of that being said, consider that people have different thresholds for sweetness (as well for saltiness, acidity, bitterness, etc.). If a wine is too sweet for someone, it may well be just fine for somebody else.
The secrets of pairing are not only for wine connoisseurs. As you can see, there are many simple rules that can turn a simple dinner into a pleasant experience. Enjoy!