Wine and food pairing doesn’t have to be a mystery.
It requires a common-sense approach and a little knowledge. Today, I’m breaking down how to successfully pair wine and food when entertaining so that you can create an experience your guests (or clients!) will remember.
1. Match the quality of the wine with the quality of the food.
When pairing wine and food, you must always take into account the quality of the wine and the quality of your dish. A complex dish made for special occasions deserves a complex and special wine. On the other hand; simple, everyday dishes match best with simple and easy to drink wines. Putting a simple wine with a special dish would be as unsuccessful as squeezing ketchup on to a filet mignon.
You should always attempt to match the relative quality of your wine to the quality of your dish. If you are going all out on a meal, with the highest quality ingredients turned into a dish possessing intensity and complexity; you owe it to yourself to find a wine that also fits the bill. If your food comes out of a box, well then, your wine probably should too.
- Match special occasion dishes with special occasion wines.
- Match everyday dishes with everyday wines.
2. Match power and weight.
Imagine you are at the dinner table and served a dish of delicately seasoned scallops; along with a peppercorn encrusted, smoked venison chop. As you begin to eat, you take a bite of the scallop, a bite of the chop. A bite of the scallop, a bite of the chop—What will the outcome be? Very quickly, you will no longer taste the scallop.
The same thing will happen if you pair a wine to a dish with the same inequality in power. If you pair a Cabernet Sauvignon with those scallops, all you would taste would be the power of the wine. If you pair a soft Riesling with the smoked venison chop, all you get is the smoky meat.
Always take the relative power and weight of a wine and dish into account when making a pairing. The whole point of food and wine pairing is to make both the food and the wine taste better. If you cannot taste one or the other, then you are defeating the purpose.
- Match heavy dishes with heavy wines, robust dishes with robust wines.
- Match light dishes with light wines, delicate dishes with delicate wines.
3. Look into the mirror.
One of the easiest ways to make a wine and food seem like they have a natural affinity for one another is to use mirroring when you pair. Mirroring involves pairing two similar characteristics together to bring out that shared characteristic.
If you have a peppery dish and want to emphasize the spicy pepper flavors, then pick a wine that has peppery characteristics like a Zinfandel. If you have an earthy, mushroom dish; and want to bring out that essence, pick an earthy wine like a Red Burgundy. It is no mistake that a rich, buttery California Chardonnay has a natural affinity for lobster, which is also rich and buttery.
One of the easiest ways to guarantee mirroring in a pairing is to use the wine you are serving as an ingredient in the food as well. It makes pairings seem like they are meant to be together.
- Mirror flavors and characteristics that a dish and a wine have in common.
4. Use a high acid content wine to overcome the strong flavor of fats in food.
While fat is what gives a piece of meat a lot of its flavor, it gets in the way of flavor when eating. Practically every dish has a certain amount of fat in it, and when pairing wine, you should always take that fat into consideration.
There are two ways to neutralize fat in a dish. Use a wine that has a high tannin content, a high acid content, or both.
Lighter dishes with high levels of fat such as salmon, poultry, cream sauces, and pork; are best paired with wines high in acidity. Think Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. The acid in these wines will act like a knife that cuts through the fattiness in a dish, revealing more of its flavor. At the same time, the fat in the dish neutralizes much of the acidity in the wine, “dulling” the knife and making the wine less tart.
For heavier dishes with high levels of fat, we need heavier wines; and typically, the heavier the wine, the lower the acidity. Therefore, we need a different way to contrast fat.
These types of dishes are best paired to wines high in tannins; such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. The tannins in the wine act like a brick wall that stands up to fat. As tannins settle on the surface of the tongue, they physically block fat. While this is occurring, the fat also helps to lessen the presence of the tannins, so the wine will soften.
- Use wines with higher acidity and more levels of tannins to contrast fat in a dish.
5. Understand how flavors work together.
Our sense of taste is a very interesting thing, indeed. Flavors on the palate change the perceptions of flavors that follow them in a dramatic fashion and can make or break a food and wine pairing.
One experience with the way flavors work together that everyone can understand is what happens when you brush your teeth and then make the mistake of drinking orange juice. Yuck! The sweetness of the toothpaste actually changes the perception of how we taste the orange juice, effectively stripping it of any sweetness.
By understanding how flavors work together, you can feel confident choosing certain wines for certain foods.
In its simplest terms, salty and sour flavors bring out the positive characteristics and flavors of a food or wine. Bitter, sweet, and savory flavors bring out the negative characteristics and flavors. Chefs understand this, and it explains why almost all sauces are either salty or sour. We season with salt and squeeze lemon on a vast assortment of different foods. There is a reason that they serve salty cheeses at a wine tasting — they are trying to sell wine!
Use these changes in perception to your advantage. To make wines taste better, pair them with foods that have salty or sour flavors. To make foods better, wines that are high in acidity and sour flavors work best.
- Salty and sour flavors bring out the positive characteristics of flavor.
- Sweet, bitter and savory flavors bring out the negative characteristics of flavor.
6. Think locally
Wine has been around for thousands of years; and throughout most of its history, people were not as mobile as they are today. If you were born in Tuscany a hundred years ago, then most likely you would live your life in Tuscany, and die in Tuscany. You lived your entire life eating the foods of Tuscany and drinking the wines of Tuscany.
Common sense dictates that the wines and foods of a region pair together well. Just because we live in a time when you can jump on a computer, book a ticket to Paris, and be in Europe tomorrow; does not mean that we should forget about the roots of wine and food. If you are serving a regional dish, pair it with a wine from that region. They were both made to go together.
- Pair regional wines with regional dishes
7. See the whole picture of the meal–not just the main course.
How many times have you heard, “pair Pinot Noir with duck or Cabernet Sauvignon with lamb?” While for the most part, these can be good suggestions; a good wine pairing takes into account more than just the meat or protein served in a dish.
How many different ways can duck be prepared? How many recipes could you find for lamb? When pairing food and wine together, you need to see the big picture.
Pair the wine not only to the protein, but also the sauce, vegetables, and starch in a dish. By taking the entire dish into account, you will be selecting a wine that will pair much more successfully with the whole plate.
- Take all components of a dish into account (meat, sauce, etc.) when selecting a wine.
8. Be successful pairing food and wine with a spicy dish.
It can be tricky to select a wine to go with a spicy dish. This is because spiciness in a dish is not something we taste, it is something we feel. A jalapeno pepper is hot because it physically irritates the surface of the tongue.
When pairing wines with spicy dishes, you always need to take this into account. Your best bet with spicy foods is pairing them with a slightly sweet wine. The sweetness in the wine will tame the heat of the dish and bring out more of its flavor.
Wines to avoid with spicy dishes are those wines that also irritate the surface of the tongue. Tannins are a component of red wines which irritate the soft tissues in the mouth causing a sense of “dryness” on the palate. By adding this irritation to the irritation caused by spicy foods, it will actually make the food hotter and the wine more tannic. Stay away from the atomic hot wings and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon!
- Spicy foods pair best with slightly sweet wines.
- Spicy foods are a bad match for high tannin wines.
9. Make sure the wine you pair with dessert is sweeter than the dessert.
Thinking back to our earlier conversation about toothpaste and orange juice, you need to be careful when pairing wines with desserts. The simple rule of thumb is to always make sure that the wine you are serving with a dessert should always be sweeter than the dessert itself.
Most sweet wines have a very intense level of acidity to them to balance out their sweetness. If that sweetness is stripped away from the wine, all that will show is that stark, raw acidity.
By ensuring that your dessert wine is sweeter than your dessert, the wine will retain its natural sweetness and complement, rather than turn into battery acid.
- Dessert wines should always be sweeter than the dessert they are served with.
10. Rules were made to be broken–even in food and wine pairings!
The best thing about pairing wine and food is that it is always an interesting experiment in matching things together. Sometimes it works so well that you will remember the match and speak of its greatness forever. Other times, you end up with a decent match, but nothing special.
Realize that there are no perfect food and wine pairings out there.
Everyone tastes things differently, and not everyone likes the same combinations. Have fun with pairing, be willing to break any of the rules, and most importantly, drink what you like. The truth about pairing wine and food is that most wines go with most foods. In reality, it is easy to match them together.
Be willing to experiment, try new things, and turn defeat into victory.
Until next time. Cheers,