When it comes to food and wine pairings, there are those who carelessly match any dish with any libation and those who painstakingly try to balance the flavors of the food with the perfect wine. No matter where you land on the spectrum, there are some dishes that remain challenging (potluck, anyone?), so having knowledge of ways to properly pair wine with your food can truly intensify the enjoyment of eating. It doesn’t get much better than sea bass with Sauvignon Blanc, duck breast with Burgundy and a juicy steak with a classic Cabernet Sauvignon, so here are some pairing tips that promise to make your next dish sing:
How food and wine pairings work
Wine flavors are derived from specific components: sugar, acid, fruit, tannin and alcohol. Foods also have flavor components, such as fat, acid, salt, sugar and bitter. The most successful food and wine pairings feature complementary components, richness and textures.
You can try for either a similar pairing or a contrasting one. For pasta in a rich cream sauce, for example, you could cut through the creamy fat with a crisp, dry, un-oaked white wine. Or you could wrap the flavor of the wine around the richness of the sauce by choosing a big, ripe, soft chardonnay or roussanne/marsanne blend.
Of course you’ll need to brush up on white wine and red wine basics to understand the flavors of each grape. Armed with the knowledge of grape varieties, you can follow these food elements for a perfect match:
6 elements of food and wine pairing
There are a few elements that make both red wine and white wine pairings work, and they’re derived from characteristics of the food and how they mingle with those of the wine. These are: fat, acid, salt, sweetness, bitterness and texture.
A lot of our favorite foods, both meat and dairy products, have high levels of fat. Wine doesn’t contain fat, so when matching a wine with fatty foods, remember that it has to balance that fat with acid, cut it with tannin, or match its richness with alcohol.
This is why a prime cut of steak tastes so good with a cabernet-based wine; the beef’s protein and fat softens up the wine’s mouth-drying tannins. This sets up the tongue for the wine’s fruit and berries and forest flavors to complement the smoky, meaty flavors of the steak.
Acid is another key element in both food and wine. In wine, it adds nerve, freshness and lift. It can do the same with food, as when lemon is squeezed on a fresh piece of fish. When looking for a wine to go with an acidic dish, you should make sure that the perceived acidity of the wine is at least equal to that of the food, or the wine will taste bland and washed out.
Salads are often a challenge for wine matching, but you can make it work if you moderate the acid in the dressing by cutting back on the lemon juice or vinegar. Try using some tangy, bitter greens and offset them with herbal flavors from sauvignon blanc or semillon.
Salty foods seem to limit your wine choices. Salt can make an oaky chardonnay taste weird, strip the fruit right out of a red wine and turn high alcohol wines bitter. But with a bit of imagination, you can conjure up some remarkable combinations of salty foods and sweet wines. Bleu cheese and Sauternes is another one of the world’s classic food and wine combos.
Sparkling wines are a homerun with salty, fried foods. The carbonation and yeasty acids emulate beer and clean the salt from your palate, while adding more interesting textures and flavor nuances. Salt is also a principal flavor in briny seafood such as oysters. Acidic wines clean out the salt and balance the rich ocean flavors of the oyster.
Sweet desserts and other sugary foods seem easy—just pull out a sweet wine—but beware. Here’s where a rule really needs to be observed.
There are degrees of sweetness. Some recipes will have just a hint of sugar, such as a fruit sauce served over a pork loin. This light, fruity sweetness can be matched very well with rich white wines such as chardonnay. Higher alcohol tends to give an impression of sweetness, and balances the sugar in the sauce.
With desserts you must be certain that the wine tastes sweeter than the dessert; otherwise the dessert will strip the wine of its sweetness and render it bitter or tart. Though red wine and chocolate is a combination often promoted by the wine industry, you have to be very careful about it. Use a bitter, dark chocolate and a red wine with some sweetness, such as a late harvest zinfandel, and it can be quite wonderful. But a sweet chocolate dessert and a dry red? Terrible!
What about bitter flavors? In some cultures, bitter flavors are prized, but most of the time they are to be avoided. Anything more than just a hint is likely to be perceived as unpleasant. In wine, bitterness usually results from unripe grapes, or a failure to get the stems and pips (seeds) out of the fermenting tank, or mismanaged barrels. When bitterness in wine meets bitterness in food, it acts the opposite of sugar. One does not cancel out the other; they merely combine.
As for matching textures, think light and heavy. Light foods are best with light wines; heavy foods with heavy wines. That’s the safest way to go about it. A more adventurous path is to experiment with contrast: matching light foods to heavy wines and vice versa. This will require more testing, to keep the tension dynamic and avoid having the lighter flavors over-shadowed by the heavy ones.