How to Pair Wine & Food

The right wine can enhance a dish to perfection. While there are no hard rules on matching food and wine because it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste, there are basic guidelines on what wine connoisseurs and food lovers consider make good choices. A great food and wine pairing creates a balance between the components of a dish and the characteristics of a wine. As much as pairing food and wine is complex, the basics are simple to grasp. In this article, you’ll learn about how to make wine choices that will complement the flavors of a meal.

Paring is a funny thing, because every dish will have more than just one component. You might try to pair a wine with chicken… but it’s not JUST going to be chicken, is it? Of course not! It will have herbs or spices, a side dish of veggies, etc. There are many things to think about when pairing a dish, but in the end, you have to choose which part of the dish you want to emphasize and then match the wine to that element.


Basic Rules for Pairing Wine and Food

1. The wine should be more acidic than the food.

2. The wine should be sweeter than the food.

3. The wine should have the same flavor intensity as the food.

4. Red wines pair best with bold flavored meats (e.g. red meat).

5. White wines pair best with light-intensity meats (e.g. fish or chicken).

6. Bitter wines (e.g. red wines) are best balanced with fat.

7. It is better to match the wine with the sauce than with the meat.

8. More often than not, White, Sparkling and Rose wines create contrasting pairings.

9. More often than not, Red wines will create congruent pairings.


Consider the Characteristics to Find Balance

  • Similar pairing (balance by amplifying shared flavor compounds)
  • Contrasting pairing (balance by contrasting tastes and flavors).

FOOD: Is the food super light or super rich? A salad may seem lighter, but perhaps the dressing is balsamic vinaigrette with high acidity. If the intensity of the dish isn’t obvious at first, just focus on the power of each taste component (acidity, fat, sweet, etc).

WINE: Is the wine light or bold? Here are a few examples:
Sauvignon Blanc is light-bodied, but it has higher acidity
Chardonnay has more body, but it’s usually not too acidic
Pinot Noir is lighter bodied (for a red wine) and it doesn’t have too much tannin (bitterness).
Cabernet Sauvignon is more full-bodied and has high tannin (more bitterness)


How Food and Wine Pairings Work

Wine flavors are derived from specific components: sugar, acid, alcohol, tannin and water. Foods also have flavor components, such as fat, acid, salt, sweetness, bitterness and texture. The most successful food and wine pairings feature complementary components, richness and textures.

When deciding which wine to pair with your food, you first must figure out which characteristics of the wine and the food are important in creating the flavor. 

Components of Wine

A grape berry is, by weight, approximately 75% pulp, 20% skin, and 5% seeds. Pulp, the soft, juicy center of the grape consists mostly of water, then sugar, followed by a miniscule amount of acids, minerals, pectin, and vitamins. The skins are responsible for the wine’s aroma and flavor, as well as the color and tannin.
The components of wine provide clues about where the wine was grown and how it was made. They also affect qualities such as taste and mouthfeel.

ACID is the most important element in the pulp other than water and sugar. As a grape ripens its sugar content increases and its acid content decreases; the challenge is to harvest precisely when optimal balance is struck.

  • Acid balances alcohol and sweetness and sometimes adds a crisp, refreshing sensation
  • It may cause your mouth to pucker (like if you were biting into a lemon wedge)
  • Many wines undergo malolactic fermentation, which transforms hard, malic acid into softer lactic acid
  • Grapes grown in cooler regions tend to have higher levels of acidity

ALCOHOL is produced during fermentation when yeasts come in contact with the natural grape sugar in the grape pulp.

  • High-alcohol wines are full-bodied with a richer mouthfeel
  • Alcohol generally has a sweet flavor
  • A wine with high levels of alcohol sometimes gives-off a hot, burning sensation that you can smell and taste
  • High levels of alcohol indicate that the grapes were very ripe at harvest

SUGAR comes from ripe grapes (although some grape varieties naturally contain more sugar than others). It is mostly converted into alcohol during fermentation. Any remaining sugar is called “residual sugar” (called r.s. for short).

  • A wine with high levels of residual sugar generally tastes sweet, has a richer mouthfeel and fuller body
  • Grapes grown in warmer climates tend to get riper and contain more sugar
  • Wines with no apparent sweetness (or low levels of sugar) are referred to as “dry”

TANNIN belongs to a class of compounds called phenols and comes from grape skins and seeds; it is mostly found in red wines but can be found in some white wines.

  • Tannin is an important compound that plays a role in the aging of wine; therefore high-tannic red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo are those that can be aged longest
  • An easy way to understand the effect of tannin is to think of a cup of hot tea in which the tea bag has steeped for too long; the tea will have a very strong, harsh, almost bitter (tannic) flavor that can only be softened by the addition of milk. This same concept applies to wine, that is why cheese and wine is a classic pairing (the protein in cheese neutralizes or balances the tannins in wine)

WATER pressed from the grape’s pulp, constitutes the single largest element of wine.

  Red wines have more bitterness
  White, rosé and sparkling wines have more acidity
  Sweet wines have more sweetness

Components of Food and Wine Pairing

FATTY FOOD

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.

Meat and dairy products usually have high levels of fat, and if you wish to pair fatty foods with wine, you should search for one that can balance the fat with acid, with tannin, or match its richness with alcohol levels. The fat in the food will mellow out the harshness of the acidity or tannin, and allow you to taste the other flavors in the wine.

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.


ACIDIC FOOD

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.

It is somewhat difficult to pair acidic food with wine because oftentimes it can overpower the wine’s flavor. The level of acidity in the wine you pair with this food should be equal to or more than the food itself so that the wine can still stand on its own. Acidity can also hide tannin and bitterness in a wine and bring out sweetness, which can be great for those bold reds.

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 Sémillon.


SALTY FOOD

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.

Saltiness in a food will bring out sweetness, obscure tannin and elevate bitterness levels. Avoid high alcohol wines if you can because salty food will bring out its bitterness. Obviously, sweet wines with salty food will complement each other well, and sparkling wines can be a great way to clean the salt from your palate.


SWEETY FOOD

Dessert wines exist for a reason, but pairing sweet with sweet is a little more nuanced than you would think. Just like when you drink orange juice with sweet breakfast foods, the sweetness of your food disrupts the sweetness of the orange juice, and all you taste is tart and pulp.

The same thing goes for wine: if you are serving a dessert make sure that your wine is sweeter than your dish. The sweetness of each cancels the other out and you are left with tart or bitter-tasting wine.

If you are serving a savory dish with a sweet sauce, go for wines with higher levels of alcohol, as these can seem sweet and will balance the sweetness in the sauce.


BITTER FOOD

Bitterness in a food can mask acidity in a wine, hide tannins, and allow you to taste the sweetness. Avoid pairing bitter wines with bitter foods, as they do not cancel each other out.

If you pair a bitter wine with a bitter food, they bitterness will just compound and create more bitterness. While some people enjoy bitter tastes, I think most of us can agree that bitterness is our least favorite flavor.

There’s not much else to say here, just, seriously, don’t pair a bitter wine with a bitter food.


SPICY FOOD

We all have learned that horrible lesson when drinking spicy food to avoid carbonation and more acidity. At least, I know I did when I accidentally consumed a Chinese Red Pepper, panicked, and gulped down some ginger ale (it didn’t work out well, in case you were curious).

Therefore, if you’re cooking up a spicy dish, look to pair it with wine that is low in alcohol or something with a touch of sweetness (but not too much) to combat the fiery taste. White wines are usually best for spicy foods, but lighter reds can also be an option.

How to Taste Wine

Wine tasting does not have to be as complicated as people make it out to be as long as you understand the basic principles and learn what to look out for; every palate is different and therefore people’s perceptions of wine will vary.

Our wine tasting guide will teach you the most important steps on how to taste wine.

The first step is to break down the tasting process into two categories. The first part consists of the taster’s personal objective view – this includes how the wine appears to that person, what the colour is, how it smells on your nose and tastes on your palate. The second part uses the information gained from these personal views to help draw a conclusion. These can range from the price of the wine, its grape variety, food pairings and origin. The key is to understand what to actually look for and knowing this will help you differentiate the varying factors.

Steps of Wine Tasting

  • See the wine. Notice color and clarity.
  • Swirl the wine to aerate it and release aromas.
  • Smell the wine. Identify its aromas or bouquet.
  • Sip the wine allowing it to touch all parts of the tongue.
  • Swish the wine gently in your mouth. Focus on flavors and texture.
  • Swallow or Spit. Breathe in and out while considering additional flavors and finish.
  • Summarize your overall impression of the wine such as quality and value.

Understanding Your Nose

50% of taste comes from the smell, and a large amount of satisfaction can be gained from smelling a wine before you drink it. By swirling the wine before you taste, you release some of the aromas of the wine. These can be delicate and elegant, but also pungent and strong. It will help you get a basic understanding of the wine.


Your nose can help you learn the condition of the wine and what faults it may hold. A few examples of what to look out for are:

Reduction: The smell of rotten eggs or boiled cabbage can be associated with this wine production technique. Low levels of reduction are described as minerality or stony and offer more complex fruit flavour and character. High levels are quite unpleasant, leading to that stinky character.

Oxidation: The opposite of reduction, the wine will be a browner colour and offers aromas of toffee, caramel and honey. The fault would be high levels of dissolved oxygen and this reduces the amount of fruit flavour.

TCA (Trichloroanisole): A taint that is reminiscent of damp cardboard and can reduce levels of fruit flavour and freshness. Low levels are difficult to detect but high levels usually means the wine has either been tainted by the cork or due a problem in the winery.

In terms of detecting aromas, we break it down into three different sub-categories:

Primary: These are your dominant fruity and floral aromas and the ones that mainly help you to distinguish one grape from another.

Secondary: These aromas are your background flavours and do not come from the grape but rather the production process. Oak is a prominent secondary flavour and depending on the type of oak used aromas include coconut, vanilla, tobacco, leather and cedar. If the wine has gone through malolactic fermentation we gain nutty and buttery flavours, and if the wine has been developed through lees contact (dead yeast cells) then flavours of yeast, cream and biscuit are pronounced.

Tertiary: These aromas come from the ageing process of the wine. If the wine has been oxidised for a long time in oak barrels then aromas of coffee, toffee and chocolate will be prominent, along with the secondary aromas from the oak itself such as coconut. If the ageing process is a reductive one (protected from oxygen, usually in the bottle) then more earthy flavours such as mushroom and vegetables come to the fore.

Understanding Your Palate

Whilst actual flavour is detected on the palate, it is the wines sugar, tannin and acid components that are perhaps the most crucial aspects to consider when tasting a wine. It is these that affect food pairings and the style of the wine itself.


Sweetness: It is the sugar level that determines the sweetness of the wine, the residual sugar left after fermentation, however alcohol and fruit flavours can also increase the perception of sweetness, the same way acidity can mask it. It can also affect body and texture. A dry wine that has a slight detectable amount of sweetness is classed as ‘off-dry’. This is the case for many Alsace and German Rieslings. Medium-dry to medium-sweet are wines that have a distinct presence of sugar but are not classed as dessert wines. The difference between medium-dry and medium-sweet is that the former are the wines where the acid masks the sweetness, for example in many Vouvray demi-secs, and the latter includes wines where the sweetness is more pronounced such as German Riesling Kabinett. We then come to the dessert wines and find stars such as Sauternes and Tokaji which are generally much more luscious in body and texture.

Acidity: This is where the freshness of the wine comes from. Acids in the wine are generally malic and tartaric or lactic; however other odourless acids can be added at the winery to give that sharpness. It is what gives the tongue that tingling sensation and causes your mouth to water. The longer your mouth waters, the stronger the acid in the wine. Going back to the idea that acidity can mask sweetness, it is the same the other way around, so to test that acidity level even in sweet wines, look for your mouth to water. All wines are acidic; however white wines always have higher levels than red or rose.

Tannin: These are the lip-smacking flavours that occur from the compounds in the skins of red grapes and a few white grapes along with wines that have been oaked and from the stems and seeds of the grape. They cause dry-mouth and have a bitter flavour that occurs towards the back of the tongue. This contributes to the texture and complexity of the wine. Generally, tannins are most apparent in red wine. A bitter white wine flavour can come through if it has been heavily oaked. However a robust Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz are the ideal grapes to taste these flavours.

Body: This is the general feel of the wine in the mouth, the overall impression. A good general rule to follow is that the higher the alcohol content, the higher the tannin level and the more intense the flavour the fuller the wine will be, and vice-versa.

Finish: The finish is the sensation after you swallow or spit out the wine. This is a good indicator for quality as the longer the desirable impression lasts, the higher in quality the wine tends to be. For a wine to have a ‘short’ finish, the flavours will often dissipate within a few seconds. This is associated with the lower end of the scale for scale. For your higher end, the finish should be ‘long’ and leave a desirable aftertaste for a minute or so.

Drawing Your Conclusion

Balance: It is so important to consider the balance of the wine when analysing its quality. The balance between fruit and sugar must be in accordance with acidity and tannin levels. Too much fruit or sugar and the wine will seem too thin, too much acidity or tannin will leave the wine a little unstructured. Each component has to harmonise together otherwise it will be of poor quality. This rings true for your primary, secondary and tertiary flavours as well.

Length: The longer the desirable aftertaste, the better the wine.

Concentration: The more concentrated the flavour does not necessarily mean a high quality wine because you have to think of the balance. Of course, wines that are weak and seem diluted are not quality products but each component has to fit into the overall balance of the wine. However, generally, the concentration of flavours and structure are usually indicative of a quality wine.

What to Expect from a Wine Tour

There is something special about drinking wine at the place it was made. Exploring the vineyards and cellars while observing the wine making process from the winemakers themselves, will make you truly appreciate all the elements that have gone into the wine you are tasting. 

What exactly is a “wine tour”? What should you expect from this experience beyond the usual wine tasting? How can you make the most of it?

A wine tour is primarily an immersive stay, educational in its own way, set in a circumscribed geographical area or region which focuses on the discovery of wines and wineries of the very same area. During a wine tour you can expect a visit to one or more wineries, particular wine districts or a wine region. The duration of the wine tour can vary according to the personal taste and the area in which the tour is focused. You can either take a one-day or a multi-day wine tour. The organization may be delegated to a tour operator, or you can deal with it yourself by booking online visits to the wine cellars you find most suitable. What we recommend is that you go with someone who has already done the homework for you and has a tried and tested plan for giving you the best wine experience. In this case that will be the wine tour operator. The major benefit is that will safe you time dealing with reservations, transportation and logistics, and most of all, it will let you fully enjoy tasting and drinking without thinking about driving.

The stages of the wine tour

The journey usually begins in the vineyards with a cultural and historical introduction of the particular region, district and winery. The stroll in the vineyards will give you a closer look at the plant, the type of terrain and soil and the types of farming and different pruning techniques, with information provided about each grape variety. The connection with the land is always central, just as it is in the identity and character of the wine produced.

The tour continues inside the cellars where you will observe the stainless steel tanks in which the transformation process of wine takes place and get a thorough explanation of the wine making and aging process. You will go along the various rooms where this process is carried out, from fermentation to bottling, to the areas in which the wine is stored. Naturally the visit to the cellars changes depending on the time of year. During the harvest season, in September/October, the staff will be busy in the harvest and you can see “live” the magical moment that is our yearly ritual. In the following months, the focus is more on the production process.

The tour ends in the barrel room, which is entirely underground and where the wines are aged. In some wineries the wine tasting in done inside the barrel room or among the vineyards itself, while most of the wineries practice to do the wine tasting in their winery restaurants.

The wine tasting

The wine tasting is one of the highlights and is the true ‘closing of the circle’. Now you have come to know the land, the region, the history of those wines and who produced them, you’ve discovered how they are produced and stored, and now is the time when all these stories acquire a sense and a meaning: the tasting. We can say this is a key moment. The wine tasted directly from the winery has a special flavor. The territory, its perfumes, the history of wine is all around you. Of course, very often, you can enjoy food pairings with equally typical products.

The tasting signals the end of the tour – an experience that we recommend in every part of the wine-producing world. Because in the end, where there is wine there is always a story to tell. With the wine tour you not only discover the story, but in a certain way can live it directly. And it really is worth it.