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, rosĂ© 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 SĂ©millon.


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.

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