What grows together goes together. This expression is fundamental to choosing the right wine to pair with your food. It just makes sense: regional foods paired with the local regional varietals make delicious pairings because they have grown up together over the centuries! Beef Bourgogne with Pinot Noir, Sancerre with Loire Valley Goat Cheese, Barolo with Black Truffles Risotto, Malbec with Char-broiled Argentinian Steak, Chianti Classico with Tuscan Pork Ragu, Oregon Chardonnay with Wild Salmon.
While food pairing can be quite subjective, there are some basic guidelines that will enhance your culinary experience. Choosing the right wine to pair with your food elevates both the meal and wine to a different level. And, contrary to what many believe, you do not need to be a trained sommelier to make excellent choices.
Broadly speaking, wine is characterized by its levels of acid and tannin, sweetness, amount of wood or oak influence and it’s alcohol level. You can start with your food's dominant characteristics. Is it cooked or raw? Sweet or sour? Salty? Spicy? Creamy? Fatty? Charred or Caramelized? Though there is no "right" answer, there are some good starting points to help you decide the flavors that best fit your palate.
Some broad guidelines:
Acidity – acidic wines (think lemon or lime juice) can be stark on their own but are ideal for enhancing the flavor subtly in dishes; pair acidic wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Grüner Veltliner, Albarino and Soave with salads, shellfish, fried food and to cut the richness of a butter or creamed based dish.
Tannin – tannic wines have a mouth-drying or bitter effect (think of over-steeped tea) and are best married with food that is fatty and slightly bitter like grilled, charred or blackened meat and earthy bold vegetables; pair rich, full-bodied red wines like Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Rioja (Tempranillo), Malbec, Nero D’Avola and Aglianico with red meat and aged cheeses.
Sweetness – the sweetness in wine can vary from just off-dry (a little sweet) to semi-dry (medium sweet) to very sweet (dessert wines); off-dry and semi-dry wines offer incredible pairing possibilities – they can compliment food that is slightly sweet, contrast food that is salty or spicy, and soften foods that are tart; pairings like Rieslings, Chenin Blanc, and Sauternes
Oak – vintners use wooden barrels lend weight and character to their wines. The result can be integrated and nuanced to intense and pronounced based on the type of wood used to make the barrel as well as their size and the age.
Alcohol – wines that are high in alcohol like California Cabernet, Argentinian Malbec or Italian Amarone need food of similar weight or the dish will be overwhelmed by the wine – think gilled steaks, braised short ribs and rich stews. Stay away from spicy or salty foods because they amplify both the wine’s alcohol and tannin.
Hard, soft, fresh and aged, cheese comes as varied in style as wine. Generally speaking white wine and Champagne are easy go-tos when slecting a wine paring, but aged cheeses with developed bold and nutty flavors call for wine of equal body – Chianti with your Parmesan, Merlot with Gouda, Port with Stilton... a classic. When all else fails the “what grows together goes together” adage is a good guideline, but here are some quick tips to help guide you.
Pair soft, fresh spreadable cheeses with light-bodied white wine with crisp acidity – Sauvignon Blanc, Arneis, or Champagne.
Soft cheese like Brie or Neufchâtel can range in texture from light and firm to rich and buttery – they work nicely with a range of whites from crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to buttery Chardonnay.
Semi-soft cheese like Havarti, Fontina and Epoisses have enough body for light bodied red wines – Pinor Noir, Beaujolais and young Nebbiolo. Full-flavored medium-hard cheese like Emmental, Gouda, and Manchego develop strong flavors as the age and are great with Merlot, Tempranillo or even a dry sherry.
Semi-hard and hard cheese like a Parmesan or Pecorino are balanced by both red and white alike as long as the wine has a good acid structure.
Having blue cheese? It all depends on personal taste because blue cheese can be effectively paired with so many types of wine – Port, sweet Riesling, red or white Bordeaux, Madeira or Sauternes.
Lamb, steak and slow-cooked meat sauces require wines that counter balance their richness. Full-bodied wines with great tannin structure Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Syrah, or Rioja (Tempranillo) wines pair perfectly with red meat whether grilled, roasted or slow-cooked.
Dishes made with chicken, duck and pork pair beautifully with light-bodied red as well as full-bodied white wines – the dishes secondary ingredients that will determine whether you chose a white or a red wine.
Earthy ingredients like mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes and herbs call for a Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sangiovese or one of Italy’s many indigenous red varietals like Refusco, Ruche or Schioppettino while rich ingredients like cream, butter or cheese work beautiful with Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Viognier.
The idea that only white wine pairs with seafood is a happily a debunked myth! While white wine is often the right choice, light-bodied red wines are sometimes the perfect pairing when a dish includes stronger flavored components like vine-ripe tomatoes or earthy mushrooms. So, what wine to serve with your seafood - whether raw, grilled or sautéed - will be determined by 1) by how the dish is prepared and 2) by the secondary ingredients.
Sushi requires delicate wines that will not overwhelm the subtle nuances of the fresh fish; Civiche and Crudo, with accents of lemons, limes and pepper, require wines that will match the dish’s acidity. Briny Oysters and raw shellfish as well as dried fish like Baccala pair best with wines that have a touch of salinity or minerality - French Muscadet or Chablis, Italian Soave or Gavi, Spanish Albarino or Godello. If a butter or cream-based sauce defines the dish, then a white Bordeaux, Bourgogne Blanc or a lightly oaked Chardonnay from California or South Africa is the way to go. Caviar and smoked salmon….Champagne, of course.
When your fish is served along side bolder flavors or in a rich sauce, then wines that can enhance the secondary flavors and texture of the dish are in order. A Provencal rose or Spanish Garnacha with Cioppino or Bouillabaisse, a light-bodied Pinot Noir with Cod in tomato sauce, Beaujolais with grilled salmon. If the dish is a spicy, look to balance it with a touch of sweetness - Szechuan fish with Spätlese Riesling, Gambas a la plant with Fino Sherry.
The general rule for pairing a wine with a dessert is that the wine should be the sweeter than the dessert or the wine will come off as sour. Wines and desserts come in all levels of sweetness so the possibilities unlimited but below are some general guidelines to get you going.
Chocolate and wine may be two favorite indulgences, but they are very difficult to pair. In fact, rich red table wine is an absolute “no-no” because the tannins in the wine turn bitter against the sweetness of the chocolate. For chocolate, a sweet Vintage Ruby Port or a fortified sweet red wine from the Banyuls appellation in Southern France are two great choices.
Tart Citrus and tropical fruit desserts pair beautifully with botrytized wines and late-harvest wines like Sauternes or Eiswein, sweet sparklers like demi-sec Champagne or Moscato d’Asti and even a fortified wine like an Oloroso Sherry or Madeira, which both have a decided citrus profile.
Desserts with nuts and caramel are perfectly paired with a sweeter style sherry like an Orloroso or an Amontillados, tawny ports and even a sparkling or still passito wine – the Italian term for dessert wines that have been produced from dried grapes.
Apple, Pear, Peach and other tree-fruit desserts range in sweetness level and will work with Eiswein, sweet sparkling and, if caramel or honey are in the dessert, then a fortified wine like a sweet Sherry or Tawny Port are great choices.
Creamy desserts, like custard or mousse, may be the most versatile of all and pair with almost all styles of dessert wines …unless chocolate is a feature, then be sure to stick to Vintage Port!
Most people serve their whites too cold and their reds too warm. In order to truly appreciate the subtleties of a wine, serving temperature is important. Too warm and the alcohol overwhelms the other components of the wine. Too cold and the wine's best features are suppressed. Here are some guidelines that may be helpful. Everyone's palate is different, so there is no "best" way to serve a wine - only suggestions.
Champagne & Sparkling Wine: Chill 2 hours ahead of time or 20 minutes on ice. Served between 41-45°F.
Rosé: The lighter the color the cooler it should be served. Serve between 48-53° F.
White Wines: Chill 1.5 hours ahead of time or 20 minutes on ice. The richer the style the longer you may want to chill. Server between 50-55°F.
Red Wines: If too warm, reds appear tart and acidic. Serve between 60-65°F
Fortified Wines: Tawny ports and fino sherries are best enjoyed at 57-60°F, Madiera and Vintage ports at 66°F.