Winemakers get very little help when it comes to food and wine pairing, but rest assured that it isn’t as complicated as some ‘experts’ make it sound. In fact, the few rules are really just guidelines for getting the most from your meal and your wine.
The most useful thing you can do is to match your cellar to your needs. A cellar should hold a variety of wines, ready to drink, for different meals, and for different seasons. In summer, most people want lighter fare on their table, and the heat makes us crave cool, refreshing beverages. In the winter, hearty, richly flavoured meals chase off the chill, as do robust, hearty wines. So you may prefer a light, refreshment-type wine (Island Mist) in August, while a good Port is a definite must for a snowy winter. For every season, there is a cuisine, and for every cuisine, there is a wine.
But remember that every wine you want to drink is an appropriate wine. Any suggestions here are only meant to help you get the most out of your wine-drinking lifestyle. If anyone tries to intimidate you about your wine choices, or insists that there is only one wine for any given occasion or food pairing, ignore them. The best wine is always the one that you like, not the one someone tried to intimidated you into drinking.
Wine-Food Basics: Intensity of Flavour
The whole idea behind matching a particular wine to a certain food is to try and achieve synergy from the interaction of flavours. In a way, wine is like a super-condiment, not just tasting great by itself, but helping food to taste better as well.
What you want is to get the most out of each part of the meal. If you served an Old Vines Zinfandel with Mac ‘n’ cheese, it would completely overwhelm the relatively innocuous flavour of the pasta and cheddar. Similarly, if you serve a delicate Riesling with Carolina Barbecue, the intensely smoky barbecue would show up the Riesling, making it taste weak and thin. The idea is to try to match the intensity of the food you’re eating with the power of your wine.
At the high end for white wine you find Chardonnay in its many guises, and Sauvignon Blanc. For reds, it’s the big Italians (Barolo, Amarone-style), Cabernet and Bordeaux variants, Chateau Neuf du Pape styles, Zinfandel and Shiraz. These will usually stand up to the most flavourful and intense foods.
In the vast middle ground of medium-intense wines, whites include Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay blends, and some of the lighter ‘Fumé’-style Sauvignon Blanc. Medium reds include Rhone-styles, Chianti, Graves-style, Rioja, Merlot and Valpolicella.
Light whites include Pinot Gris (or Grigio) dry Riesling, Muscadet, Soave, Verdicchio and California Chablis-style. Light reds go from blush wines, to Beaujolais, to Pinot Noir, and California Burgundy.
As a good rule of thumb, light food (i.e., a poached, skinless chicken breast and steamed carrots) is best served with a light wine (in this case, perhaps a nice Italian Soave). That way, the delicate flavour of the food won’t get pushed around. Heavy food (i.e., a big slab of prime rib with garlic mashed potatoes and mushrooms) won’t overpower a big, flavourful Cabernet or Zinfandel. You’ll have to decide yourself where your cut-off for light or heavy is, but keeping it in mind will help you pick an appropriate wine.
The list of suggestions below isn’t by any means complete, nor does it take into account Winexpert’s house winemaking style (most wines are designed to be drank by the time they are six months old). However, it should provide a good, basic starting point.
Wine-Food Matching: Acid and Sweetness
Acid has a negative connotation in daily life, as does ‘sour’. Yet while there’s nothing wrong with sweet, sour is under-rated. It heightens flavours, and ‘lengthens’ their effect on the palate. This isn’t just a perception: the ions that the acid unleashes on the palate open up the tastebuds and add to flavour intensity. (Thus, for example, apple pie needs a bit of lemon juice.)
Acid in wine does a couple of things: it can either highlight or cut through sweetness, and it can help cleanse the palate of strongly flavoured dishes, readying you for another sip. It also helps the wine stand up to other acidic flavours. A really flinty-dry Sauvignon Blanc will taste wonderful with a seafood dish laced with fresh limejuice, where a soft off dry Riesling would taste flabby and weak.
This also works backwards. If you’re serving a fresh juicy peach with a flinty-dry Sauvignon Blanc, the wine will probably taste about the same as licking a battery terminal on your car. On the other hand, a delicate, off-dry Riesling (like a Piesporter style) will highlight the sweetness of the fruit, and seem perfectly balanced.
Wine and Food Matching: Fruit and Structure
Red wines are usually dry (free of residual sugar), and any perception of sweetness that they carry comes from the fruit character of the grape or wine style. So Shiraz is usually bursting with jammy fruit character, while French Cabernet or Montepulciano are less fruity, more austere and structured. For the purposes of food matching, think of structure in a wine like the structure of a song: is it light, airy and gently melodic? Is it heavy and dark, and intensely moving? Wines described as having ‘structured flavour’ tend to have less fruit, and more alcohol, tannin and acid. Really fruity reds work well with sweeter and more intensely flavoured sauces, such as barbecue sauce or cherry demi-glace, while less fruity, more structured wines work better on simpler dishes, such as pan-fried steak, or pork chops.
Also, really fruity wines tend to hold their own against salt. This is why overwhelmingly fruity wines such as Sauterne or Icewine taste great with Roquefort cheese or barbecued almonds, while an austere Alsatian Pinot Blanc (very dry indeed!) would be less satisfactory.
A quick word on wine and cheese: while the phrase seems to be lodged in the collective consciousness of wine consumers, the two don’t actually go well together in many cases, especially with dry white wines and most reds. Cheese is an earthy-flavoured, savoury, high-fat, calorie-dense food, and finding a wine that enhances it is a challenge. Still, your taste may vary, and cheese and wine might be your favourite. To each their own.
A Thumbnail List
All of the above information may be correct, but to be useful, we need a quick way of determining which wine will go with the foods we’ve chosen, and vice-versa. The best way to develop a guideline is based on flavour intensity. But remember, even though the list below will work in most cases, what you yourself prefer to drink is the ultimate arbiter.
First of all, as a thumbnail guideline, you’ve got a lot of leeway for matching your foods and wines. Think of the matching challenge as a playground, not a prison, and have some fun with it.
Secondly, there is a lot of overlap between different wines and different palates. Many think that really crisp dry Sauvignon Blanc is a terrific match with Szechwan cooking, while someone else might favour off-dry, spicy Gewürztraminer; there’s always another wine that might work equally well with different foods.
This is by no means a complete course on food and wine matching. For more information, you may try any of the books listed below, or try the wine and food section of your local bookseller:
- Wine With Food, Joanna Simon
- Fine Wine in Food, Patricia Ballard
- Pairing Wine with Food, Robert and Virginia Hoffman