Wine and Food Pairing Basics
Wine and food pairing is not an exact science - if it were, the world’s sommeliers would be out of a job! The desire to elevate the overall meal experience by making the perfect match has driven gourmands around the globe to search for the keys to success, the recipes for an ideal match. For centuries, the wine chosen to accompany the family meal was a regional wine. Dishes and winemaking evolved together over time and from place to place, and the changes in styles of wine influenced the styles of food prepared - and vice versa! The result was pairings that seemed as intuitive as they did effortless. Then came modern modes of transportation, and the globalization of our cuisine. As we left the chapter of regional dining, having increased access to international dishes, the art of choosing the best wine to complement your meal became increasingly engaging. Suddenly a whole world of options was available to us.
When considering your food and wine pairing possibility, there are several important things to keep in mind. The first is that while there are several solid schools of thought on the subject, taste is subjective! One person’s perfect combination may be another’s absolute flop, and if you don’t like a style of wine you probably won’t like it even if it is paired with food in a way that’s supposedly ‘classic.’ Don’t be afraid to break the supposedly firm ‘rules’ of wine pairing; if no one did, how would new wine pairing possibilities be discovered? Keep an open mind when pairing and enjoy the process of finding the magic that wine and food can create together.
One thing that sommeliers and top chefs try to do when developing their wine programs and menus is to either complement or contrast the styles of dishes to the styles of wines. These are two main theories when considering wine pairing. For instance, one classic pairing is that of wild mushroom risotto with an earthy red, such as a Barbaresco or Barolo. The earthy, umami-driven flavors of the mushrooms combine with the similar characteristics of the wine to accentuate those aspects in both the wine and the dish; the result is that you notice these properties more in both, and can more easily appreciate them. Conversely, the higher-acidity of a crisp white wine such as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can cut the fattiness in a rich cream sauce, thusly keeping the palate interested and allowing the flavors to reveal themselves.
While your taste buds are yours and yours alone, there are certain things that are similar in all of us. Acid, sweetness, bitterness and alcohol are all part of the experience of wine, and they tend to affect most people in the same way. Well-balanced wines have a pleasing balance of these characteristics (though there is tannin only in red wine) as well as other components such as alcohol and sweetness. Generally, wines with this proper balance are the most food-friendly wines. The acidity in wine has the ability to heighten the flavors in food. The bitter component you pick up in wine is often a result of the tannins. Wines with prominent tannins soften with fatty foods such as meats and cheeses. The alcohol in wine is perceived as heat in the mouth. Wines high in alcohol will magnify the heat in spicy dishes. If you are planning to create an overall harmonious experience, make a wine selection that will complement your meal; it’s important that the wine not overwhelm the food, and vice versa.
Since so many of the classic dishes that we enjoy today were developed generations ago, looking to the region from which they originate for ideas on wine pairing is a natural choice. This is particularly easy when it comes to European wine pairing. For example, a Loire Valley Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé goes great with goat cheese (like a delectable crottin de Chavignol). Bordeaux is a natural pairing choice for lamb or paté, while a nice red Burgundy meshes perfectly with Boeuf Bourgignon or Coq au vin. Moving south to Italy, a Chianti Classico is a wonderful accompaniment to braised meats and savory sauces, and a Barolo or Barbaresco is a classic choice to have with mushroom and truffle risotto.
New World wines tend to be more upfront in their flavors, and so ideal food pairings tend to be bolder and richer as well. Napa Valley Cabernet and grilled steak is a phenomenal (and extremely satisfying), and a big, buttery Chardonnay becomes sublime when combined with crab cakes or almost anything in a cream sauce. If you want to break out of the box a little bit, toss lamb burgers on the grill and open a bottle of Washington State Syrah!
Keep in mind the dominant flavor of your dish. Here’s a sommelier’s secret: Look beyond the protein alone and take into account the preparation, sauces and accompaniments. When in doubt, pair to the sauce! A great example is roasted rosemary crusted pork roast and pulled-pork roast sandwiches. Each preparation would suggest a different wine. The sandwich would pair nicely with Four Vines Zinfandel while the roast begs for Guigal Cotes du Rhone.
No end exists to the journey of exploring food and wine. They interact on the palate in ways that are infinitely varied and equally infinitely fascinating. Dive in, have fun, and keep an open mind! Most importantly, remember: If it doesn’t taste good to you, it doesn’t matter how classic anyone tells you it is!
Recipes & Wine Pairings