The variety of wine styles makes it possible to find the perfect pairing for almost any dish. But the huge selection creates confusion: what’s best to pair with what? Let’s look at the basic rules that will help you find the perfect balance and avoid common mistakes.
It is difficult to spoil a dish with wine, but food, in many cases, can easily “kill” the wine, making it harsh, colorless or stinging with alcohol. Despite all the principles of combinations that will be described below, it is worth warning that they are not the truth in the last resort. When combining food and wine, it is worth taking into account the individual tastes of different people. Personal preferences, dislike of certain flavors or hypersensitivity to a certain component play an important role in the selection of gastronomic pairings. What seems to be a great combination to one person, another may not like at all.
General concepts of combinations
There are two components in food that improve our perception of wine and are generally gastronomic friendly for dinner and lunch – salt and acidity. With salty food, dry wines seem softer, more tangy, more fruity, and less acidic. Example: salty salmon and rosé cat de provence, goat cheese and white sancerre.
The acidity of the food also plays great along with the wine, the main rule here is that the wine should be more acidic than the food. Example: fish with lemon juice and sauvignon blanc.
In contrast to the two friendly factors, there are those that make it difficult to choose wine. One of them is sugar. Combined with sweet food, dry wines will seem pungent, sour and bitter. What’s more, the sensation of alcohol in your mouth will be heightened. Here’s the secret to why you don’t like wine when you’re topping it off with cake. Desserts should be accompanied by sweet wines, sweeter than the dish itself. Example: amarone and chocolate fondant, tarte tatin and sauternes.
Umami, the fifth flavor that is released in high-protein foods, is also potentially dangerous for wine. Unlike sugar, which we clearly feel in food, umami is secretive, quite difficult to isolate or describe at times. Usually, the sensation of umami is given by monosodium glutamate, a flavoring agent. We can also sense umami in mushrooms, eggs, asparagus and other protein-rich foods. To accompany these foods, it is better to match them with low-bright red wines with low tannins or light whites. Example: asparagus with hollandaise sauce and sylvaner.
Another thing is that you can enhance the gastronomic richness of umami dishes with the same salt. In this case, red meat, seafood or Parmesan become more versatile for wine.
Bitter and spicy foods, unfortunately, are also at risk. Bitterness in food increases the sensation of tannins in wine, and chili makes wine harsh, unpleasant and provokes a burning sensation from alcohol. With spicy food, it’s best to take wines with low alcohol and bright flavors. The classic combination with Asian spicy food is German Riesling with residual sugar or Gewürztraminer.
11 principles of wine and food pairings
Now let’s look at the specific rules that will help you choose the right harmonious wine pairing for any occasion.
Simple with simple, complex with complex
Of course, drinking a barolo with a sandwich seems special chic, something unusual and rebellious. But if we’re going the traditional way, simple, inexpensive wines work best with simple dishes. For example, a burger with a beef patty might go with a Malbec from Caora or an Australian Shiraz, or a light pinot grigio or verdejo to a margarita pizza.
For intricate dishes close to haute cuisine, choose a more refined wine. White or black truffles definitely require an elegant Pinot Noir from Burgundy or Piedmont Nebbiolo, lobster requires a creamy pouilly-fuissé or Puligny-Montrachet, and quail with berry sauce requires a structured and noble Syrah from Côte-Rôtie or Saint-Joseph.
The principle of “mirror” and contrast
One of the principles states that food and wine should be equally bright and rich so that no one pulls the blanket over themselves, but rather everyone is in perfect harmony. Say, a medium- or full-bodied red Bordeaux pairs well with lamb – both have a rich, bright flavor and dense structure. And scallops in a creamy sauce with an oak-aged chardonnay, as both the dish and the wine have a creamy texture.
On the other hand, many pairings are built just on contrast, say a curry and a light floral pinot blanc from Rheingau.
A classic pairing with Asian spicy dishes is German Riesling with residual sugar or Gewürztraminer.
Similar aromas and flavors
Choose wines close in flavor and aroma to the food. For example, fish with lemon is best suited to white acidic wines where citrus flavors are always predominant – albarigno, sauvignon blanc or vermentino. And match the mushrooms with nebbiolo or pinot noir, which develop flavors of undergrowth, earth and truffle over the years.
One fundamental combination, muscadet and oysters, are united by their light texture and mineral character. Combine wines aged in barrel or from special terroirs that give the wines smoky tones with smoked dishes. For example, pouilly-fumé will be in harmony with smoked white fish.
Fat with acidity and tannin
This combination excites many people. Wines with high acidity – sauvignon blanc, albariño, riesling, gruyner veltliner – perfectly refresh the receptors, thus creating the right balance. Such wines help with fats, saturated sauces and oiliness, they are like cutting through them with a sharp knife. Albarinho and fatty white fish, ribeye and malbec from Argentina are good choices.
Why is it that when you come to Tuscany, it seems that there is no better pairing than Florentine steak and chianti? It’s all about the local aspect. As a rule, dishes and wines united by the same terroir have similar nuances and therefore perfectly match each other. So don’t be afraid to discover unfamiliar flavors and combinations in a new region.
Examples of territorial harmony include goat cheese salad and white sancerre in the Loire, sauternes and foie gras in Bordeaux, dumplings and white côtes du rhone in the Rhone Valley.
Wine to sauce and garnish
Sometimes we only consider the main ingredient and completely forget about its accompaniment. When it comes to wine pairings, it is a gross and unforgivable mistake. After all, one of the main rules says that it is the sauce that rules the ball. If the turkey is paired with a cream sauce or pear, it needs a white wine with oak aging, say a white Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
But the same turkey with berry sauce already looks better with a red Chateauneuf. The same principle should be followed with pasta. Sangiovese or red Rioja is perfect with tomato sauce, verdigio or Lugana with pesto.
Dependence on “frying.”
The same product can come in different variations: raw, grilled, baked, etc. And depending on that, completely different styles of wine will go with it. Take beef, for example. A rosé from Navarra works well with tartare, a merlot from the Right Bank of Bordeaux or California works well with steak, and a bresaola (cured beef) works well with a Beaujolais Cru, Fleurie, or Morgon.
Sweet and salty
Another example of a harmonious pairing in contrast. With salty food, a wine off dry will seem less sweet and the food more full-bodied. The most telling example is port or soternes and blue mold cheese.
Red is not just for meat
Now let’s talk about a few combination myths. “Red to meat, white to fish” certainly works 90% of the time. But again, the garnish, the sauce, the density of the dish, and the wine need to be taken into account. An example would be the successful union of lightly grilled tuna and Piedmont barbera. Tuna has a dense texture, very close to meat, so it’s best matched with medium-bodied red wines or powerful rosés like Tavel.
None of the above and the question of combinations is still open? Consider gastronomic and versatile wines. These include rosés, which are acidic, moderately aromatic, ready to support both vegetables and fish or even meat. Also worth mentioning here are oranges, that is, wines made from white varieties that undergo maceration on the skins. Orange wines will be very harmonious with vegetables and fish dishes. Beaujolais, Valpolicella, medium-bodied Chardonnays, Pinot Blancs are also good.
White is better with cheese
I hate to disappoint you, but, contrary to popular belief, cheeses don’t pair well with red wines. But they work much better with sparkling and white wines. To combine cheese and wine you need to take into account the texture of the cheese, aging, and additives such as truffle, spices and herbs. A territorial feature will make the choice a lot easier. Example: brie and crémant or cava, manchego and garnacha, mozzarella di buffalo and Greco di tufo, camembert and chenin blanc, pecorino and chianti.
And, lastly, we advise not to be afraid to try and match your own pairings, according to the rules or in spite of them. Muscat with steak or Shiraz with pumpkin – it all depends on your preferences. Don’t be bent on other drinks either, because it’s the German lager that will go best with sauerkraut and sausage in Munich.