Pairing food and wine seems to be quite a mystery to people
The most frequently asked questions I have received over the past 35 years in the business are related to food and wine pairing. The truth is, pairing food and wine is easier than you think, provided you follow some basic guidelines.
When I see tags placed under a bottle in a store that reads something like, “Great with fish,” or “great with chicken,” it always bothered me. Why? Focusing on only the color of the wine and protein is short-sighted. It does not address the dish’s preparation or what flavors are going on. While there is some truth to the adage “white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat,” there is more to pairing food and wine than matching just the protein’s color with the wine’s color.
When pairing food and wine, think of the dish as a whole because changing just one element can change everything.
Let’s illustrate how changing just one element in a dish can affect food and wine pairing.
For this exercise, roasted salmon will be the dish’s base, and the other elements will change around that. You will see how changing just one component affects the pairing between the food and the wine.
Example 1. Roasted salmon with butter sauce
What wine will work? A rich, buttery, and oaky chardonnay.
Why does this pairing work? There are complimentary flavors between the dish and the wine, from the butter sauce to the creamy, buttery chardonnay and rich salmon. The result is a perfect pairing.
Example 2. Roasted salmon with spicy Thai curry sauce.
What wine will work? A New Zealand sauvignon blanc or semi-sweet riesling.
Why does this pairing work? The way to counter spice in food is with a fruity or sweet wine. The chardonnay is dry and spicy food and dry wines do not get along.
Have you ever noticed how there are always rieslings and gewürztraminers on menus in Thai restaurants? It is because those wines are perfect for the spicy dishes found in that cuisine.
Example 3. Roasted salmon with red wine reduction sauce.
What wine will work? A light to medium-bodied red such as pinot noir or barbera.
Why does this pairing work? The sauce is red wine-based, so red wine is a smart choice. Here is a perfect example when the adage, “white wine with white meat” does not apply. Salmon is not red meat, yet we are pairing it with red wine. Salmon, tuna, and swordfish are heartier and “meatier” type fish and can handle more robust wines.
See where I am going with this? The food and wine pairing was affected by changing just one element – the sauce.
Pairing food and wine is about matching three things between the food and the wine.
Match the weight, the flavors, and the intensity.
The weight has to do with how heavy or light the wine and dish is.
To put it plainly, pair heavy wine with heavy food and light wine with light food.
The intensity is about how powerful or intense the dish and the wine may or may not be.
Take Champagne as an example, which is light, dry, and delicate.
If we pair the Champagne with plain, steamed cod, it pairs well. The cod is light and delicate, just like Champagne. Thus far, the flavors, intensity, and weight between the dish and the wine match.
What if we add a spicy salsa to the cod dish? Now, the dish has strong, intense flavors that will overpower the light and delicate Champagne. In this example, the weight between the dish and wine still match, but the intensity and flavors do not, so it is an imperfect pairing.
When it comes to handling flavors, there are two approaches: You can complement or contrast.
By complementing, you use similar flavors between the food and wine, such as the example mentioned above of the salmon with butter sauce, paired with the buttery chardonnay.
By contrast, you contrast flavors between the food and wine, such as the example mentioned above of the salmon with Thai curry sauce paired with a semi-sweet wine.
How do you identify a good food and wine pairing?
Let’s look at the chemistry between people as a way to relate. When you have chemistry with someone, everything is better when you’re with that person. When you dislike someone, everything is worse when you’re with that person.
A perfect food and wine pairing will make wine and food taste even better together, while the food and wine taste will taste worse with an imperfect pairing.
Here are a few common foods and wine pairing scenarios to remember.
When pairing wine with dessert, make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert; otherwise, the wine will taste diluted. Here is an easy way to demonstrate this without wine. Eat a bite of a candy bar, then drink some soda, and you will see the soda tastes diluted.
Spicy foods are not a good match for high alcohol content wines (like 14% and above) because the higher alcohol content will amplify the food’s spiciness.
More acidic foods, such as vinaigrettes and pickled items, need a wine with either acidity, fruit, or both. Dry wines with acidic food items do not get along well.
Fried food is excellent with dry bubbles. Tempura with Champagne is phenomenal because you have light, delicate bubbles in Champagne, and tempura has a lighter fried coating than something heavier, like fried chicken, often associated as a good pairing with dry bubbles.
Champagne is often paired with dessert, though this violates the guidance of pairing dessert with a sweeter wine.
Champagne is fantastic with fresh fruit because fruit has a natural sweetness. On that note, chocolate-dipped strawberries work well with Champagne as well.
Focus on the region.
If possible, it is ideal to pair food and wine from the same region.
Why? It comes down to terroir. Terroir is, in a nutshell, the environment, climate, soil, nutrients – everything that affects how crops and agricultural products grow. Here is an example: Sancerre and Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese from the same region.
Everything grown or raised in a particular region is affected by the same topography, weather, rainfall, and the minerals and nutrients in the soil. So, if you pair food and wine from the same region (provided you follow the rules I outlined above), you should have the ideal food and wine pairing.
Remember, food and wine is a lifelong learning endeavor. It is not about the destination but the journey.
About the author
Curt Sassak was a chef for 27 years and now works in the world of adult beverage promotions. Educating the world one sip or one educational video at a time is his mantra.