No other topic in food and wine provides as much mystery to people as pairing food and wine. Pairing food and wine is easy, provided you follow a few basic guidelines.
When pairing food and wine, focusing on only the color of the wine and protein is short-sighted, as it does not discuss preparations or flavors. The adage, “white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat,” is true to a degree, but there’s more to pairing food and wine than matching just the protein’s color with the wine’s color. One must consider all elements of the dish for a successful pairing.
This example shows how changing just one item of the dish alters the food and wine pairing. In each example, the salmon will stay while the sauce will change.
Example 1. Roasted salmon with butter sauce
Wine pairing: Rich, buttery, and oaky chardonnay.
Why does this pairing work? There are similar flavors and components between the wine and the dish. The rich, buttery, and oaky chardonnay complement the richness of the salmon and butter sauce.
Example 2. Roasted salmon with spicy Thai curry sauce.
Wine pairing: New Zealand sauvignon blanc or semi-sweet riesling.
Why does this pairing work? Fruitiness and sweetness counter spice. Riesling and gewurztraminer are often on wine lists in Thai restaurants because many dishes are spicy. Avoid pairing dry wines with spicy food.
Example 3. Roasted salmon with red wine reduction sauce.
Wine pairing: Light red wine such as pinot noir or barbera.
Why does this pairing work? The dish has red wine, and it’s paired with red wine. The adage, “white wine with white meat,” does not apply here. Salmon, tuna, and swordfish are “meatier” fish that handle more robust wines.
See how one element can change the food and wine pairing?
Match three elements between the food and wine for an ideal pairing
Weight. How heavy or light is the wine and the dish? Pair heavy wine with heavy food and light wine with light food.
Intensity. How robust or intense are the dish and the wine?
For example, Champagne and steamed cod pairs well together because they are both light and delicate. The flavors, intensity, and weight of the dish and the wine match.
Adding spicy salsa to the cod makes the dish more intense and spicier, which overpowers the delicate Champagne. The dish and wine’s weight still match, but the intensity and flavors do not, so it is an imperfect pairing.
Flavors. With flavors, you may complement or contrast.
By complementing, the pairing focuses on similar flavors between the food and wine. Pair roasted salmon with butter sauce and an oaky, buttery chardonnay. Both the dish and the wine are rich and buttery.
In contrast, the pairing focuses on contrasting flavors between the food and wine. Pair roasted salmon with butter sauce and white wine with fruit and acidity. The wine’s fruit and acidity cuts through the richness of the dish.
How to identify a food and wine pairing that works
Food and wine taste better together in a perfect pairing. In contrast, an imperfect pairing of food and wine will be unpleasant. I describe an imperfect pairing as producing a harsh feeling in the back of the throat.
A non-food and wine way to relate to a perfect pairing is to think of people. Everything’s better when you’re with someone you like. Conversely, everything is worse when you’re with someone you dislike.
The following examples are some everyday pairings one may encounter
For dessert, ensure the wine is sweeter than the dish; otherwise, the wine will taste diluted. Here is an example without wine to show the point. Eat a candy bar with soda and to see how the soda tastes diluted.
Pairing spicy foods with high alcohol content wines (over 14.5%) will amplify food spiciness.
Acidic foods (such as pickled items and vinaigrette) need a wine with either acidity, fruit, or both.
Fried food pairs well with dry sparkling wine.
Pairing food and wine from the same region is ideal because of the terroir. Terroir is a sense of place. The topography, climate, and soil within a particular region affect everything grown or raised within that region.
My favorite example of food and wine from the same region is Sancerre with Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese.
When selecting wine, consider different regions of the world that produce different styles of wine
For example, California pinot noir is bolder, less acidic, and fruitier than their Burgundy (French pinot noir) counterpart, so a dish that pairs well with a California pinot noir may not pair well with a red Burgundy, and vice versa.
There are endless combinations of food and wine pairings, so have fun with it. Host a food and wine pairing event at your home, so you and your friends can learn together.
The best thing about learning food and wine pairing is eating and drinking wine, so enjoy the journey.
About the author
Curt Sassak is the president of Winetasters Choice, a promotional agency based in Texas and serving seven states. Curt is a 35-year veteran of the food and beverage industry, with the first 27 years of his career spent as a chef.