If you think about matching wine and food flavors, you probably fall into one of two camps: foodie or wine enthusiast. Foodies concoct a menu and then think about what wine to open; while wine enthusiasts decide what lovely bottle they really want to drink, and then decide what food will be best.
Either approach works. Most of the time, we all do a little of each kind of thinking when planning wine and food pairings. The goal is the same. You want the wine and food to complement, perhaps even improve, each other. The more you learn to differentiate flavors, the easier it becomes. You will find that you can intuitively sense how flavors will combine. So if you already love to cook, and know how to adjust your seasonings and sauces, you’re halfway there. Conversely, if you already love wine, and understand how to analyze its various scents and flavors, then you can approach your menu from that perspective.
Each season offers some opportunity, great or small, for the worlds of food and wine to do a graceful pas de deux. At its best, this goes well beyond merely “matching” the wine to the food; it becomes a performance in which two worlds collide, then merge, then harmonize and expand. We all have individual sensitivities. These play a significant role in defining your food and wine preferences. Some people are more sensitive to bitterness or sweetness, others will easily pick up on the acid in food or wine. So the following guidelines are general, and should not be taken as hard and fast rules.
Successful food and wine matches are highly dependent upon these personal preferences. Yes, there are some classics—goat cheese and sauvignon blanc, for example. But the real fun is experimenting, to find for yourself which of the wines you happen to enjoy go best with which of the foods you like to serve.
Remember, you are looking for pleasure, not seeking perfection. Some people can’t tolerate red wine, others think that all wine would be red if it could. So it’s good to be flexible, and have several options ready to go with a given meal.
Wine flavors are derived from specific components: sugar, acid, fruit, tannin, and alcohol. Foods also have flavor components: fat, acid, salt, sugar, and bitter. The most successful food and wine matches feature complementary components, richness, and textures.
You can try for either a similar pairing or a contrasting one. For a pasta in a rich cream sauce, for example, you could cut through the creamy fat with a crisp, dry, un-oaked white wine. Or you could wrap the flavor of the wine around the richness of the sauce by choosing a big, ripe, soft chardonnay or roussanne/marsanne blend.
A lot of our favorite foods, both meat and dairy products, have high levels of fat. Wine doesn’t contain fat. So when planning a wine to go with fatty foods, remember that it has to balance that fat with acid, cut it with tannin, or match its richness with alcohol.
This is why a prime cut of steak tastes so good with a cabernet-based wine. The beef’s protein and fat softens up the wine’s mouth-drying tannins. This sets up the tongue for the wine’s fruit and berry and forest flavors to complement the smoky, meaty flavors of the steak.
Acid is another key element in both food and wine. In wine it adds nerve, freshness, and lift. It can do the same with food, as when lemon is squeezed on steamed vegetables. When looking for a wine to go with an acidic dish, you should make sure that the perceived acidity of the wine is at least equal to that of the food, or the wine will taste bland and washed out.
Salads are often a challenge for wine matching, but you can make it work if you moderate the acid in the dressing by cutting back on the lemon juice or vinegar. Try using some tangy, bitter greens, and offset them with herbal flavors from sauvignon blanc or semillon.
Next up: salt. Salty foods seem to limit your wine choices. Salt can make an oaky chardonnay taste weird, strip the fruit right out of a red wine, and turn high alcohol wines bitter. It’s so much easier to drink beer! But with a bit of imagination, you can conjure up some remarkable combinations of salty foods and sweet wines. Bleu cheese and Sauternes is another one of the world’s classic food and wine combos.
Sparkling wines are a home run with salty, fried foods. The carbonation and yeasty acids emulate beer and clean the salt from your palate, while adding more interesting textures and flavor nuances. Salt is also a principal flavor in briny seafood such as oysters. Acidic wines clean out the salt and balance the rich ocean flavors of the oyster.
Sweet desserts and other sugary foods seem easy—just pull out a sweet wine—but beware. Here is where there is one rule that really needs to be observed.
There are degrees of sweetness. Some recipes will have just a hint of sugar, such as a fruit sauce served over a pork loin. This light, fruity sweetness can be matched very well with rich white wines such as chardonnay. Higher alcohol tends to give an impression of sweetness, and balances the sugar in the sauce.
With desserts you must be certain that the wine tastes sweeter than the dessert; otherwise the dessert will strip the wine of its sweetness and render it bitter or tart. Though red wine and chocolate is a combination often promoted by the wine industry, you have to be very careful about it. Use a bitter, dark chocolate and a red wine with some sweetness, such as a late harvest zinfandel, and it can be quite wonderful. But a sweet chocolate dessert and a dry red? Terrible!
What about bitter flavors? In some cultures, bitter flavors are prized, but most of the time they are to be avoided. Anything more than just a hint is likely to be perceived as unpleasant. In wine, bitterness usually results from unripe grapes, or a failure to get the stems and pips (seeds) out of the fermenting tank, or mismanaged barrels. When bitterness in wine meets bitterness in food, it acts the opposite of sugar. One does not cancel out the other; they merely combine.
As for matching textures, think light and heavy. Light foods are best with light wines; heavy foods with heavy wines. That’s the safest way to go about it. A more adventurous path is to experiment with contrast: matching light foods to heavy wines and vice versa. This will require more testing, to keep the tension dynamic, and avoid having the lighter flavors over-shadowed by the heavy ones.