Pairing wine with food invites a wide spectrum of attitudes and approaches.
At one end of this spectrum is a complete lack of patience for the entire exercise. “I eat what I like. I drink what I like. Just open the bottle, and let’s dig in.”
At the other end is the scrupulous search for the ultimate pairing, where every nuance of vintage, flavor, body, acidity, tannin and oak treatment of the wine is scrutinized against the acidity, flavoring and weight of the meal. This includes the spicing, saucing and preparation of everything on the plate, and on the plates of everyone at the table.
Wine can be intimidating. There are dozens of wine-producing countries, hundreds of grape varieties, thousands of regions and many thousands of producers. But just because wine is often intimidating doesn’t mean you should be intimidated.
The first rule of wine and food pairings
Drinking the wine you enjoy with the food you’ve chosen is pairing rule number one. This validates the “no fuss, drink up” attitude. Here’s some truth: No meal has ever been completely ruined by an “improper” wine and food pairing.
So drink what you like. That’s the first step in becoming a wine expert. But remember, the wine world is far too rich to drink only what you know you like. Exploring that world is part, if not most, of the fun.
The quest for the perfect pairing is also valid, as long as the process is pleasurable and shared. It’s a sensory, intellectual game that can yield spectacular dividends at the table.
Evaluating wine style
When approaching food and wine pairings, everything begins with style. “Style” refers to the elements that contribute to the wine’s overall feel in your mouth—viscosity, acidity, tannins and alcohol level—along with flavor type and intensity. Even if you’re new to wine, these terms will likely be familiar to you except, perhaps, tannins.
Tannins, crucial to the aging process of fine wines, are chemical compounds found in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. Some tannins are also incorporated through aging in wood barrels.
You experience tannins, particularly in young, full-bodied red wines, as a sandpaper-like, drying, astringent feel on your tongue. As well-made wine ages, the tannins “melt,” contributing to a more pleasurable, velvety feel in the mouth.
Mouthfeel is much easier to discern and communicate than flavor. Flavor is subjective. What tastes like citrus to one person might have a plummy aspect to you. What you discern as smoke, another might taste as mushroom. But style—mouthfeel plus flavor—is something that’s more immediate and communicable.
Wine style will enable you to communicate with your retailer or restaurant sommelier in a common language.
Pairing is all about matching the main components of a dish and the main components of the wine. That does not always mean complementing. Sometimes, a contrasting style is ideal.
But, in general, think about the main dish’s dominant flavor, its character, intensity and the comparative level of its fats to acids. Then find a wine whose style will best showcase that dish.
White wine with fish, red wine with meat
Let’s examine the much-maligned “white wine with fish, red wine with meat” rule. It’s very, very old school, and there are many delicious exceptions to it. However, it’s a useful starting point, because it captures the no-fuss, instinctive nature of wine and food pairing.
Thus, white wine with fish. If you’ve sipped a light Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, you recall a light texture on the palate and brighter flavors of citrus. Fish, your sense memories tell you, is also light (in color, but also in texture). White meats like chicken and turkey also belong in this category.
If you do the same mental exercise with a full-bodied red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon and a grilled steak, you begin to see the method behind the madness. Both red wine and red meat-laden plates are fuller, darker and deeper in texture and flavor. Thus, they make a good pairing.
Of course, it’s not always that simple
A Chardonnay from Chablis and a Chardonnay from Napa Valley share some core (and quite subtle) flavors and characteristics, but most of the stylistic elements will vary widely. This holds true for Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other wine grapes that are vinified worldwide.
The respective climates, soils and winery treatments will affect the finished style of the wines. And that affects their ability to pair with a specific dish.
For say, grilled fish served with a light drizzle of olive oil, a light white wine, like a cool-climate Pinot Grigio or a lean and steely Chablis, would be a good match.
But again, not all Pinot Grigios or Chardonnays are created equal. A full-bodied, intensely flavored, oaky wine might render the fish tasteless. What if the fish is not grilled simply and lightly oiled? What if it’s smothered in a rich, flavorful cream sauce?
In that case, the very light Pinot Grigio will be overwhelmed by the food. A fuller white wine or a leaner red, like Pinot Noir, might be a better choice.
What if a squeeze of lemon is needed to bring this fish to life, or perhaps the fish is a component in an acidic ceviche? Then the acidity of the wine becomes a factor. Either choose a low-acid wine to contrast the acidity of the dish, or pick a crisply acidic wine to complement it.
You can see how this can get insane very quickly. So generalizations like “white wine with fish” are useful, but only to a point.
Wine and food pairing FAQs
What if I’m looking for a wine to pair with a pasta dish, or a stew, or a dish with many assertive flavors?
You need to consider the overall impression of the dish on the palate. Lamb, chicken, beef, fish or vegetables will likely take on the character of the seasoning, or at least take a back seat to the overall texture.
What is the dominant element? If it’s a stew, is it tomato-based and acidic? Try a fresh, aromatic white like Sauvignon Blanc, or a light, easygoing red like Lambrusco. Is it more earthbound, featuring mushrooms, garlic and onions, as in many sautéed dishes? Try a medium-bodied, fruit-forward red like Pinot Noir. If it’s pasta, is it a creamy sauce, or a leaner, oil-based sauce?
Some refined dishes and cuisines, like Thai, call for citrus flavorings. Much vegetarian cuisine is herbal in nature. Each will point you to a certain style of wine.
One useful shortcut: Many dishes are regional in origin, and you should definitely consider that region’s wines. A Tuscan pasta? Choose a Tuscan wine.
What if the dish is extremely spicy and hot?
The richness of the dish will determine this somewhat. In general, you want a low-alcohol, high-acid white wine with some sweetness. The acidity blends with the heat, while the sweetness will help mitigate the heat. (A high-alcohol wine will accent the dish’s heat, muting the wine’s flavor.)
Off-dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer are the classic choices for spicy Asian cuisines like Sichuan, Hunan, Thai and Indian. For reds, be careful with very tannic wines, which can taste especially astringent against spicy food; a high-acid, low-alcohol, low-tannin grape like Gamay usually works well.
And let’s be honest, beer works, too.
How about very rich, fatty dishes?
With fried foods, you want a crisp, light or sparkling wine to cut through the oil. It cleanses your palate, allowing you to taste the fish or chicken.
Sometimes, you want to contrast, not complement, the dish and the wine. If the dish is creamy and rich, it might render a rich, creamy wine like a warm-climate Chardonnay flabby. It that case, an acidic wine could cut the richness and allow both flavors to shine.
A lamb or beef dish swimming in a rich, nuanced sauce might cause for a big, powerful red wine to showcase those flavors.
Grilling imparts a smoky flavor, obviously, but also an earthiness to meats. Choose a rich, full-bodied white wine for grilled chicken or fish, or a big, powerful red like Zinfandel for grilled red meat. Often, oak treatment melds well with the smokiness from grilling.
Two important questions: What’s the richness of the dish? (cream sauce, dairy, etc.) Is it cooked or raw? If dairy enriches the dish, then a richer wine is called for—but this is a relative term. Fresh, aromatic whites with a touch of sweetness will generally pair well.
When pairing wine with vegetables, stay in the comfort zone of Riesling and Pinot Grigio for whites, or light, easygoing reds like Beaujolais. Are your root vegetables cooked (they’ll be on the earthy side, so try a full-bodied white like many Chardonnays) or raw? Mushrooms are earthy in flavor, so a Pinot Noir might match.
Are you sure this is fun?
It is, if you want it to be. If you are hosting friends for dinner, you want them to enjoy your cooking and appreciate the wines without necessarily seeing the effort and thought behind them.
What if you unwittingly serve a wine that makes your veal dish taste like a heel cushion, or your sole meunière makes the wine taste like skid-row jug juice? As we’ve said, no meal has been completely ruined by an improper pairing, but time, consideration and experimentation will improve your odds of getting it right.