Food and Wine Pairing
This is probably one of the most pleasurable aspects of learning about wine, yet it often becomes more complicated than it should be. The most important factor when pairing wine and food is personal preference. Most people prefer a robust red wine with steak and white wine with smoked salmon, but if you prefer a Chardonnay with your steak, that’s fine too. Aside from personal preference, there are several helpful guidelines to follow in order to find the best pairings and to avoid some bad matches.
Traditionally, professional food and wine recommendations were based on classic combinations that considered aspects such as the weight of the food and wine, acidity, sweetness, flavour intensity and fat. More recently, a more modern view has emerged focusing on four key components in the wine and food: sweetness, umami (a savoury taste which is distinct from the other primary tastes), acid and salt. This is a huge topic, so this section will provide a short overview to get you started. The classic guidelines will be explained first, followed by the more modern viewpoint.
Many wines, especially in the Old World, have been made to suit local cuisine. If in doubt about what to serve, a local wine can be a good place to start for local cuisine. For example, much Italian food is based on tomato and garlic, both of which are very high in acid. Most Italian wines are also high in acid, and therefore make a good match for this kind of food. Another example is goat’s cheese and Sauvignon Blanc. Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, both made from Sauvignon Blanc in France’s Loire Valley, are perfect matches for goat’s cheese which is produced in this region. Other examples are boeuf bourguignon with red Burgundy, oysters with Muscadet and truffles with Barolo.
Another key consideration is weight; a light-bodied wine is suitable for a lightweight food. For example, if one were to serve a full-bodied, creamy Chardonnay to accompany a light salad, the wine would be overpowering and the salad tasteless. The goal of food and wine pairing is to have the wine and food co-exist and allow each to express its character without being dominated by the other. A better suggestion for a light salad would be a fresher and crisper wine such as a Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc. On the other hand, a heavyweight food, such as a mushroom risotto would overpower a light-bodied wine, and so the oaky, creamy Chardonnay would be a good choice.
Flavour is another important aspect. A full-flavoured wine will overpower a very mildly flavoured dish and vice versa. A full-flavoured and full-bodied Barossa Shiraz is an excellent match for BBQ meat because both food and wine are spicy and full of flavour. A lighter red such as a Beaujolais, however, would not be able to compete with the intensity of the food. Related here is the classic rule of pairing white wine - or a light red - with white meat, and red wine with red meat.
When pairing acidic food with wine, it is important that the wine has equal or higher acidity than the food, to create balance. Gambas with a lime dressing, for example, would be well matched with a crisp white wine with naturally high acidity, such as Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc or Riesling. A wine with low acidity would taste very neutral and flat due to the high acidity of the lime dressing.
Sweet foods need sweet wine. Otherwise, the wine will taste sour, and the dessert will not show its full potential. Pairing a lemon meringue pie with a full-bodied dry red does a disservice to both the food and the wine. The wine should be as sweet, if not sweeter than, the dessert. Pair chocolate desserts with red Port, or with French dessert wines such as those from Banyuls and Maury. Fruit desserts benefit from a fruitier white wine such a Muscat. Muscat de Beaume de Venise is a prime example.
We mentioned that weighty food should be paired with full-bodied wine, though fatty foods can be a little different. Sometimes the best match here is a wine with high acidity to counterbalance the fat. Smoked salmon is heavy and relatively high in fat, and is a great match with Champagne or Chablis. The naturally high acid in these wines will cut through the fat and make the meal seem lighter and more refreshing.
Red Wine with Fish
Generally speaking, pairing red wine with fish is not recommended. If you don´t know what you’re doing or haven´t tried the combination before, you should choose a white wine. Red wines contain tannins, and in combination with certain umami-rich fish, they create a metallic and bitter taste which can be quite unpleasant. As is always the case with wine, there are exceptions: reds that do work well with meatier fish are low in tannins and light in body, such as Beaujolais or red Sancerre.
Chilli is one of the trickiest foods to match with wine, though sensitivity to chilli heat varies greatly from one person to another. Thus, this guideline will largely come down to personal preference. Some of the best matches are with off-dry to medium sweet white wines from Alsace, such as Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. The wine makes a lovely match with the exotic spiciness and can even soften a hot dish. High acidity and tannin should be avoided since this can make the heat even more intense and hard.
Classic Combinations (and Some Personal Favourites!)
- Sauternes and blue cheese
- Port and Stilton
- Sauvignon Blanc and goat’s cheese
- Asti and strawberries
- Sauternes (or Vendange Tardive from Alsace) and foie gras
- Vouvray and scallops
- Red Burgundy and sushi
- Amarone and Parmesan cheese with honey
- Banyuls or Maury and chocolate dessert
One might think that the above would be sufficient to cover food and wine pairing. While it goes a long way, this section would be incomplete without covering the more modern viewpoints mentioned in the introduction.
The driving force behind this later development is Tim Hanni MW, chef and Master of Wine. He has conducted extensive research on the topic for the past 20 years and has concluded that most traditional guidelines, such as red meat with red wine or seafood with white wine, are just myths. According to Tim, any wine with any food is fine as long as the seasoning is adapted accordingly, a concept called “flavour balancing”. Many chefs around the world are now adopting this way of thinking, and wine education programs have changed their syllabus to incorporate the new findings.
Simply put, there are two components in food that makes the wine taste more bitter and less fruity - sweetness and umami. Two other components in the food, salt and acid, will render the wine fruitier, less acidic and smoother. To experience the first effect, pair a sweet dessert with a dry wine. Witness how the wine changes, losing its fruit and roundness and becoming hard and bitter. For a similar effect, pair a food high in umami, such as smoked salmon or asparagus, with a dry and tannic red wine. In other words, umami and sugar in food diminish the enjoyment of the wine. To witness the enhancing effect of flavour balancing on a wine, add lemon or salt to any food and see how the wine becomes fruitier and rounder. Surprisingly, the addition of salt or lemon can even improve a terrible combination such as dry red wine with smoked salmon or asparagus!
Though the concept of flavour balancing does work, it is likely that past traditions and deeply rooted guidelines have already formed our taste preferences. Experimental tasting environments may reveal that even an unconventional pairing can taste fine once the acid and salt levels are correct and the flavours are balanced; a Margaux wine with perch in white wine sauce, for example. Nonetheless, I am unlikely to choose such a combination in a restaurant. I believe that most people prefer a crisp white wine when they eat fish and a fuller red wine with a steak, even if this is just a concept programmed by tradition. My guess is that the classic guidelines will stay for many years to come, and that flavour balancing will serve as an interesting complement and as a topic to play with in tasting classes and experimental restaurants with experienced chefs and sommeliers.
Pairing Wine with People
As mentioned above, this is perhaps the most important aspect of food and wine pairing. Wine is made for our enjoyment and whoever is drinking the wine is, of course, the ultimate judge of whether a combination is successful. When I started my wine drinking career in my late teens, I thought sweet Asti Spumante was a great match with pasta and ketchup, which I must say I don’t agree with any longer! A client of mine once served her charter guests the unusual combination of Pétrus, a legendary and super-expensive Bordeaux wine, with hamburgers. It’s certainly not conventional, but I must admit it’s a pairing I wouldn’t turn down!