Food and wine pairing is one of those subjects which can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. Sure, you can delve into the endless texts written for and by expert sommeliers, which go into huge and specific detail in the pursuit of that elusive ‘third taste’ - the sweet spot between the food and the wine, which leads to a rapturous result… but most of us neither have the time or the necessity to do so.
At the end of the day, what most of us want is a food and wine pairing that enhances both components nicely, and makes us look like we know what we’re doing. For all of you out there shaking your heads right now, and claiming that you can pair any food with any wine (so long as you like both the flavours of the dish and the drink), well, you’re missing out on some real sensory pleasure. For all its potential complications and complexities, food and wine pairing is at its heart a simple process, and one which can yield absolutely stunning results without a whole lot of thought or effort. All it takes is some savoir-faire, some common sense, and the ability to follow some basic rules.
Today, we’re going to be giving you a handful of guidelines which should allow you to start experimenting, innovating with the wines and dishes you love, and coming up with results that work best for you and your palate. Before long, you’ll be selecting your bottles like a real pro, and impressing your guests or date every single time.
The Golden Rule
Before we go into the more specific rules of this wine guide, let’s lay down the absolute basics. The most important rule in food and wine pairing is to ensure that neither your food or your wine obliterates the flavours of its counterpart. What would be the point, for example, in pairing a delicately-flavoured fillet of white fish, gently slathered in a butter sauce, with a big, bold, boisterous red wine? One sip of your vino, and those light and airy flavours in your food would become completely undetectable. The same goes for the opposite situation - you can’t pair a delicate white wine with a deeply flavoured beef stew, for example, as you may as well be drinking tap water with you dinner.
While there’s nothing wrong with selecting contrasting flavours for your food and wine, they do also need to work well together from the perspective of strength and power. You want the food to lift the wine, and the wine to lift the food… not for them to jostle with each other on the palate, and end up becoming a waste of time and money.
Rule One: Acid Calls for Acid
This is a fairly solid rule you can return to time after time. Foods with a decent acidity level - that is, anything you could happily squeeze a lemon onto - need a wine which is similarly piquant in this character. Tomatoes pack an acidic punch, for example, and therefore pasta and tomato dishes, pizza, or something like a chicken picatta require a wine which also features a nice bite of acidity. Barolo, Chianti, Sauvignon Blanc are all good go-to examples for the aforementioned dishes, due to their acidic profile.
Rule Two: Tannins Require Fat
If you’re asking yourself what tannin is, don’t worry - lots of people see this word printed on their wine label, without being entirely sure what it means. Essentially, tannins are a chemical compound found in grape skins, and they cause that astringent, drying sensation on the tongue you’ll feel most strongly in full-bodied red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec. If you’re looking for a dish to serve alongside a particularly tannic wine (and these kinds of wines are in fashion at the moment: just look at the rise in popularity of strongly tannic Portuguese Douro wines, or Austrian Zweigelt), you need a fatty dish to provide softness and contrast.
The fat in dishes like Hungarian goulash, or found in quality beef steaks, pork ribs, or similarly meaty treats is the perfect accompaniment for tannic wines. The fatty mouthfeel of the food coats the palate, and lends the wine a smoothness and silkiness it simply wouldn’t have otherwise.
Rule Three: Fish Likes Acid, Not Tannin
There’s a well-known wine rule out there that claims that you should only serve white wine with fish. We don’t necessarily agree with this, as there are quite a few examples of when lighter red wines - like a Sangiovese or Pinot Noir - will work very nicely with more flavourful fish dishes of seared tuna or roasted salmon. However, as a general rule, it works quite well. Why? Because most fish dishes work with fresher, brighter, and more delicate flavours, which call for a similarly bright and zesty white wine. Think of the wine as replacing a slice of lemon you’d squeeze over your fish fillets, and you’re on the right track - that’s why citrus-oriented wines like Albarino, Vermentino, and Assyrtiko work so well with seafood.
Rule Four: Pair Your Wine With the Dominant Flavour, Not the Dominant Ingredient
Here’s a rule you really must learn if you want to take your food and wine pairing to the next level, and it’s usually one of the first rules you’ll come across in any food and wine guide. Think for a moment about two very different dishes: pork chops in a spicy tomato sauce, and a classic chicken Caesar salad.
In the pork dish, it’s pretty unlikely that the pork is going to be the dominant flavour which hangs around in your mouth (unless it has been cooked by a fairly lousy chef). No - that would be the spicy tomato sauce, which could be said to be the leading flavour of the whole meal. Likewise with the chicken Caesar salad; the dominant flavour comes from the sharp dressing, not from the chicken breast or the lettuce leaves. It’s more often than not the sauces, dressings, rubs, and marinades you need to think of when pairing food and wine, rather than the meat. Don’t forget it!
Rule Five: Heat Needs Sweetness
Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that a fully-flavoured Indian curry or spicy Thai dish would call for a full-bodied, boisterous red wine, packed with tannins and acidity. After all, didn’t we say you need strong wines for strong dishes?
Most of the time, this would be the case. However, there are different types of ‘strength’ when it comes to wine, and it’s unlikely you’d ever see a top sommelier recommending such wines to be paired with such dishes. The reason for this is that alcohol actually intensifies the heat you feel from chillies or spices, and by pairing strong wines with spicy dishes, you end up with a wine which feels unstructured and bitter in the mouth, and a dish which really ramps up the heat to unpleasant levels. Instead, you should always go for a low-alcohol wine with a touch of residual sweetness (we’re not talking sticky dessert wines, here), such as a Gewurztraminer or classic style Riesling. Trust us, it really works!
Rule Six: Sweetness Needs More Sweetness!
As a general rule, when serving dessert, you always need your wine to be sweeter than the dish in question (one great exception to this rule involves pairing dark chocolate cake or gateau with an Aussie Shiraz. Don’t ask us why, but that pairing is absolutely heavenly!).
You probably won’t struggle much with this, as most dessert wines are really very sweet indeed, and it would be difficult to find a dessert which beats the honeyed sweetness of a Tokaji or Sauternes, or even a quality Port.
Rule Seven: Know Your Go-To Bottles
While the above rules should cover most of the basics, there are still always going to be those moments when you’re really not sure which wines you want to pair with your dinner, beyond whether you want a white one or a red one. In this instance, there are a couple of fail-safe go-to options to keep in mind, which should sort you out when you’re in a pinch.
The first of these options is to think about regionality. If you’re serving or ordering a classic dish from Tuscany, the chances are, a Tuscan red wine (like a Chianti) is going to match perfectly. Ordering a plate of central European, Germanic food, like a Wiener schnitzel or bratwurst? Opt for a wine synonymous with the region, like a Riesling. In most of Europe, food and wine has grown and evolved side by side across the centuries, and this approach usually results in something interesting and delicious… so feel free to take the risk, or ask your waiter for a bit of help.
The other option is to stick with wines which have a high level of versatility and flexibility when it comes to food pairing. The king and queen of these are Pinot Noir for your red option, and Sauvignon Blanc for your white. Neither are too delicate or too strong, both boast a range of delicious flavours and notes, and both tend to pair well with pretty much anything you throw at them.
The final option? When you’re really not sure, order a bottle of Champagne. This beautiful sparkling wine has the acidity and complexity to pair brilliantly with almost everything, from light entrees to fish dishes, from white meats to red meats, and from salads and veggies to desserts. What’s more, you’ll always look like a rock star ordering one to your table. Everyone’s a winner!