Pairing wine and food is an exercise that has some basic rules and plenty of room for personal preference. The goal is a synergy resulting in the whole tasting better than the parts, which is accomplished by complementing and contrasting flavors and textures.
Maximize your sensory experience when cooking at home or dining out by using my fundamental guidelines.
It’s All About Acid.
When pairing wine with “bright” foods (code for high-acid foods), think vivid wine. If you stick to the rule that states the acidity of wine should always be higher than that of the dish, you can make any crisp cuisine shine. Taste a Sauvignon Blanc with fresh goat cheese. Refer to this as your baseline perfect pairing, and extrapolate with light, fresh foods with other high-acid wines.
Stand Up To Salt.
Salty dishes need assertive wine to keep them in line. Deferring to bright acid wines, like a crisp Muscadet to cut through the salt, is one option. Another opportunity involves a no-competition stance: Pair salty food with slightly off-dry wines for an instant truce and seamless harmony.
Spice Is Nice.
Like salty morsels, the flavors of spicy food may beg for beer. But if you want to find an ideal wine mate, you’ll need to choose carefully. For instance, a tannic wine will taste like wood when sipped with spiced food. Opt instead for soft, fruit-forward reds like Gamay, and aromatic whites like Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer to help stave the fire on your palate and add exotic dimension to the burn.
Rich foods taste more opulent when paired with full-bodied wine. Think of a cream sauce paired with a generously rich Pinot Blanc from Alsace or opulent, oaked California Chardonnay….true decadence on the palate. Similarly, nothing is better with a steakhouse special than a big, tannic red. Tannins melt in the presence of fat, taming the wine and leaving the richness of the fruit to mingle with the food.
Think about the textural weight of a complete dish before beginning your wine query. A chicken breast that is served with sautéed sugar snap peas and baby bok choy would not warrant the lavish wine that chicken with roasted mushrooms, tomatoes, and bacon would stand up to. The light and herbaceous preparation would pair beautifully with a lean white, like an Albariño or a Torrontes, while the robust dish marries with a rustic red….think Cotes du Rhone, Nero d’Avola, or Monastrell from Jumilla.
When pairing regional Italian, French, or Spanish foods with wine, choose juice from the same area. The realization that regional dishes and local wine have evolved from the same terroir makes it clear as to why, for example, Chianti and tomato-based dishes combine for an instant love affair on the palate.
When In Doubt.
When you encounter a restaurant situation where there are as many different types of food at the table as there are people, think of inherent food-friendly wines: low-tannin reds like Beaujolais, Oregon Pinot Noir, or Cabernet Franc. Gruner Veltliner is a universally food-friendly white, as is un-oaked Chardonnay. And if you are really stuck, it’s sparkling wine to the rescue!