The Basics of Wine and Food Pairing

With thousands of wine producers in thousands of wine regions across dozens of winemaking countries and hundreds of grape varietals, selecting a bottle for an event can be daunting in and off itself for the fledgling wine enthusiast – even more so when choosing a bottle to pair with a certain dish. Is it an aperitif, a drink with the entree, or something to pair with dessert or cleanse the palate between courses? 

While some wine and food pairing dos and don’ts have survived through the centuries, some rules no longer apply. The philosophy of what foods to pair with what wines is far from rocket science –  it can be seen as the continuous discovery of playful combinations that strike a balance between contrast and harmony.

Your drink of choice can be similar to your food in terms of taste and body, or be the polar opposite – the general idea being a contrasting pairing balances itself out with contrasting flavors, while a congruent or harmonic combination achieves equilibrium by boosting shared flavors and textures.  

 One of the classical tenets of pairing is partnering red wine with red meat, and white wine with white meat. This traditional rule can still be an applicable and exemplary interpretation of contrast and harmony in food and wine pairing.

Pairing Wine by Contrast & Harmony

The stronger, brusquer body and aroma of red wines such as a Northern Rhone Syrah (like Domaine Louis Cheze Syrahvissante) help it hold its own against roast beef and gravy with peppercorn; while a dry Malvasia (like San Marzano Il Pumo Sauvignon-Malvasia) with a lively acidic structure can go with scampi or poached fish. This idea works with the principle that dark, savory meats go with dark, savory wines, and lighter fare with white wines.

You can take contrast and harmony further by playing around with fundamental flavor profiles: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, umami/salty. When the specific characteristics of both drink and dish are taken into account, a whole new world of food pairing opportunities can open up.

The tangier the food, the more acidic the wine. The wine may seem bland otherwise. The same applies to sweet and spicy pairings. Sweet foods are best paired with sweeter wines. Spicy wines compliment spicy foods.  Bitter wines go with fatty foods, as can zesty whites – the tannins in the former and the acid in the latter temper the richness. Salty foods go with sweet wines – the sweet-and-salty combo is a classic.

Enjoying a platter of various cheeses? Pair tangy and salty cubes of feta with a grassy Sauvignon Blanc from AOC Pouilly-Fume. The herbal notes of these wines complement the intensity of feta, and the acid balances the creaminess of the cheese. Would you have thought that a sweet Clos des Verdots Moelleux naturally pairs with funky gorgonzola? While a sparkling wine might not be the top-of-mind pairing for jamón ibérico, Cava’s crisp and clean palate makes it a subtle compliment for an umami-rich slice of fine ham.

If you’re having some Indian takeaway, meat curries pair well with a spicy and full-bodied Pinot Noir that is sure to work nicely with the melange of spices. A light-bodied aromatic red such as Gamay (like Domaine Des Terres Dorées Le Ronsay) and a platter of Japanese fried and battered dishes like tempura or karaage would yield an interesting combination.

Pair Wine by Origin

What grows together, goes together. Food and wine from a particular area are shaped by the same environs, practices, and propensities – the milking cows foraged on grass likely to come from similar, if not the same, terroir as the local grape varietals. Also, regional wine impacts food (and vice versa), so many of these classic flavor combinations evolved to extol the qualities of the local fare and the flavors of the territory.

Boullabaise would contrast pleasantly with a fresh and mineraly Domaine Tempier White with notes of white flora and citrus. The creaminess of Chaource (a cow’s cheese) would harmonize with the aromatic richness of Champagne Drappier Carte d’Or Brut and both come from the Champagne-Ardenne region. The end goal of these pairings is a potential balance that uplifts the meal and showcases food and drink in the best light.

Certain pairing conventions can guide you along the way, although it wouldn’t hurt to try different wines with different foods depending on mood or feel. After all, it’s probably the rarest of occasions where a meal was made inedible by too strong or too weak a wine. Try out new and unorthodox pairings on a whim, grow with your selections and experiences, and be confident that you’ll make better choices as time goes by – learn from and enjoy your journey through your newfound world of food and wine. 

Sign in to leave a comment
Minerality in Wine Tasting