Wine Pairing: Pro Tips for Great Results

Wine pairing with fruit

People ask me about wine pairing all the time. It’s lot of fun to discuss and experiment with. But it can also be needlessly complicated and frustrating.

This article provides easy-to-follow guidelines for successful wine pairing. It’s not an exhaustive guide. There are several books on wine pairing and this article isn’t designed to replicate them. If you’d like to dive in more deeply, I suggest reading What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea… by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. I also wrote a comprehensive guide to pairing wine with your favorite grilled foods, which you can read for free at JJ

But, for now…

The most important thing is to enjoy your food and wine

Don’t get too stressed about finding the right combination. Stress doesn’t taste good. And, realistically, most meals have so many flavors and textures there simply is no “perfect pairing.”

Nor should you should feel compelled to eat a food or drink a wine you know you don’t like, just because someone said that it’s a “perfect pairing.” The whole point of wine pairing is enhancement of your pleasure. That won’t happen if you start with something you don’t like.

The next most important thing is to do no harm

Ideal pairings can be elusive, but horrible combinations are easy to create. Fortunately, they are just as easy to avoid. Here are some guidelines to help with that:

Match relative quality or sophistication

You wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a NASCAR race. And, while Pinot Noir can be a great match for some sausages, you shouldn’t be breaking out your prized Marcassin Vineyard Pinot Noir to go with that ballpark frank you’re grilling. Nor should you pour a $7 Merlot with the braised beef cheeks your significant other just spent three days preparing.

In a great wine pairing, the wine and food will be in-step like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. If either the food or the wine is much too bold for the other, the combination may be more like a sheep in the lion’s den. That makes for spectacle, not harmony.

Pair quality with quality, big flavors with big flavors and subtle with subtle.

Pair sweet foods with sweeter wines

The sugar in most desserts makes dry wines taste drab and lifeless. If you don’t have an appropriately sweet wine, enjoy dessert without wine. If you’re committed to wine, consider a cheese plate instead of the cake. Europeans have it a bit easier than Americans when it comes to wine pairing for the final course. European desserts tend to be much less sweet than those in the United States.

Pair acidic foods with acidic wines

Wines with relatively low acidity, especially red wines with high tannins, feel even more tannic and taste less fruity if paired with acidic food. Wines high in acid, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Sangiovese will hold up better.

Use vinegar sparingly or not at all. It’s aggressive, fruity acidity will make almost any wine taste bad. Use fresh lemon or lime juice instead. It is less aggressive and compatible with some white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc. You can also use verjus. That’s basically juice made from grapes intentionally picked before they were ripe. Verjus has high acidity but is softer than vinegar and the lightly grapey flavor works well with wine.

If you do need to use vinegar, use one which has been aged in oak. That takes the edge off quite a bit. Very old balsamic vinegars which are more sweet than tart can be fine if used sparingly. Though, in that case, you really want the balsamic to star and wine may detract from that.

Use salt delicately

Very few wines hold up well to heavy salt.

Avoid drinking wine with very spicy (hot) foods

The capsaicin in the peppers deadens your taste buds, so you’ll experience fewer of the wine’s flavors. And the alcohol in wine makes your tongue even more sensitive to the heat. That’s a recipe for all pain and no gain.

For somewhat spicy foods, such as those from Southeast Asia, sweetish whites with good acidity, such as late-harvest Riesling, are a good wine pairing. If you need red wine for a zesty dish, try a fruity Zinfandel.

Following the guidelines above, you can avoid most disastrous food and wine combinations. You will usually find that your wine pairing is at least acceptable and often quite good. If you’re ready to put a bit more effort and planning though, you can take pairings to another level. The following tips will head you in the right direction.

Option 1: Choose a wine that somewhat mimics one or more significant elements in the food

If this pairing were two musical instruments, it might be a cello and upright bass. Let’s say that the dish you are pairing is poached salmon with Hollandaise sauce. In this case, a somewhat buttery but not too oaky Chardonnay is a great choice. The rich body and butter flavors in the wine will complement the fatty salmon as well as the thick buttery sauce. And the fruit in the wine will go nicely with the lemony character of the sauce.

Option 2: Do the Opposite

Select a wine that’s in counterpoint to major elements of the dish but doesn’t clash. Pair that same dish, poached salmon and Hollandaise, with a light-bodied Pinot Noir.

The leaner body and above average acidity will cut through the buttery sauce and fatty salmon. It refreshes your palate between bites. The fruit will also provide a nice contrast to the salmon. But earthy notes in the wine will complement the salmons savoriness.

You’ll definitely want a cool climate, New World Pinot Noir for this, something from the Sonoma Coast for example. A bigger wine would have too much weight, alcohol and ripe fruit, but not enough acid and delicate spice. An Old World Pinot Noir might be too savory.

Dealing with Salt

I’ve already suggested going easy on the salt, but some dishes have a naturally high level. Smoked salmon and smoked pork chops are good examples. Sweetness, fruit and acid are good counters to salt. In the case of smoked salmon, an off-dry Riesling could work very well.

With pork (the other white meat…) that very same Riesling could still be great. But, if you want something red, you could try a fruity Pinot Noir or a Zinfandel which is on the light side and isn’t too oaky. Those reds will have enough sweet fruit to counterbalance the salt, but aren’t too tannic. That’s important because…

Tannins and salt don’t mix well

If you are dealing with a salty opening course, you could go with either a Champagne-style sparkling white or, if the food is a bit earthy or vegetal, a Fino Sherry. The acidity and creaminess of Champagne works well with foods like caviar, potato chips and salted popcorn. The acidity but nutty flavors in Fino go well with salty green olives and nuts. Neither wine is tannic.

Heavy tannins bring out metallic flavors in some fish

Red wine and fish is not a wine pairing no-fly zone. It can be a great combo, especially if the fish is cooked in a red wine sauce or is accompanied by a red wine buddy (bacon!). However, really chewy red wines will almost always be a lousy choice. There’s a chemical interaction that just doesn’t work. Stick with smoother reds, such as Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Barbara or Beaujolais.

Fruity and slightly sweet is versatile

If your meal has a variety of fruits and fruity sauces, go with the flow. Choose a wine that is fruity, has a bit of sweetness (real or perceived) but enough spice or floral notes to let it rise above the fray. Riesling would again be a good choice. (Are you noticing a trend here? Sommeliers love Riesling…) Other aromatic white grapes such as Viognier, Muscat and Gewürztraminer are solid options.

Sometimes wine without a strong personality is the best option

If there are loads of flavors and textures going on in the dishes being served, it’s too hard to either complement or contrast. This is especially true if you’re drinking one wine with multiple courses. Select a wine that is happy being a versatile food wine and doesn’t need to be the star of the show.

A big Cabernet Sauvignon may be delicious on its own or with a slab of beef, but it will overwhelm a lot of foods and be made unattractively tannic by others. Consider relatively light-bodied red wines with good fruit and acidity. Sangiovese might be a good choice, or a Grenache-based wine. If you need something more powerful, Zinfandel with less than 14.5 alcohol could work. If you need a white wine, think about good, dry or off-dry versions of Riesling or Chenin Blanc.

You want meat for big red wines

By now, you’re probably wondering if you will ever get to open that trophy Cabernet Sauvignon or burly Syrah. For those, you want red meat that is well-marbled or has a good layer of fat on it. Think rib-eye steak or lamb. And don’t be afraid to grill them. The smoke from the grill won’t overwhelm the wine. Rich braised dishes are also a good bet.

There’s a scientific reason for serving marbled meat with these big reds. The tannins in the wine will marry with the protein and fat, creating a rich but smooth mouthfeel and accentuating the flavors. Without that type of food, the tannins bond with the proteins in your mouth and it locks up your taste buds. Then the flavors go quiet.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve got more than enough information to put together some great combinations to wow your friends and get the most out of both your food and wine. Have a great time experimenting! And let me know what your favorite pairings are.

Copyright Fred Swan 2016. All rights reserved.

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