A guide to Pairing Food and Wine
Food first, wine second.
Our philosophy for pairing is food first, wine second. The wine should complement and highlight the food.
I’m sure that you have heard time and time again, white with fish, red with meat. We all know that. And for the most part, we do stick to those as general rules, but not always. And it’s not about knowing exactly what you should do for every scenario. It’s about understanding why things work together by getting down to the level of interactions of the components of a dish and the wine. This guide is meant to be a starting point, so that you can go out and confidently create your own new pairings. It is, by no means, an all encompassing guide to the intricacies of pairing wine and food, that would end up being a long and boring encyclopedia.
In our articles we talk a lot about acid and tannin. If these aren’t words that are a part of your everyday vocabulary, please don’t let them scare you off. They are all good things. You might think that you don’t like tannic wines. And when drinking them on their own, I don’t blame you at all. But combined with the right meal, that’s a whole different story.
Breaking it down
The easiest way to understand what makes food and wine pairings work is to break down classic everyday dishes and understand what makes them so great:
The meat is the fat and the protein
The tomato is the acid that cuts through the fattiness of the meat
The lettuce and the onion add texture
A special sauce adds sweetness, salt and more acid
The cheese adds salt and more fat
The bun acts as a base to hold on the flavors together
A Margherita Pizza
The mozzarella cheese adds saltiness and fat
Some parmesan on top adds additional salt and umami flavors
The olive oil is a source of fat
The tomato sauce has acidity that cuts through the fat and some sweetness
Basil adds another layer of flavor
The crust is the base that holds everything together. A crispy crust adds texture.
You get the point.
in wine we have acid, tannin and body to work with.
Acid in a wine cuts through fat in the food. I love to indulge in rich foods but only if I have a wine to balance it out. Acid also helps to brighten and enhance flavors in a dish.
Tannins bind with protein in meat. It makes the meat easier to digest while also smoothing out the tannins in the wine.
A wine with more body can stand up to heavier foods without getting lost. A lighter bodied wine can go with a lighter style of food without overpowering the flavors of the dish. Generally the more alcohol, the more body a wine has - a very rough categorization would be 11-12.5% alcohol is light-bodied, 12.5-14% is medium-bodied, and 14%+ is full-bodied.
A couple things to think about:
The wine should be equally or more acidic than the food.
If you have acidic food with a low acid wine, it will make the wine taste bitter. Acidic foods include tomatoes, citrus, vinegars etc. Acidic wines include a lot of light whites like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, as well as some reds, especially Italian ones like Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.
Match the body of the wine with the “heaviness” of the dish.
i.e. Think rich cream sauce, heavier bodied wine. Fresh salad, lighter bodied wine. You want the food and the wine to complement each other. If this is out of balance, flavors in the dish or the wine could get lost.
Match flavors in the food with flavors in the wine.
This isn’t always possible, but it can definitely take the pairing to the next level because the flavors highlight each other. For example if you have a lemony sauce, find a white wine with a lemony character. Or, if your dish is full of herbs, a wine with a herbal note can be a lot of fun.
What grows together, goes together.
In parts of Europe, the tradition of wine dates back as early as 4000BC. Their food culture and wine culture grew and evolved simultaneously. Just think of this saying when in doubt. If you are having a pasta with ragu, an Italian red is definitely a good choice. Now, that is certainty not the be all and end all, but it is a good thing to fall back on.
Now that you have that mastered, the hardest part will be knowing what types of wines to look for or what they will taste like. That’s why we are here. We will dive deeper into this topic in upcoming articles. And you can reach out to us to give you wine recommendations for whatever you are cooking.
A note about spicy foods:
Spicy food and dry wines just don’t work. Usually when I am cooking something that calls for spice and I am planning to have a dry wine with dinner, I use less spice or a different kind of spice. For example when making Mexican food and it calls for arbol chile (spicier bright reds ones), I will sub in more ancho chile (darker, smokier). Yes, it changes the flavor of the dish, but it makes it work with wine.
Alternatively, you can have a wine that has residual sugar like an off-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer. The tendency is for people to shy away from sweet wines in the US because they associated them with the cheap mass-produced wines that our grandparent’s generation would drink. But a superbly made wine with just enough sweetness to off-set the spiciness of the dish can be a truly extraordinary pairing.
Or, I just have a beer or cocktail instead.
A note about sweet foods:
Just like we mentioned with spicy foods, pairing dry wines with sweet foods typically does not work. The wine should be equally as sweet or sweeter than the food, otherwise it will make the wine taste bitter.
What happens when you have a “bad pairing”
Now we aren’t here to tell you that you can only pair certain foods with certain wines. But just like with cooking, sometimes flavors just don’t work together. And when that happens with a pairing, you will know it. Usually, it makes the wine taste harsh, whether that means accentuating the acidity, tannins or alcohol. Basically, if you take a sip of the wine after eating the food, the wine will not taste good.
Sometimes it is the reverse and the wine can overpower the food. Just think of what would happen if you took a bold tannic red wine from Napa and had it with a delicate white fish. The flavors of the fish just would not be apparent. That’s obviously an extreme example that you already wouldn’t do, but that can happen in less extreme cases like when pairing certain wines with fresher cheeses.
Now, with this in your back pocket, go have fun and experiment! The possibilities are endless! And if you are looking for inspiration, check out our featured pairings.