I had a few reader requests to do a post on wine and food pairing tips. I’ve actually hesitated to write this post because it’s a bit of a gray area. However, I’ll do my best to tell you what I know below!
This is for sure – people taste differently. What is bitter or sweet to one person may not be at all to another (like, some of you like your coffee black and some don’t, right?). So when you think about wine and food, keep in mind that what pairs well for one person may not seem to work for another. Because people vary in their sensibilities and preferences, there is no simple answer as to what wines go best with what dishes. When you see those books or sites that make charts and graphics that show pairings, those are just suggestions, not rules.
Also, the wine that pairs with the food will depend on the way food has been prepared. For example, chicken that has been simply roasted vs barbecued vs cooked in a cream sauce vs baked in a red sauce would pair differently with different wines.
There are 5 tastes we can detect that provide the basis to pairing wine with food:
(*The weird one, I know. We’ll get there, keep reading…)
Sweetness in food: Increases the perception of bitterness and acidity, and decreases sweetness and body in wine
Sweetness in food can make a dry wine seem to lose its fruit and be bitter and acidic. If your dish contains sugar, choose a wine with the same or a higher level of sweetness so the flavours complement each other instead of fighting against each other.
Takeaway: Sweet dish >>> look for at least as much sugar in the wine
Saltiness in food: Increases the perception of body, decreases the perception of bitterness and acidity in wine
Salt softens everything that is hard and rounds out taste, gives everything more body. This taste is the easiest to recognize and it lingerrrrs. Saltiness brings out sweetness, hides tannins and decreases bitterness. Sweet dessert wines go well with salty foods, or very fruity reds.
Takeaway: Salty dish >>> look for a fruity, acidic wine, perhaps with a bit of sweetness
Acidity in food: Increases the perception of body, sweetness in wine. Decreases the perception of acidity in the wine
Some acidity is generally a good thing for food and wine pairing — it can bring a very high acid wine into balance and enhance it’s fruitiness. But low acid wines paired with high acid foods can make the wines seem flat and flabby. Very highly acidic foods (like vinaigrette salad dressings) are not ideal with wine because they tend to cancel out the wine’s flavor.
Takeaway: High acid dish >>> look for a high acid wine
Bitterness in food: Increases bitterness in wine
Bitterness is very subjective as what tastes bitter to one person may not to another. But we do know to avoid pairing bitter wines with bitter foods, as they do not cancel each other out. If you pair a bitter wine with a bitter food, the bitterness will just compound and create more bitterness.
Takeaway: Bitter dish >>> look for a less bitter wine. Consider white wines or low-tannin reds.
Umami in food: Increases the perception of bitterness and acidity, decreases the perception of sweetness and body in wine
Ok, the mysterious fifth flavor we can taste is called umami and pronounced “oo-MOM-ee”. It’s a savory taste. It’s not sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Think about how mushrooms, parmesan cheese, eggs, ripe soft cheeses, or oysters taste. It’s earthy, kind of subtle and definitely delicious, and it’s — well, a pain to pair with wine because of the varying salt levels that the different meals contain. The perfect wines are those that do not overpower it, yet have enough texture to match it.
High umami content without a high salt level makes the wine taste harder, so go for a sweet or off-dry wine like Muscadet. High umami content with a high salt level has the opposite effect, so go for a more acidic wines. Umami generally makes the wine more acidic, gives it more of a burn, and makes it loses some of the fruitiness. So go for a wine that has plenty of fruit, keeping in mind the differing the levels of acidity and sweetness depend on the salt level.
Takeaway: Umami dish >>> look for wines that are more fruity than tannic
Other things to keep in mind:
- Acid + Fat work well together. Acidic wine can cut through fatty or oily foods.
- Sweet + Salty can also work well together. Think sweet wine with blue cheeses.
- Matchy Matchy vs. Contrasting. Sometimes it’s great to match a rich wine with a rich food — like syrah with lamb. And sometimes, it’s nice to pair a nice light white like riesling with a spicy Thai dish.
- Local Wine + Local Food. Consider pairing wine with the regional or origin of the cuisine. The flavors of foods and wines that have grown near each other for years — like Tuscan food and Tuscan wines — are almost always a natural fit.
Here are just a few of the many classic pairings:
- Oysters with Muscadet
- Champagne with Caviar
- Pinot Grigio with Proscuitto
- Manzanilla with Olives
- Chardonnay and Buttery Lobster
- Sauvignon Blanc with a Light Fish with Lemon
- Cabernet with Black Pepper Steak
- Valpolicella with Pizza
- Pinot Noir with Roasted Duck
- Amarone with Short Ribs
- Sauternes with Crème Brûlée
- Port with Stilton
A classic pairing occurs when both the food and wine components make an even better flavor together in your mouth.
I’ll plan do a separate post on wine and cheese, specifically. Let me know any other ideas for posts you all want to see!
xx — BB