What wine goes with what food?
Well, there’s no one right answer to this question. The goal is to make food and wine both taste better when consumed together, so your pairing depends on a number of factors. What you’re eating, how it’s prepared, and of course what kind of wine you like to drink. While there’s no exact science to the art of food and wine pairing, there are some simple rules you can follow to help you pick out the right wine for whatever meal you’re having.
How food and wine pairings work
Wine flavors are derived from specific components: sugar, acid, fruit, tannin and alcohol. Foods also have flavor components, such as fat, acid, salt, sugar and bitter. The most successful food and wine pairings feature complementary components, richness and textures.
You can try for either a similar pairing or a contrasting one. For pasta in a rich cream sauce, for example, you could cut through the creamy fat with a crisp, dry, unoaked white wine. Or you could wrap the flavor of the wine around the richness of the sauce by choosing a big, ripe, soft Chardonnay or Roussanne/Marsanne blend.
Of course you’ll need to brush up on white wine and red wine basics to understand the flavors of each grape. Armed with the knowledge of grape varieties, you can follow these few basic rules for a perfect match:
RULE 1: SWEET WITH HEAT
Pair spicy foods with wines that have some residual sugar (example: German Riesling). Residual sugar actually cools down spice and creates balance between the food and the wine.
Alternatively, avoid pairing spicy food with highly alcoholic or tannic wine (example: Italian Barolo). The heat of the food will actually intensify the alcohol and the tannins in the wine, which in turn will make the dish seem even spicier.
RULE 2: SMOKE WITH OAK
Pair grilled or charred foods with wines that have been aged in oak (example: California Chardonnay). Because oaked wines are often more intense, they can overwhelm the flavors in a dish, so they need to be paired with foods that match that intensity. Grilled/charred foods tend to tame that oaky intensity and to bring out the fruit flavors of the wine instead.
RULE 3: MATCH FLAVORS AND TEXTURES
Pair foods with wines that have similar—or complementary—flavors and textures. An easy way to do this is to match mildly flavored wines with mildly flavored foods and big, flavorful foods with big, flavorful wines. Similarly, rich foods should be paired with rich wines. When food and wine have similar qualities, they complement each other and enhance the textures/flavors that they have in common. There’s a reason lobster with butter sauce is often paired with California Chardonnay—they are both buttery in flavor and share a rich, creamy texture. The same goes for French, un-oaked Chablis and raw oysters—both are briny in flavor and share a light, delicate texture.
RULE 4: ACID AND TANNIN WITH FAT
Pair fried or fatty foods with wines that are high in acid (example: French Sauvignon Blanc) or tannin (example: California Cabernet Sauvignon). Acid cuts through richness in food and rounds out the flavors in your mouth. It also acts as a palate cleanser, which helps create balance between rich/oily foods and wine. However, avoid pairing acidic wines with creamy sauces. (Think of squeezing lemon into a cup of milk!) This pairing will clash, so you’re better off pairing cream-based dishes with a complementary wine instead.
Like acid, tannin also cuts through richness. This is another reason why the red wine with red meat rule works—the tannins in a wine like Cabernet Sauvignon cut through fat and help strip it from your tongue. Tannins essentially act as a palate cleanser so that you aren’t overwhelmed by the richness of the dish.
RULE 5: SWEET WITH SALT
Pair sweet wines with salty foods. If you’ve ever had chocolate-covered pretzels or kettle corn, you know firsthand that salty and sweet can be a magical pairing. (It’s one of our favorites!) This same principle applies to salty foods paired with off-dry (slightly sweet) or sweet wines. The combination makes sweet wine taste less sweet and more fruity, and salty food taste less salty and more savory. In effect, the sweet counteracts the salt and vice versa so that both elements shine. A classic example of this is pairing blue cheese with Port.
RULE 6: SWEET WITH SWEET
Pair dessert with wine that is at least as sweet as the dessert itself, if not sweeter. Sweet wines showcase the sweet flavors in food, but if the food is sweeter than the wine, the wine will just taste flabby.
Another good rule to follow is to pair dessert with a sweet wine that has complementary flavors. For example, Tawny Port has a sweet, nutty flavor that goes nicely with sweet, nutty desserts.
RULE 7: WHAT GROWS TOGETHER GOES TOGETHER
Pair foods of a particular ethnicity or region with wines from the same place (example: Spanish food with Spanish wine). Ethnic/regional pairings are typically a match made in heaven because the agriculture and grapevines share the same terroir, so they naturally have flavors that complement each other.