Food and wine pairing has been around for a long-time. Europeans have been happily, if not purposefully, pairing local wine with local food for centuries and the old vinous adage “what grows together, goes together” stems from this tradition.
Many contemporary consumers are discerning folk who enjoy the culture of food and wine, and food with wine but do not have the time to research it. The false impression that wine and food pairings must be intrinsically complex, only orchestrated by a haughty sommelier in an exclusive restaurant still persists. In the absence of knowledge or an obliging wine expert, many people don’t know where to start.
Why bother at all?
Well, at its best, wine and food pairing creates a synergy: a harmonious accentuation of the very best aspects of both, leading to an experience greater than the sum of its parts. At its worst, a disastrous pairing will not only destroy your meal but also possibly ruin your appreciation of your favourite wine.
Whilst pairing is an objective process, no two people are the same and subjective preferences inevitably play a role. Therefore, it should be noted and remembered that the only golden rule here is that whatever pairing you choose – you enjoy it!
Taste and flavour, what’s the difference?
Tastes are structural in nature and quantifiable; we can “feel” them – sourness, sweetness, bitterness and saltiness. Flavour, such as that of honey, raspberry or meat is entirely more subjective and impossible to measure between people. Whilst opinion is divided, the general consensus of sommeliers and winemakers is that one should prioritise pairing tastes first and then try to match flavours.
Key taste components of wine:
1) Acidity – This is felt as the sourness that makes your mouth water and the sides of your tongue tingle.
• The most important factor to consider.
• Acidity in wine contrasts well with rich, salty, oily, fatty or slightly spicy food. Think of the wine playing the role of a wedge of lemon.
• Acidic wines also pair well with tart foods.
• High acid wines are easier to pair than low acid wines.
2) Sweetness – Referred to as dryness in wine; sweetness ranges from dry to lusciously sweet. Can be felt as a tingling on the tip of the tongue.
• Sweetness in wine balances beautifully with spicy food and pairs well with a slight sweetness in food. For example dishes with a sweet sauce or chutney.
• Sweetness pairs excellently with salt – Port or Sauternes with blue cheese.
• If pairing a sweet wine with a dessert, be sure the wine is at least as sweet or sweeter, or it will taste sour.
3) Tannin – The perception of bitterness and astringency at the side of the mouth and gums. Often confused with “dryness”.
• Tannic wines are balanced beautifully by fat and protein: Think Rib Eye Steak or most cheeses with Cabernet Sauvignon and you’ll know what I mean
• Never pair tannic wines with oily fish unless you love chewing on copper wire.
4) Alcohol – The sensation of “heat” and the primary influencer in a wine’s body and weight; higher alcohol wines – 13% and above – are generally fuller bodied.
• Balance the weight of the wine and the food so one isn’t overly dominant; for example a full bodied, oaky Chardonnay from Burgundy or California will dominate a simple chicken dish with a light sauce
• Spicy or very salty foods increase the perception of alcohol “heat” so steer clear of a high alcohol wine with your Indian takeaway.
5) Oak – Not present in all wines but important to understand for pairing. Oak can impart both flavours (vanilla, sweet spice, smoke, chocolate, caramel) and taste in the form of tannin.
• Oaky wines are trickier to pair, try with food prepared in ways that match the flavour and taste profile; charred, grilled, caramelised, etc.
It is still difficult to keep all of the above in ones head, wine list at hand, particularly after a glass or two! If you take nothing else from this piece, remember this: higher acid wines are easier to pair with most foods – Champagne goes with virtually everything – and try to match the concentration and weight of the wine with that of the food.
Whilst pairing the nature of flavours – such as an oaked, buttery Chardonnay with a creamy sauce based dish – can be interesting and fun, the most important aspect of pairing flavours is to match flavour intensity.
“White wine with fish; red wine with meat” – this is a well-known trope. Whilst there is a grain of truth to this, the selection of wine should not be based around the specific protein being employed but rather considering the overall nature of the dish: sauces, spices and herbs do much more to determine the flavour of the dish than the meat.
Wine and chocolate are great together – wrong! Well… sometimes right but you’ve got to be careful. Try to keep the wine sweeter than the chocolate; a sweet Reciotto Amarone or a Maury work beautifully for sweeter chocolates. Save the Cab-Shiraz for a much darker chocolate.
Tips for Pairing at Home
1. Establish Priority – Obvious but often overlooked. If your priority is to open a fancy bottle for a celebration, plan the menu around that and keep the ingredients simple. If showing off a much-loved recipe, pair the wines to this and be mindful of wines that might steal the show!
2. Store Wine Correctly – be sure to keep the bottles on their side (if sealed with a cork) in a cool, dark place away from vibrations or changes in temperature. Wine is a living, breathing thing and how it is stored will dictate how vibrant and alive it is when you finally pop that cork.
3. Ingredient’s Quality – “Save the good for drinking and the bad for cooking” is an old quote that ought to be thrown out by now. Just as using bargain bin food ingredients are going to limit the quality of a dish, so too will cooking with a sub-standard wine.
4. What grows together, goes together! – Its been said already but it’s a safe bet. If serving up an Italian storm, take a little time to research the wines produced where the dish originates.
5. Keep your options open – Not everyone is going to share an appreciation for the same wine, food and pairings as you. Keep a second option handy.
When pairing in a restaurant, the key is to communicate. Whether it’s a dedicated sommelier, waiter or manager, tell them what you like and dislike. The goods ones will ask and know but don’t leave it to chance. They will greatly prefer your questions to your disappointment at something being off.
Pairings to Avoid!
- Champagne and Wedding Cake – A frequent mistake; tart wine and sweet food… good luck!
- Dry red wine and Chocolate Cake – See above, avoid at all costs!
- Syrah/Shiraz with Sweet Chilli Sauce – Contrary to popular opinion, the peppery character of a restrained Syrah/Shiraz can pair well with light spice but the full-bodied wine with a dominating sauce is too overwhelming for most palettes.
- Pinot Noir and Lasagne – Pinot Noir pairs wonderfully with many things but not with high acid dishes.
- High-alcohol wine and spicy food – Steer clear, unless you like turning your mouth into a furnace!
Classic and Fun Pairings to try!
- Caviar – Champagne
- Oysters – Muscadet (Melon Blanc)
- Foie Gras/Duck Liver Pâté – Sauternes
- Burgers and Hot Dogs (with all the dressings) – Beaujolais (Gamay)
- Roast Chicken with Rosemary and Thyme – Red Burgundy (Pinot Noir)
- Grilled Lamb – Barolo (Nebbiolo)
- Pasta and Tomato Sauce – Chianti (Sangiovese)
- Grilled Vegetables with Olive Oil drizzle – Barbera from Piedmont, Italy
- Rib Eye Steak – Cabernet Sauvignon
- BBQ – Primitivo or Zinfandel from California
- Blue Cheese –Ruby Port
- Goats Cheese – Sauvignon Blanc
- Chocolate Cake – Maury or Recioto Della Valpolicella
- Light, fruity desserts – Moscato d’Asti (Muscat)
Wine is to be enjoyed and arming yourself with some basic knowledge opens up a whole new way to appreciate food. Trial and error are no strangers when it comes to matching your favourite meal to a wine that truly brings it to life. As with any bourgeoning relationship – when you know, you just know; good luck finding “The One”!
Rory Conniffe is a WSET Diploma student and Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Internationally experienced in fine dining, he currently lives and works in Belfast, plying his trade in Michelin starred restaurant; Deanes Eipic.
Having recently transitioned from business development and sales management back to hospitality, Rory is preparing to pursue higher level Sommelier certification and to expand his professional repertoire to include writing and teaching.