Food & Wine Pairing Tips
By The Staff
In the past, pairing food and wine wasn't merely a marriage, it was an arranged match between dynastic houses: red wine with meat and game, white with seafood and poultry. The "rules" mostly addressed wines' acidity and/or richness versus the four major tastes perceived on the tongue: salty, bitter, sweet, and sour (some make a case for spiciness as a fifth). Of course, who can figure out chemistry between people? Sometimes like prefers like, sometimes opposites attract. It's the same with wine and food. Think in terms of shared attributes (steak au poîvre with peppery Shiraz) and contrasts (sweetness counterbalances saltiness or spiciness---you'd be surprised how well an otherwise insipid White Zinfandel pairs and purrs with a fruit salsa or Thai food).
The Victorians enjoyed champagne with the meat course; a rack of lamb lends itself to everything from Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbaresco, and Syrah to a proper rosé to a crisp grassy Sauvignon Blanc. One reliable rule of thumb is to choose a wine from the same region as the dish. But as our tastes---not to mention fusion (or, in many cases, CONfusion) cooking styles---have become more sophisticated, the potential for matchmaking crosses as many viticultural and geographic borders as the Euro. Of course, if you find the "perfect match," stick with it---but fidelity is not necessarily the shining ideal when mating food and wine. Even if you believe we all have just one true love out there, keep experimenting. It's the best way to expand your wine horizons.
Think of wine as food. This is one marriage where you want co-dependency. When you cook you'd match ingredients carefully in a dish so they harmonize or provide a counterpoint without overwhelming each other; it's the same principle when pairing wine with food. Yes, even if you can't boil water or only do take-out Chinese.
Match the weight/texture/intensity first. Hearty preparations and heavily spiced foods, for instance, demand full-flavored, full-bodied wines; subtle dishes whisper delicate wines. Imagine salmon in dill sauce and a massive, meaty Cabernet Sauvignon. NOT! But forget that stuffy old adage about white with fish, never red. Sure, red wine tannins react unpleasantly with the salt and oils of certain seafood and light whites and N.Y. strip fight like a shabbily dressed diner and an imperious maitre d'. But try a fleshy Pinot Noir, Beaujolais (the Gamay grape), even a lighter Merlot with that salmon. Tuna and swordfish "steaks" also match well with lighter or more elegant reds.
A corollary: often a sauce or preparation is the dominant element in a dish. Your choice should match the sauce first, then the base ingredients. You'd be surprised how an opulent, buttery Chardonnay can stand up to steak---in Bearnaise sauce.
Acidic foods require high-acid wines (think red sauce pasta and Chianti). Sweet foods require richer, fruitier wines. A dry wine will taste too lean and acidic. Tannic wines work best with high-protein food (big red + steak, chocolate, and aged cheese. Think Atkins diet).
Find links between the food and wine. Maybe it's flavor: smoky mesquite-grilled Porterhouse with a smoky Shiraz or sautéed wild mushrooms with earthy Barbera. But avoid color-coding or matching by varietal. And when cooking, don't say, "Hmmm, that wine has a cinnamon note, so I'll add cinnamon to my chicken." Once you know the different taste sensations, trust your palate. Maybe it's texture: creamy risotto with creamy Viognier. Contrast can also work: a brisk, acidic Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc will bring out that risotto, especially if it's seafood. A classic example of both approaches is rich, unctuous foie gras with rich, unctuous Sauternes (a renowned dessert wine). But it also goes brilliantly with desert-dry Champagne. (A rich dish requires either similar lushness in the wine or acidity to cut through it---but the wine should be full-flavored). When creating counterpoints, don't be afraid to take the unexpected, even risky route
The greater the wine, the simpler the food: sure, the dish should be impeccable, but here's one case where the wine is allowed to shine.
- One old rule makes sense to follow. White wine goes before red, light before heavy, young before old. That's not etched in stone, but your palate will adjust more easily.
MOST IMPORTANT. It's your taste that matters, so serve whatever you like. If you like Pinot Noir, the wine equivalent of slipping on a Victoria's Secret negligee, throw it at spicy Indian food. Wine is fun and meant to be shared. Enjoy!