Pairing Food and Wine: A User’s Guide

food and wine pairing

From the ‘buy on bread, sell on cheese’ dictum, to the most recent literature grazing bookshelves around the world, and to retreats and workshops devoted to the practice, pairing food and wine is all the craze in today’s culinary world.

And while knowing what wine goes with what dish can make a difference come mealtime, there is no need to heed the extensive, complicated  rules; instead, all it takes is a few guidelines to get the bubbly just right.

Pairing food and wine has emerged among gustatory savants as a celebrated part of the growing sophistication of fine dining. While the idea of it has been applied for centuries, only recently has it developed into a glorified, detailed practice that has become the pride of restaurants, seasoned sommeliers, and home cooks looking to impress guests and bring out the best in their dishes. By matching a specific food with wine, each has the opportunity to rise to the occasion of the other, gratifying diners with a more flavorful, rounded and seamless experience.

Cultures have established their own classic pairings based on regional staples, leaving many accustomed to considering certain duos the obvious complements. Only in recent years, however, the practice of pairing food and wine has become increasingly meticulous and discriminatory. Books about the art have pushed the practice to a respected and almost scientific level of appreciation and studies and research continue to surface about what makes the best couple in just about every plausible situation.

However, navigating food and wine pairing is often not worth the fret. There are so many factors affecting the outcome that can ultimately change the takeaway for each individual, and even the most subtle of sensory influences – ambiance, mood, or personal taste preferences — can alter the reaction among diners. So when choosing which bottle to pop open for a dinner party, the result of adhering to the most exhaustive studies may not be worth the effort. In reality, it’s more a matter of matching the food and wine to the person, rather than to each other.

This is not to say there is nothing to be said for matching food to wine — there most certainly is. Instead, this is to accept that not everyone will react the same to each pairing and to appreciate how far a few simple combining rules can accelerate the dining experience, sans the fuss.

Where it Grows

One of the first ways to decide what wine goes with what dish is to appreciate history. Wines usually pair well with food it has grown up with. France and Italy are exceptional examples of this – their wine produce has been grown to harmonize with regional fare.

The regions of Bordeaux, Greece, Rija, Ribera del Duero, Rhone and Provence produce red wines that complement a diet high in lamb. Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon wines, for example, contain tannins that work very well with the fatty texture of lamb and the region’s crisp, sweet Sauternes wine works as something of a palate cleanser alongside the richness of foie gras. In North Burgundy, oysters and the dry, white Chablis wine find the perfect friend in one another.

In Italy, Tuscany’s classic dish, Bistecca alla Fiorentina, matches food fattiness to tannin when paired with the region’s Chianti wine. And on their own, Italian wines may sometimes come across as tannic, lean or tart. However, when paired with Italian foods, they mellow and exhibit a remarkably different flavor profile.

Paying attention to classic pairings is a great way to avoid a dinner party faux pas and the easiest reference to make a quick, last-minute choice on what to serve.

Play the Palate

The best measuring stick for matching food with wine is to synchronize intensity – in flavor and richness – as well as texture. The most general and oft-applied concept it to match light wines to light fare, mild wines to mild fare, and decadent wines to decadent fare. The point behind this is that neither the wine nor the food should overpower the other – both should be savored equally.

Texture also plays an important role. Tannins are compounds that are found in the skin of grapes used for winemaking as well as created in wood barrels where wine is aged. Thus, darker wines tend to contain more tannins, which have astringent-like properties, allowing it to cleanse the palette from lipids. For this reason, wines rich in tannin pair well with fatty dishes, such as beef or steak. But if selecting a white wine to enjoy with, say, a chicken dish on the fattier side, make sure to contrast the heaviness with a crisp acidic wine. However, keep in mind that wines on the acidic side do not pair well with cream.

As for dishes with a strong acidic content, it is best to match them with an equally acidic wine to maintain consistency on the palate. Spicy cuisine also follows this same theme. It is not as customary to drink wine alongside Indian or Chinese food, for example, but if it’s on the menu, the best complement is a wine that mirrors the same flavor profile – spicy or sweet.

When in Doubt

In the end, the most important thing is to drink what you like. Rosé is known to be the trusted go-to wine when unsure about pairing, but it’s always handy to have a simple chart around that can keep the guessing at bay. This chart breaks down wine according to the dish being served as well as recommended wine temperatures.

It can be grueling to learn all the glorified food and wine rules and it can also be fun when taken in stride, but in the end, it’s all about satisfying your personal tastes. This will lead to your ultimate enjoyment, and there is no rule for that.

Photo Credit: Isante_Magazine