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Wine Pairing

Good food and wine appeal to the senses. They should be attractive to look at, a pleasure to smell, feel good in the mouth, and, of course, taste delicious. Food pairing is the practice of creating an artistic, elegant or harmonious pairing between food and wine — drawing on elements of flavor, intensity and texture. A great food and wine pairing will elevate each to a greater whole.

Most people will order the dish that most appeals to them and drink a wine they are familiar with. They are often not concerned about it being the “perfect” pairing. The good news is, most food and wine pairings work. Food and wine pairing is both art and science, but certainly leans towards the art.

Foolproof Pairing

There are a few ways to make food and wine pairing foolproof. Here are the four main things to consider:

  • Major ingredients in the food
  • Predominate flavors in the completed dish (sauce, spice and fat content)
  • Texture of finished product
  • Cooking method utilized
Also note the most important "interaction" elements between food and wine. These are:
  • Salt
  • Fat
  • Sugar
  • Spice/heat

Complement or Contrast

When framing a recommendation for pairing, there are two routes to take — complement or contrast. Complementing the food matches similar flavors. Match a lightly flavored dish with a lighter style wine, either white or red. After matching for intensity, match food and wine with similar textures and flavors. Example: pair a medium-bodied Chardonnay that has tropical fruit flavors with a pork chop that's served with pineapple salsa, or pair a "buttery" Chardonnay with lobster and drawn butter.

Contrasting foods is the opposite — and, yes, opposites do attract. For example, Riesling (off-dry to sweet) pairs beautifully with Cajun-spiced calamari. Or a bright, acidic white like Sauvignon Blanc works well with rich cream sauce dishes. The reason Cabernet Sauvignon pairs so well with steak is that the tannic structure of the wine cuts beautifully through the fatty richness of well-marbled steak.

"Drinking wine with food should always be a progression. Taste the wine first and really get a feel for it on its own. Then do the same with the food, enjoying all the flavors and textures. Just before they are about to escape the palate, that’s when you want to chase it with the wine."
– Rob Bigelow

Wine With Cheese

As the intensity of the cheese increases, so does the intensity of its wine match.

Wine With Meat

Much like the cheese pairing, as the meat advances in color and animal stature (a clam to a cow, for instance), so does the intensity of the wine pairing.

Wine With Vegetables

Assess vegetables according to the natural color spectrum and a corresponding wine color will often complement each vegetable.

Rules of Thumb

  • Balanced dishes will usually match balanced wine.
  • Spicy food amplifies alcohol and makes the wine taste “hot” or astringent, so pair it with a soothing, sweet wine — such as a sweet-style Moscato or Riesling — or a very fruity wine, such as Pinot Grigio.
  • Salty foods accentuate the "oak taste" in white wines, but complement fruitiness and sweetness. Pair salty foods with un-oaked or lightly oaked wines.
  • Protein and fat in meats soften the tannins and astringency of red wines. That is why a Cabernet Sauvignon pairs so well with a steak. Protein cuts the acidity of a wine and makes it appear softer.
  • Sweet foods make wine taste more acidic and/or bitter. (Cabernet Sauvignon does not go with milk chocolate.)
  • Smoked foods, especially seafood, tend to dominate the taste of wines. Bigger, full flavored wines will stand up to the smokiness of the food.
  • Tart, sour or acidic foods (citrus, tomatoes and vinegar) are flexible with low- or high-acid wines. This is the ultimate example of the complement-or-contrast method of pairing.