One of my favorite things about wine is that, when paired with the right foods, the combination seems to make the entire dining experience just that much better. Traditionally, there have been some standardized rules to guide consumers in their food and wine pairing pursuits. For example, you may have heard the classic rule that suggests red wines should always be paired with red meats and white wines with white meats. These classic pairing rules stood the test of time simply because, for the most part, they worked; however, the old-school pairing guidelines don’t necessarily fit with the way that we cook and eat today. Today’s ingredients and recipes are more diverse and colorful than ever, and so are today’s wines.
That being said, taste and enjoyment are both subjective, and what may seem like a perfect pairing to one person may taste all wrong to another. The purpose of this article is not to be the end-all authority on matching the meals you create with the wines you select. This should just be a starting point for inspiration so that you can begin experimenting on your own. Soon you’ll develop your own tasting and pairing preferences that fit with the ways that you eat, cook and live your life.
An Idea or Two
Here are some noteworthy ideas to keep in mind as you explore the fantastic, albeit overwhelming at times, world of food and wine pairing:
1. Consider the element of the meal that holds the most flavor (usually sauces, seasonings and cooking methods) and find a wine that complements those dominant flavors. Flavor is a combination of taste and aroma. Consider the tastes and aromas of the most flavor-forward elements in your meal, and find a wine that has a complementary flavor profile. A great example of this is pairing a hearty red zinfandel with a meal of smoked BBQ ribs. A red zinfandel will be full of flavor with hints of spice or black pepper, a perfect complement to the smoky notes that the ribs have from being cooked over charcoal and the spicy BBQ sauce that accompanies them. If you are unfamiliar with the flavor profiles of different varietals, check out this helpful wine dashboard from FoodandWinePairing.org.
2. At the same time, don’t be afraid to pair opposite or contrasting flavors. As long as the intensity and weight of the food is on par with the intensity and weight of the wine, trying opposite or out-of-the-box flavor combinations can create entirely new flavors and thrilling juxtaposition. Pairing opposite flavors can also help cleanse the palate. For example, try pairing a spicy Mexican dish with a sweet riesling. The sweetness in the riesling can act as a foil to the spicy heat, taming it and transforming it into something different. Similar to how the basic nature of milk will tame the heat of a hot pepper, the sweetness in the riesling cuts through the piquant Mexican dish and creates new flavors that would not have been experienced without this adventurous pairing.
3. Consider the origins of the dominant flavors and ingredients in your meal and pair them with a wine of similar origin. Foods and wines that “grew up together” will make great partners. To put it another way, food and wines that come from similar geographic locations will naturally exhibit tastes, aromas and textures inherent to that culture or location. For example, if you’re having a traditional “Pasta ala Bolognese,” pair it with an Old World Italian red wine. This can also be a fun way to turn your mealtimes into mini travel expeditions, as you experience the natural expressions of foods and wines from particular cultures or geographic regions.
4. Balance the intensity or concentration of flavors in the wine with the intensity or concentration of the flavors in the food. When we talk about the intensity of a wine, we are referring to how concentrated the flavor profile of the wine is – how alive, vibrant, powerful and aromatic the flavors are. Does a sip of this wine immediately make you say “wow!”? Or are the flavors and aromas more subdued, gentle and neutral? You will want to pair a high-intensity wine with foods and sauces that have similarly vibrant and powerful flavor profiles, while you will want to pair a low-intensity wine with foods that have a lighter, simpler flavor profile. For example, pair a crisp and clean sauvignon blanc paired with a mild Whitefish, dressed with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
5. Balance the weight of the wine with the weight of the food you are serving it with. This is important because if you pair a heavy wine with a lighter fare, the wine will overpower or overwhelm the more delicate flavors in the meal (and vice-versa). When we talk about the weight of the wine, we are referring to the body, fullness and feel of the wine in your mouth. Try comparing the weight of a wine to the weight of milk with different fat concentrations. A heavy or full-bodied wine will coat the sides of your mouth like a sip of heavy creamer. A medium-bodied wine will feel more like a sip of whole milk, while a light-bodied wine will be feel thinner and more fluid, like a sip of skim milk. As a general rule of thumb, full-bodied or heavy wines will have higher alcohol contents and more concentrated flavors. You may want to pair heavier, more flavor-forward wines with heavier or heartier meals. For example, you might consider drinking a full-bodied syrah with a heavy, red sauce pasta dish.
The most important thing to keep in mind when exploring food and wine pairings is that there is no right or wrong way to pair. Focus on finding wines that you enjoy and like to share with family and friends. If there’s food on the table and wine in your glass, you’re on the right track.
Check out our “classic” and “adventurous” pairing options for a few of our favorite PotsandPans.com recipes in ourTake Two article from the Food and Wine Basics series.
Check out this pairing chart for more food and wine pairing inspiration: Barina Craft Pairing Chart