Wine pairing is hardly the purview of just wine snobs and sommeliers; in fact, it's hardly tricky at all, so long as you treat wine like you would any other flavor. Sometimes flavors work well together, enhancing one another -- and other times, they don't. Peanut butter and chocolate? Hell yeah! Peanut butter and mayonnaise? Noooo, thank you.
With that in mind, here are a few things you should do when matching up food and wine.
Wines that are higher in acidity tend to play nice with the widest range of foods (think about how a squeeze of lemon juice can perk up almost any ingredient). High-acid white wines such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, and higher-acid reds like Sangiovese (prominent in Chianti), Pinot Noir, and Gamay (which makes Beaujolais) are good go-to picks. Generally, sparkling wines are high in acidity, and are overlooked for meal pairings far too often. In fact, acidity is so important in matching food and wine, that if there is one item on this list to remember, this is it.
Learn more about the science behind pairings
There are actual chemical reasons behind old wine and food pairing adages like “red wine with meat.” Red wines usually have more skin contact during fermentation than white wines, which imparts grape skin tannins (those compounds that make you pucker up -- think strong tea and you’ll get the idea) to the resulting wine. Some of those tannins bind with the proteins in meat, which makes it feel more tender in the mouth.
Pair according to the weight of the dish
Generally, the most successful food and wine pairings match up the “weight” of the dish with that of the wine. A rich Chardonnay works with lobster and potatoes because both the wine and the foods have relatively mild flavor profiles, but feel heavy in the mouth (and all three work with butter). Same goes for Sauvignon Blanc and green salads, only in reverse (lighter textures, but pungently flavorful).
Focus on the most prominent ingredient
For example, if asparagus is the focus of your dish, you’re in tricky wine-pairing territory, since asparagus contains a combination of compounds that can make many wines taste terrible. But if you focus on that ingredient, you can choose a pungent, high acid white wine that can stand up to them.
If it's a special bottle, plan the meal around it
Sometimes, the food isn’t the star of the show. If you’ve got a special bottle of wine (and particularly if it’s an older wine), you are far better off starting with the vino and working your way backwards to the recipes. It’s not snobbish; in this case, your bottle of wine functions as an ingredient (we’re treating wine like a food here, remember).
Be the boss over the sauce
Personally, I’ve seen sauces destroy an otherwise well-considered wine and food pairing more times than I care to remember (in some cases, I drank more of the wine specifically to forget the experience). A heavy sauce on a light, pungent white fish completely changes everything about how that fish tastes, and significantly impacts how your mouth interacts with it chemically. When in doubt, focus on the sauce and ensure you’ve got a wine to match it.
Know that opposites make great combinations
It’s true in love, and sometimes it’s also true in the sweet love being made between wine and food. Rich, cheesy, creamy dishes are often best served with a wine that’s the polar opposite; vibrant, piquant, perky, and flavorful. Going the other way, lighter meats like chicken can sometimes pair beautifully with big red wines, provided that the meat is prepared in as flavorful a manner as possible (like long, slow roasting).
Use a sweet wine to temper spice
Spicy dishes are notoriously difficult to pair up with wine, as they can hit with a devastating one-two combo of overpowering a wine’s flavors while also overemphasizing the wine’s alcohol. But there’s a secret weapon here, and that weapon is sugar. Wine with even a hint of residual sweetness (sugars leftover from fermentation that didn’t turn into alcohol) can help to tame spices without the wine losing its flavor.
Always picking the same wine with dinner is the vinous equivalent of having a pamphlet with two recipes on it and trying to call it a cookbook. You’ll likely have the most success with food and wine pairing in the same manner that you gain success in cooking -- by not being afraid to experiment. There are roughly 10,000 different fine wine grape varieties being made into wines. Italy alone has hundreds. By being a fearless taster, you’ll not only seriously up your wine and food pairing game, but you might just find some new favorites.
Do what you like!
Unless you’re cooking and pouring for a gathering, or are super into the art of raising wine and food pairing into borderline artistic expression, the most important rule of matching up food and wine is to start with what you enjoy, even if your selection bucks the rules of food and wine pairing altogether.
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Joe Roberts is a Certified Specialist of Wine, and can regularly be found roasting the wine world's sacred cows at 1WineDude.com. Follow his wine recommendations and musings: @1winedude.