Food and wine have such a carefree, fluid relationship and you can just throw anything together, right? WRONG! There are rules, man! The ways in which we pair food and wine can bring out the best in both and layer the culinary experience; or you can end up with a mix which is too sweet, too salty, too acidic or, in my opinion the worst sin of all: too bland!
It boils down to: pairing red wines with red, bold meats. Whites wines with light intensity dishes. However, a layer of difficulty is present as it’s better to match the wine to the sauce, not the protein. But we’ll get to that. What follows aren’t confusing rules, but there are so many possibilities to explore, so stick with me as we venture through some menu options to pair with a glass (or bottle) of the good grapes!
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One way to ensure you’re going to enhance the flavours of your wine and food, is to match the intensity. This is a congruent pairing which will elevate flavours and highlight what is already there. An intense wine will bring out an intense flavour, for example, the spice in a curry or the tartness and sweetness in a lemon pie.
To compliment the flavours, which will also enhance them, find parallels in the profiles and balance your food and wine’s intensity. Sparkling wine is well complimented with complementary mid-palate creamy flavours which have a bit of bite in the end. A great example of this would be to pair a semi-sweet Moscato and oysters. Creamy flavour and then a tang! A more classic example: Bordeaux and steak. This tried and tested combination of a Cabernet-dominated wine with gamier meats like veal enhances flavour by complementing the proteins in the steak with the tannins of the Cabernet. Any fruit notes in the wine complement what could otherwise be overpowering flavours of the meat, creating a balanced tasting of both. Cabernet Sauvignon is also a great steak flavour match. Juicy cuts like ribeye marry well with a strong Cab Sav because their intensity is balanced.
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SIP & SAUCE
Matching your wine to the sauce of your meal, whether it be meat or vegetarian, sweet or salty, is a great way to ensure your food and wine partner up and don’t dominate each other on the flavour scale. A rich sauce with a rich wine will mean neither is overpowered. Similarly, you don’t want to overwhelm a delicate wine – so pair it with a meal of delicate flavours. A great way to navigate this is to match ingredients: a mushroom dish with an earthy Pinot! Using a red meat based sauce? Grab a bottle of Montepulciano! High acidity in a sauce, like using a lot of fresh herbs: Chianti is a great match, owing to it also having high acidity and fresh notes.
ACIDITY & CRISP NOTES
Speaking of acidity, you want to have a touch more in the wine than the food when you’re pairing the two together. Natural acidity in food marries well with crisp high acidity wines. Pairing a Soave Classico with a zingy vinaigrette salad is the perfect match. If you’re hitting the seaside and enjoying some battered fish and chips, use the acidity in the wine to balance the fat with a Soave Classico or Pinot Grigio.
On the topic of seafood. We have to talk about Chardonnay. Thinking now about a ‘celebratory seafood’ situation (Christmas lunch, Summer BBQ’s and fancy dinners,) crayfish, prawns, crabs: basically all the fish that are tough on the outside but have soft squishy interiors, are all usually cooked in a little (or lot) of butter. The butter is the pairing key: buttery textures and flavours in the food are enhanced by the rich decadence and citrus acidity of the wine; what results is refreshing and the perfect match! So remember: by the bay = Chardonnay.
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Pairing spicy wines with spicy foods can be difficult. Wine can suffer when too much chilli is present in a meal. Semillon stands up against it with its high acidity and can also pair well with high salt dishes: including anything drenched in soy sauce! Which moves us onto high salt and spicy Asian food. The best wine to pair: Montepulciano. It’s not too high in tannins and will accentuate the heat and flavours in the food.
I will throw this at you though: consider a sweet fruity wine with a spicy dish once in a while: the dish will shine and the wine will still be great. See? There are rules but there are exceptions. You can experiment a little.
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Food should be paired with wine that is as sweet or sweeter than it. This applies not only to desserts, but to all foods with sweet notes in them. If the sweetness in the food overpowers the sweetness in the wine, than the wine will become dull and both flavours will suffer. This is the reason for Moscato and sweet Prosecco’s existence. This is their time to shine. Especially fruit based desserts or salty dishes which have sweet notes: like an appetiser of prosciutto wrapped melon.
My recommendations for chocolate, because chocolate is very important for life. Pair white chocolate (the sweetest) with a sparkling wine. Pair dark chocolate, with its bitterness, alongside a Cabernet Sauvignon or Dolcetto.
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Pair heavy with heavy (rich and fatty) and light with light (delicate flavours), this one is very simple to remember. Delicate flavours from white fish love a glass of lighter-style whites like Semillon. If the fish is fattier or rich, like salmon, go with a Pinot Noir.
The tannins in wines bring out the bitter characters and notes, particularly in reds. A high fat content meal will soften the bitter tannins mouthfeel to great effect. An example of this would be Parmigiano Reggiano with Cabernet Sauvignon, or a prime rib steak with fat on alongside a Dolcetto.
Getting down to the nitty gritty of grape varieties, Nebbiolo is capable of incredible aromatic complexity making it a great pairing for anything dense in protein. Nebbiolo’s powerful tannins are kept in check with something like a slow braised meat dish because the wine can shine and the flavours of both are melded together.
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For a truly elegant and fresh pairing, bring on the figs with blue cheese and Prosciutto with a glass of Arneis. Rich on rich, sweet on salty, a lot with… well…a lot! Remember: balance the weight. The favourite of Tsars and Emperors, this pairing stands the test of time for its audacity to be so much and still so well balanced. Contrasting and complementary flavours and textures, counterbalanced to perfection.
Eat, drink and merrily follow the rules, my friends.
Traveller of Places, Lover of Wine, Eater of Food, Teller of Stories