It’s a common misconception that pairing wine and food is an art. In actuality, it’s more of a science. The flavor components of certain wines and foods work together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
However, you’ll often find that wine and food pairing articles only give general guidelines on the subject. These guidelines aren’t very helpful for dining at home or in a small restaurant where there’s just one sommelier.
In this article, we’ll break down the science of matching wine and food into a few simple steps that you can apply to any dining situation.
How to Create the Perfect Match
When pairing wine with food, it is important to understand what flavor components are shared. For example, wines typically share sweetness, sourness, or bitterness with certain foods.
Some people compare food and wine matching with dating and matchmaking. Your matchmaker finds commonalities and creates opportunities to pair two people together. Even if they have differences, matchmakers understand that these differences should be a point of attraction to the other. It is the same when it comes to dining.
That being said, there are five basic flavor profiles that you should know before pairing wine with food:
Bitter flavors are commonly found in grape skins, wild herbs and spices, and certain vegetables like artichokes, chicory, dandelion greens, radicchio, and other vegetables.
Bitter foods pair well with red wines that have a similar flavor profile. For instance, if you are eating a bitter vegetable like radicchio, it will be balanced by the tannins of red wine.
As long as too extreme contrast isn’t created between the wine and food, bitterness can add an extra dimension to your meal.
Think of wines that are tannic, tart, and acidic with a low to medium sweetness level. When it comes to food pairings, you can think of sour flavors as a contrast for your dish. For example, if you’re eating a rich and creamy cheesecake – the sourness in a Sauvignon Blanc will balance out the sugar in the cheesecake and create a nice, refreshing pair.
The sweetness of wines typically comes from grapes harvested at their peak ripeness (also known as harvesting with high Brix).
Sweeter wines work well with rich dishes like lamb, duck, and desserts. However, you can also pair sweeter wines with less rich foods like salmon or pasta.
Wines with low to medium acidity and moderate tannins tend to go well with salty foods.
For example, if you are planning on pairing a rich red wine with your seafood or steak dinner, it’s best to select a wine that has somebody but isn’t too fruity or sweet.
When it comes to pairing wines and spicy foods, the goal is to avoid creating a clash of flavors.
Some winemakers add cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, peppermint, thyme, or other herbs to their wines when they are in the barrel or after fermentation.
If you’re eating something that has a moderate to high spice level, try to stick with wines that have similar levels of acidity and tannins. This way, the flavors will complement each other instead of competing.
Match Wine and Food Guidelines
Knowing how to pair wine is just around 50% of the battle.
The next step is to apply what you know about wine pairing and food pairing to a specific dining situation. We’ve compiled a list of some basic guidelines that will help you make the perfect match every time:
When in doubt, follow these four rules for a safe bet: opposites attract. If your dish is spicy, pair it with a wine with lower acidity and tannins. If your dish is light, pair it with a wine with higher acidity and tannins; if your dish is fatty or creamy, pair it with a wine that’s fruity or sweet.
When you’re not sure where to start, try pairing wines with food according to these common flavor profiles:
- Red Wine with Red Meat – Matching a rich red wine with a fatty cut of meat is a classic movie. The key to this match is finding a wine that’s not too tannic, as the tannins from your red wine will cling onto the fat in your steak and make it taste not very pleasant. Instead, look for a wine with low to moderate tannins and high acidities, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel.
- White Wine with Fish – If you like pairing white wines with seafood, you’re going to love this pairing rule: the level of sweetness in your wine should complement the level of fattiness in your fish. For example, if you’re planning on pairing a Chardonnay with your fish dinner, look for a wine that’s not too fruity or sweet.
- Red Wine with Chicken and White Wine with Pork – Most wines go well with white meats like chicken and pork. With these pairings, you can’t go wrong because both types of meat are relatively lean. When it comes to red wine pairings, choose lighter-bodied wines because they will be able to stand up to the flavors of your chicken or pork dish.
When it comes to pairing wine and food, there are a few basic guidelines that you should follow. If you’re ever in doubt, think of the flavor profiles that best describe your dish and make sure to match it with a wine that has similar levels of acidity and tannins.