Food and Wine Pairing…the Basics

Food and wine pairing is a popular topic so I thought I would put down some basic tips and concepts I use when choosing a wine for a dish or vice versa.

Have Fun

Wine and food pairing truly is more of an art than a science. The most important thing is to have fun and experiment. Mix it up and keep trying new recipes, new wines and new combinations until you find those “matches made in heaven”. You’ll know you’ve found a great pairing when each bite of food makes you want more wine, and each sip of wine makes you want more food!

Match the Weight of the Wine with the Weight of the Dish

After having fun I believe this is the most important concept in wine and food pairing. If one part of the equation completely overpowers the other you are headed for disaster. For instance what is the point of taking the time to create a beautiful, delicate fish dish or salad if the wine you’ve chosen completely stomps all over it with too much oak, alcohol, tannin or sheer power. Conversely if you’ve made a rich, hedonistic dish and you choose a wimpy wine you won’t have much fun either.  By matching the weight of the wine (light, medium or full bodied) with the weight of the dish you’ve already won half the battle.

Pair to the strongest flavour

Look for the standout flavour in a dish and choose a wine that shares that primary flavour. For instance if a dish includes truffles or truffle oil, a wine with strong earthy qualities would compliment that flavour well. The strongest flavour will not necessarily be the largest ingredient either as a small amount of some herbs, spices or other ingredients can have a big impact.

Match Acids with Acids or Acids with Fats

Acidity is a major component in the structure of a wine…it helps to hold it all together. Many of the most food friendly wines are also wines with great acidity. Acidity helps to keep a wine fresh and balanced and can create that awesome mouth watering sensation. Many foods that are higher in acids, such as tomato based dishes, pair best with wines with excellent acidity. This is part of the reason that Italian red, which tend to have higher acidity, work so well with many pasta and tomato based dishes. Acidity in wine can also help to cut through fatty or rich foods to provide balance. An example of this is the great acidity of Pinot Noir cutting through the oily nature of a salmon dish. Even wines that may seem to sharp or acidic on their own can be outstanding when paired with the right foods!

Alcohol fuels the flames; sweetness helps to put them out

A topic that often comes up is pairing wine with spicy foods such as Thai or Indian cuisine. A rule to help you is that wine with high alcohol such as California Zinfandel exaggerate spice in a dish and make it feel even hotter. Residual sugar or sweetness on the other hand can help to calm spicy elements and can bring out other flavours in a dish. That’s why I love German Riesling so much with Thai food. Many German Rieslings have the perfect combination of lower alcohol and balanced sweetness that work wonders!

At least as sweet…

A quick and easy concept is that if you are pairing wines with a sweet dish or dessert the wine should be at least as sweet as or sweeter than the dish. If you pair a dry wine with a sweet dish the wine can seem very tart or bitter. There is a whole world of dessert wine options ranging from ports to sauternes to late harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Again experiment and have fun!

Protein loves tannins…fish hates them

Tannin is a compound found in some wines (almost always reds) that comes from the skins and seeds and creates a drying or “fuzzy” sensation in the mouth. Sometimes these tannic red wines can come across as harsh or unpleasant when consumed on their own. One trick to taming these wines is to consume them with red meat. The fats and proteins in a juicy steak help to break down those tannins and let the fruit flavours of the wine sing through. Examples of great red meat wines are Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Malbec from Argentina and Italian Super Tuscans just to name a few. Tannins are also one of the reasons many red wines don’t pair well with fish. There is a reaction between tannins and most fish that creates a metallic taste that is often unpleasant. So if you want to stick with red for your salmon choose wines like Pinot Noir or Gamay that are low in tannins.

Drink what you like

At the end of the day your best bet is to drink what you like.  There is no point forcing a pairing with a dish if it’s a wine you don’t enjoy drinking. If you have good wine and good food at the very least you’ll still have a great meal!

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