Seven Tips For Pairing Food & Wine

Glasses of wine with assorted foods.

Wine and food pairing is a balancing act, an art rather than an exact science. You want to balance flavors, weight and intensity. A delicate dish should be matched with a subtle wine and a hearty meal with a sturdier wine. Wines can thus be chosen to complement the meal. For example, the apple and apricot flavors of a Riesling are an ideal complement for a pork roast (a dish often served with apple sauce or stuffed with dried apricots, prunes and other fruits). That said, some dishes taste better if the wine contrasts with it. The crisp, clean flavors of many white wines will match perfectly with a rich, creamy dish and the lemony flavors of a Pinot Grigio are ideal with fried fish. In these instances, the wine cleanses your palate between bites, refreshing you and preparing you for the full flavor of your next bite.

Match the flavors of the wine with those traditionally paired with a food item. For example, Pinot Noir often tastes of cranberries and cherries. It is therefore a great match for turkey or duck, both of which are traditionally served with cranberries or cherries. The citrus flavors of Sauvignon Blanc go well with fish and the peppery scents typical of a Syrah or Grenache pair well with most red meat. Keep in mind these rules of thumb from the Oxford Companion to Wine: 1) sourness and saltiness in food suppress apparent bitterness in wine; 2) astringency in wine is suppressed by foods that are acidic, salty or fatty and accentuated by food that is sweet or spicy; 3) salty foods often make sweet wines taste sweeter; and 4) bitter foods often make wine seem more bitter.

Europe's regional foods pair well with wine from the same region. There is a natural, organic relationship between the food traditions of a particular region and the beverages drunk there. Thus, the bean, duck, and sausage cassoulets of South-West France go very well with wines from that region. Cahors or Madiran work best. The  coq au vin made in France's Burgundy region is well matched with red Burgundies (which are always made with the Pinot Noir grape).  The simple roasted or grilled meat dishes so often served in Spain are traditionally paired with the classic, oaky, dry reds of Rioja.

Tomatoes are acidic and therefore tough on wine. You need a wine with acidity to harmonize with the tomatoes. For fresh tomatoes, serve a Sauvignon Blanc or Southern French white. If you're serving a tomato sauce, try serving a Barbera or a red wine from Southern Italy, such as a Salice Salentino. For sun-dried tomatoes, the intensity of flavor calls for an intense wine, a sweeter Riesling really works.

Some things are death to wine. Vinaigrettes are very tough and if you must serve one, prepare it with aged balsamic vinegar that has greater inherent sweetness (or with lemon juice instead of vinegar). Artichokes, asparagus and spinach can make a wine taste bitter and metallic unless you serve a highly acidic wine, perhaps a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet. Ginger is also difficult, but if a recipe calls for it, serve a Gewürztraminer. Hot and spicy dishes like Indian, Thai or Mexican can overwhelm a wine because the chilies numb the palate. Hot food requires a cool drink, and so a full-bodied white will work or a soft red, such as a Beaujolais. For the hottest dishes, serve Champagne or beer.

Wine and cheese make a wonderful combination, especially if you are serving a wine that originates from the same region as the cheese. An aged Asiago from Italy will be great with a Chianti, Brunello, or Barbaresco. However, such pairings are not always possible, so three rules of thumb apply. 1) Dry reds suffer with many cheeses, dry whites often do better and sweet whites are almost without exception the best of all. 2) Soft, creamy cheese with a washed rind (like Brie or Camembert) will bring out the tannins in a red wine and so you must choose a wine with softer tannins, such as a Beaujolais or North American Pinot Noir. 3) Dry red wines that have ample tannins such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Bordeaux are gloriously matched with hard, aged cheeses such as cheddar or Manchego. And, of course, there are simply matches made in heaven that need to be experienced! Try a bottle of Port with Stilton, Sauternes with Roquefort or Sancerre with goat's cheese. You'll be glad you did.

Dessert wines should be sweeter than the dessert with which they are served. If the dessert is sweeter than the wine, the wine will taste thin and tart. For many desserts, choose a full-bodied, sweet wine such as a Sauternes, Muscat or late-harvest Chenin Blanc based wine. Chocolate can be difficult to match because chocolate desserts are often very sweet and they coat the inside of your mouth. Finding a wine sweeter than the chocolate can be hard, but young ruby ports and Hungarian Tokay are usually a good match.

What's The Right Wine To Use...?

Beef

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux, red Zinfandel, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Australian Shiraz, Super Tuscan, Barbaresco or Barolo

Lamb

Bordeaux (especially Médoc), Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Barbaresco or Barolo Pork
Riesling, Cru Beaujolais, Rioja, Côtes du Rhône or New World Chardonnay

BBQ

Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Shiraz, Petite Syrah or red Zinfandel

Hamburger or Sausage

Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Shiraz, Petite Syrah or red Zinfandel

Chicken

California or Australian Chardonnay, Riesling, dry Vouvray, white Burgundy, red Burgundy, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, red Zinfandel or Valpolicella

Feathered Game (guinea fowl, pheasant, squab, etc.)

Red Burgundy, Pinot Noir or Rioja

Pasta

Pinot Grigio, Vernaccia, Barbera, Dolcetto, Chianti, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc

Pasta with Tomato Sauce

Chianti, Morellino di Scansano, Salice Salentino or Montepulciano d'Arbruzzo

Fresh Water or Lighter Fish (trout, sole, etc.)

White Bordeaux, Meursault or other good white Burgundy

Oily or Heavier Fish (mackerel, swordfish, tuna, etc.)

Rich Australian Chardonnay or Semillon, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir or Beaujolais

Shellfish (clams, mussles, scallops, oysters, etc.)

Muscadet, Vinho Verde, Verdicchio, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarinho, Chablis or Champagne

Lobster

Semillon, white Burgundy, Champagne or Sauternes

Salmon

Rich Chardonnay, white Burgundy, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Beaujolais, Chinon, California or Oregon Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir

Smoked Salmon or other Smoked Fish

Champagne or Riesling

Soft, Creamy Cheeses with washed rind (brie, camembert, etc.)

Beaujolais, North American Pinot Noir or well-aged St.-Emilion

Hard, Aged Cheeses (cheddar, aged gouda, manchego, etc.)

Cabernet Sauvignon, red Zinfandel, Merlot, Rioja, ruby Port, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry

Goat's Cheese

Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Vouvray or white Bordeaux