25 August 2007

Wine, Part Deux: Pairing Wine With Food

One of the biggest anxieties people feel about wine is trying to choose the right one to go with food. Does the right or wrong wine make any difference in your meal?

Well, it can. So let’s go over a few easy tips to make you look like an expert when you’re out dining. There re going to be exceptions to everything I write. There’s always exceptions in the world of wine, but these are good general rules to follow.

First and foremost, don’t panic. When in doubt, just drink what you want. Don’t let it ruin your meal. Really. It’s better to drink wine than soda, so just go with it.

Okay, assuming you want to actually begin pairing, how do you do it?

The Easy Way

The easiest way is color. What is the color of the meat you are eating? Red meat? Red wine. Fish? White wine. Chicken? White wine.

Look how simple that was. When in doubt, follow that rule. It’s a good one, and even works for fish like salmon. Salmon is actually pink to red, so which do you choose? Either! Simple, huh?

But you’re not reading this for generalities, you’re reading this for specifics, so let’s get down to it.

There are two ways to pair wine with food. You either choose a wine whose qualities reflect those of the food, or one that contrasts. Both are valid approaches, although I generally prefer the latter.


The idea of this would be to have the wine and the food contain similar qualities. A sweet dessert with a sweet wine, for instance. A rich, creamy dish with a rich, creamy wine. In some instances this can work wonders (fois gras and Sauternes, anyone?), but I generally find it bland and boring. It’s like having bass and treble on your stereo. You don’t want all bass, and you don’t want all treble. You want the two to complement each other, giving you both power and definition.

But there is one aspect of this type of pairing that works well, and that is the fruit aspect. If you have a dish with lemon overtones, it can be interesting for the wine to also have this. Pork is a sweeter meat, and is great with a sweeter wine.


This is more how I think. Take for instance fettuccine alfredo. It’s what I think of when I think of a cream-based dish. Now, the dish is rich enough on it’s own. You can cut through this with a wine with a little acid to it, like a pinot grigio. The acid in the wine balances out with the richness of the cream, making the wine less biting and the dish less heavy. A dish with lemons in it might do better with a creamy Chardonnay than an acidic Sauvignon Blanc.

This also works with spicy food. The best pairing for spiciness is sweetness, which makes the heat more tolerable. So a spicy Thai curry would go well with a sweeter German Riesling or Gewurtztraminer than it would with a Chardonnay.

A note on sweetness and dryness. The word ‘dry’ refers to the sugar content in the wine. When grapes are harvested, they contain sugar, which when fermented turns into alcohol. If the winemaker allows all of the sugar to turn into alcohol, you have a dry wine. If they stop the process early, leaving some sugar behind, you have a sweet wine. Therefore, virtually all red wine is dry (the exception being port). Again, almost all red wine is dry, because it has no sugar in it. Red wines are often fruity or fruit forward (like some Merlots and Pinot Noirs), but they aren’t sweet. So instead of ordering a dry red, it’s more accurate (and helpful to the waiter/ sommelier/ person in wine shop) to describe a wine that is less fruit forward, or more tannic, or earthy. Describing a red as dry is a big pet peeve of mine. Now, white wines are occasionally sweet, so describing a white as dry is an accurate word to use, because it could be either. Moving on.

Remember, a heavy food should have an equally heavy wine. Delicate food, delicate wines, and vice versa.

Common Pairings

Let’s go through some common pairings.

Steak: One of the few foods that are good with tannic wines. Tannins come from the skins and seeds of the grapes, or the barrels the wine is aged in. What do tannins taste like? Have you ever made a cup of tea, and left the tea bag in too long? You get a dry, puckering feeling in your mouth, that you feel all the way up your jaw line. Your gums stick to the inside of your lips (we’ll go into tannins in another post, but that’s what they taste like). The protein in the steak and the tannins in the wine have some sort of lovely synergy, making both taste extra yummy. You can try for a really oaky, buttery Chardonnay, but generally white wine is overpowered by the meat. It won’t make your steak taste bad, but you really won’t be able to taste your wine, so why bother?

Pairs with: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux, Syrah, Cotes-du-Rhone, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino

Chicken: The nice thing about chicken is that not only does everything taste like it, but it goes with pretty much everything. I personally preferred Pinot Noir with my roasted chicken (in my carnivore days), but it’s really hard to fuck this one up. Drink whatever you want.

Pairs with: Everything

Fish: This depends on the fish, but almost always white wine (the most common exceptions being salmon and swordfish). Red wine has the effect of making both the wine and fish taste like tin foil, so I always avoid it. You want to drink cabernet and eat that tilapia? It ain’t gonna happen, friend.

Fish is one of the examples of wine that reflects often working better than one that contrasts. If the fish is in some kind of a butter sauce, something buttery like a California Chardonnay will probably be really good with it. If the fish has a sweeter quality, go with a sweeter white (something off dry, like a Vouvray or Chenin Blanc).

Pairs with: Sauvignon Blanc, Vouvray, Chenin Blanc, Arneis, Chardonnay

Pork: As I mentioned before, pork tends to be a sweeter meat, so a sweeter wine tends t bring out the best in it, although a fruit forward, non-tannic red can work also.

Pairs with: Riesling, Vouvray, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais

When In Doubt: Wines That Work With Everything

What if a food is full of strange and contrasting ingredients, and you don’t know what to serve with it? Here are a few easy pairings that I keep in my pocket.

Champagne and sparkling wine: Goes with almost everything but steak. People don’t drink enough Champagne for some weird reason, saving it for special occasions and the like. Why? It’s great, it goes with everything, and it’s fun to drink. So crack a bottle!

Rose: A dry rose (NOT WHITE ZINFANDEL) is the great equalizer. It’s my favorite summer wine, because it’s cold and simple, and pairs with everything. It’s a great wine to have at Thanksgiving as well, which is a really hard meal to pair wines with, because of all of the contrasting flavors. Almost every American winery makes a rose, too, and the best part is that most of them are cheap, which lets you drink something like Cakebread, but only have to spend $15 (when their whites and reds start in the $30 range, and go up from there).

Vouvray: This is a white wine from the Loire region of France, made with Chenin Blanc grapes. It is usually demi-sec, which means just a little bit sweet. Another great wine to sit on your porch and drink. and it goes with most foods, too. And you can usually find a bottle for less than $10!

Cru Beaujolais: Beaujolais is an area in France that is well known for making a wine called Beaujolais Nouveau. That wine comes out the third Thursday in November every year. It’s only aged for a few weeks, tastes like bubble gum, and is fun to drink and usually cheap (although with the weakness of the dollar against the euro, has become more expensive in recent years). That’s NOT the wine I’m talking about. They also make good wine as well, although it may not say Beaujolais on the label. Their quality wines are labeled from the town in which they are made (the crus, so to speak). A few are : Morgon, Moulin-auVent, Fleurie, Brouilly.

Any questions?

Coming Next: How to read a wine label


pistols at dawn said...

Excellently done. I think the tea description of tannins may the best I've heard, and I like any advice that includes "it's pretty hard to fuck this up."

However, since my local McDonald's refuses to stock wine, which burger goes best with Mr. Pibb?

Valerie said...

You really know your stuff.


And I'll take some Foie Gras and Sauternes, please. Yummmmmm....

katrocket said...

This is very informative! Thanks Progress! But now I'm confused about what to pair with turkey bacon. Do I go with the chicken rules or the pig rules?

Also, there are days when I just prefer to pair wine with some more wine. Any suggestions?

Laaw-yuhr said...

Ohhhhh, at long last, thank you for this! I would have posted sooner but I lost the hard drive on my computer and just got my internet connection back.

Also, I believe in champagne for all occassions.

Grant Miller said...

What's your opinion on Night Train?

The Idea Of Progress said...

Pistols: I'd suggest a Goodburger, home of the Goodburger.

Valerie: Not in Chicago. It's illegal here. Really. But oh so tasty.

Katrocket: I'd suggest drinking the good stuff first. That way, when you're drunk, you can enjoy that nice bottle of Night Train with Grant Miller Media.

Laaw-yur: There's rarely a bad time for Champagne.