Eating what you like with a glass of your favorite wine is a great idea; eating should be a singular pleasure. But food and wine pairings are not a solitary affair. When was the last time you saw a restaurant full of people eating alone?
Because the most enjoyable meals are shared, knowing how to create the perfect food and wine pairings will guarantee a stellar dining experience every time.
To get started, we have to think like a sommelier. Some food goes better with certain types of wine, and there is a tug-of-war between science and tradition in every successful match. So pairing food with wine is a creative endeavor like a chemistry experiment.
The following tips will jumpstart your ability to create outstanding pairings.
Pairing food and wine is more about your guests than yourself. You don’t want to be a culinary narcissist. On the other hand, you can’t assume just because you like a pairing, then everyone else will, too. Read on for tips on how to make sure everyone loves your parings.
Top Four Food and Wine Pairing Methods
Pair by Weight
No matter if you’re talking about salads or stews, you can intrinsically determine the overall weight. A mixed green salad is lighter than a more substantial salad with feta cheese, roasted peppers, and olives. Grilled chicken breasts are lighter than roast chicken. The sauce, dressing, amount of fat, and calories all (literally) weigh in.
You can also measure wine by weight. Heavy wines match better with rich dishes, and light wines match better with light dishes.
Here’s an example: A California Zinfandel is weightier than a Sonoma Merlot, while the Merlot will be heavier than a Carneros Pinot. As a result, a hearty dish such as short ribs will complement the Zinfandel but completely overwhelm the Pinot. On the other hand, Merlot and roasted chicken are both medium-weight and perfect.
A note about white wines: Oak-aged wines from warm weather regions are bigger than those aged in stainless steel. Heavy whites go better with cooked fatty fish and poultry, while lighter ones are better with sashimi and sushi plates.
Pair by Cooking Method
The way you cook something alters its pairing possibilities. For example, a grilled lobster tail might work better with a full-bodied Chardonnay; poached lobster will be nicer with a subtle Pinot Gris; lobster ceviche will play deftly with a coastal Sauvignon Blanc.
Grilling or roasting provides an opportunity to pair with more assertive, weighty wines. If the fish is delicate, the wine should be too.
Pair to Complement
Leaving weight aside, you can marry food with wines with similar flavors and aromas. Earthy Burgundian Pinot Noirs can have notes of undergrowth and mushrooms, making them a complementary match for an Old World ragout. A creamy, buttery Chardonnay will pair with equally creamy sauces.
Cabernet Sauvignon can taste like bell peppers, so grilled peppers on the side might enhance any pairing. The same principle applies to Syrah and its black pepper aroma, which beautifully enhances a steak au poivre. Classic wine and food pairings are often complimentary.
Pair by Contrast
On the other hand, contrasting flavors can make an enticing match. Spicy food with spicy wine can be overwhelming; pair your Indian or Szechuan food with wine with a hint of sweetness, and the combination will work perfectly. Enhance oysters au gratin with a tangy, crisp white wine that cuts through the heartiness of the dish. Or be daring and pair sparkling wine with fried foods: Champagne with fried chicken is an unforgettable tasting experience!
Not everyone experiences red wine the same way. For a sizeable minority of people, the flavors in red wine are masked by an overwhelming bitterness. Foods that are high in protein or fat will alleviate that effect. This is why steak is often the recommended pairing with tannic red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon.
More Food and Wine Pairing Ideas
Local Food and Wine Pairings
Local food evolved to harmonize with local wine, especially in regions with long winemaking traditions. Tomato-based Italian dishes will pair nicely with a Primitivo, while bratwurst and sauerkraut are enlivened with German or Alsatian whites. Beef bourguignon loves earthy Pinots, and cured meats burst with flavor next to a Rioja. Even new world cuisines are shaped by old-world cooking; If you look for the origin of a dish, you will likely find a regional wine that pairs well. This is one instance where spending time researching can yield big rewards.
Restaurants use several culinary hacks to create a sure-to-please wine pairing. But be warned, this is also why restaurant food is often unhealthy!
Increasing fat, salt, and sugar will mask incompatible flavors in food. High alcohol wines do this, too. So essentially any flaw can be overwhelmed by an onslaught of delicious flavors.
Be aware of these tricks of the trade, and you can become a more discriminating (and healthier) consumer.
Desserts are challenging to pair. The traditional rule is that the wine must be sweeter than the dessert itself, but not many people drink super sweet wine these days. It’s possible to pair chocolate desserts with dry red wine, but the wine must be rich and jammy: think Aussie Shiraz or old vine Zinfandel. Adding red berry coulis or marmalade will mirror the fruity aromas of these red wines, enhancing the enjoyment of the pairing.
Pair with the Occasion
Brut Champagne tastes odd with wedding cake, but this special day calls for celebratory wine. No one wants to toast with a Moscato on the most important day of their lives, even if it’s the better match! A value-oriented Cava or Prosecco will have the same effect without sacrificing your budget.
Pair with the People
Once you have a bit of experience, it’s easy to select wines for your own palate. But that’s not the goal of pairing, remember? You should always assess the wine knowledge, experience, and expectations of your dining companions. A Grand Cru dry Riesling might work beautifully with coconut shrimp, but if your friends are all beer drinkers, pop open a less contemplative wine, or even better, a fancy beer.
When in doubt, pour some bubbles. T e tight acidity and freshness of sparkling wine will pair well with any dish, whether in contrast or as a complement. A palate cleanser if you wish, Champagne elevates any part of the dining experience.
Wine Pairings Chart
A lot of sites offer a wine and food pairing chart (pdf) and some market a food and wine pairing app. They have the appearance of being helpful and possibly scientific, but they really don’t help at all.
Trends in food and wine are always changing: Don’t be afraid to take a risk with a low-sulfite wine, or one made from an obscure grape. Trying something new can be exciting for you and your guests if you share the experience together. Once you begin to trust your own palate, you can take bigger risks. With bigger risks, come big rewards!
If you are in Philadelphia, you can learn how to become a sommelier at the Wine School. We offer an Advanced Food & Wine Certification program. If you live elsewhere, check out the National Wine School.
What wines go with what foods?
The art of food and wine pairing can be complicated when trying for a sommelier-level pairing, but it’s not hard if you simply want the pairing to not taste bad.
What is the best food and wine combination?
A top food and wine pairing is brut Champagne with potato chips. The high acid of the bubbles is an amazing contrast to the fat and salt.
What are the 2 basic rules when pairing food and wine?
The two basic rules for pairing food and wine are (first) never buy an expensive bottle of wine, and (two) be very wary of tannic red wines.
What should you avoid when pairing food and wine?
Tannic red wines are often not a good idea when pairing food and wine. This is because about 20% of the population are genetically wired to dislike them, and that there is only a narrow band of dishes that go well with overly bitter red wines.