We learn from failure, not from success. And although food and wine pairings are subjective and depend on the people’s taste and preference, some mismatches feel odd. A good pairing brings out the best in food, wine, or both; a bad one can easily do the opposite.
As Woody Allen said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign that you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
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Avoiding Bad Pairings
Here are a few bad pairings you should at least experiment with to identify what to avoid. It is actually a good practice to understand what made a bad pairing. If you want some professional help, you may want to attend a food and wine pairing class to help you avoid some of these mistakes.
You can also check out our article on the top tips for food and wine pairings.
Bad Pairing #1: Heavy wines with light dishes
The easiest way to develop a lousy pairing is not considering the weight of the food with wine—a robust California Zinfandel with a light tuna salad.
Bad pairings like these frequently come from the idea that you should drink whatever you want with any given dish. People who only drink one wine style might not find it enjoyable when the food falls short and gives in to the wine. Rich wines with rich food and delicate wines with delicate dishes that’s the rule. Switch those out, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The same rule applies the other way. Intensely flavored dishes will crush delicate wines. A Burgundian Pinot will feel out of place against a platter of grilled BBQ ribs.
Bad Pairing #2: Too sweet for the wine
Desserts can be overwhelming. Restraint, after all, is a word seldom used by pastry chefs. Overly sweet desserts flatten any wine on sight. If the wine is not sweeter than the dessert, it will taste watery and dull; simply acidic.
Why do my pairings feel wrong? It probably because of sugar. Sugar in food is the silent killer of the inexperienced sommelier’s pairings. To pair a sugar-overdosed dish, you have to either go bone dry to counter the sweetness (think Champagne extra brut) or go over the top with a cloying wine like Pedro Ximenez, ice wine, or Tokaji.
Bad Pairing #3: More acid that you can handle
The same can be said about acidity. If the food has higher acidity than wine, you’re in trouble. Acidic dishes like ceviche, which often have hefty amounts of lime juice, are an obvious example. Try your favorite Mexican shrimp ceviche with a regular Chardonnay and see the wine fall apart. Instead, seek out a high-acid wine like Sauvignon Blanc.
Tomato-based sauces can be acidic too, that’s why they pair well with equally tart red Italian wines like Barbera. A shy California Merlot will taste odd with your spaghetti alla Bolognese.
Bad Pairing #4: Alcohol and spicy food
Spicy food is really not meant to be paired with a spicy wine. Bold, rich, often hot flavors of Asian cuisine, for example, should be paired with wines that carry some sugar. The sweetness balances spiciness, yet many people still pair big alcoholic red wines with this type of food.
Alcohol actually accentuates the hot tones of chili. A light Moscato or an off-dry Riesling will play a better part. Also, avoid sparkling wine with spicy food; effervescence will boost the burning sensation in your tongue. Off-dry reds are uncommon, but they exist; as long as they’re low in alcohol, they’re good options too.
Bad Pairing #5: Oily fish and tannins
Oily fish such as anchovies, herring, salmon, tuna, trout, and swordfish react strangely when meeting tannins of red wine. When a fish has a high iron content, the flavors can turn fishy and metallic. If the fish doesn’t have a high level of iron, the pairing can still be lousy.
Tannins react with protein and fat pleasantly with beef; with oily fish, you get contrary results. When pairing wine with an oily fish, go for a low-tannin red wine like Pinot Noir or, even better, a full-bodied white wine like Chardonnay.
Please don’t ruin your 2010 Napa Cab with a butter-seared salmon; you won’t enjoy either of them.
Bad Pairing #6: Creamy whites with raw fish
We’ve all heard seafood goes well with white wine, but neither all seafood nor whites are created equal. Oysters can be great with Chardonnay, but if the oysters are raw, you’re better off with a young, mineral, unoaked style of wine.
For your butter-bomb Chardonnay, you might consider Au gratin oysters instead. Full-bodied whites often overpower delicate seafood like raw oysters, sushi, or sashimi; for delicate dishes like these, a mineral, austere, almost neutral white wine is best.
In the end, the absolute worst pairing is the one in which you don’t take a chance. Boring pairings, even if they are sound, are just not enough. Every successful food and wine pairing has a Wow! factor. Without it, you have in your hands a just-ok pairing; that’s a failure in my book.