By: Micheal Schafer, The Wine Counselor
What's the best wine to drink with a hamburger? What wine pairs perfectly with perch? Can you enjoy white wine with pizza? The answer to all of these questions is precisely the same - whichever wine you enjoy most.
While there are fundamental principles and guidelines to pairing wine with food, the goal is to drink wine you enjoy with your meal. If your favorite wine is a California white zinfandel and you're a steak lover, then enjoy them together. It's really OK.
The fun is balancing the dish with the wine: The sum should be greater than the parts, just as your favorite dish is greater than the sum of its ingredients. When seeking taste combinations, synergy is the key.
There are three principles wine professionals use to maximize their guests' enjoyment of food and wine:
- Matching or mirroring the wine to the dish.
- Bridging the wine's aromas and flavors with those of the dish.
- Contrasting the food and wine.
But before we start applying these principles, consider a few food and wine "keys."
While some folks (wine geeks) select the wines for the meal before choosing the food, most of us choose the food first. The first on our food "key ring" is, of course, the ingredients - vegetables, meat, poultry, and fish.
The cooking method is next. For chefs, the chicken breast is the tabula rasa, or a blank slate. How is it prepared: poached, sauteed, deep-fried, or grilled? The method of cooking has an enormous effect on the dishes' aroma, flavor, and appearance. That is critical in determining which wine to select.
Our next keys are sweetness and spiciness. Both are very subjective. What's really sweet to you may be just a bit sweet to your dining companions. Is milk chocolate your favorite or is the dark chocolate with 75% cocoa your choice? Spiciness is also extremely personal. It's why menus at many Asian restaurants include the spice level.
Finally, for many diners, a favorite key is sauces and condiments. Whether it is marinara, sweet barbecue, Alfredo, or hollandaise, everyone has a favorite. The sauce or condiment is very important when pairing the wine to the dish. And all of these food keys unlock what we need to know to best pair wines with our favorite foods.
Keys to wine are a bit different than food keys. The most important key on your wine "key ring" is acidity. Acidity is to wine as the nervous system is to our bodies. Wines high in acidity are much easier to pair with food than ones lacking acidity. Balanced acidity's finish leaves us desiring a bite of food, and then the food begs for a sip of wine. And so on. Examples of adding acidity to food are when we squeeze lemon on seafood or add a pickle to a hamburger. A bit of acidity "kicks it up a notch." Acidity in wine can boost the flavor of the food.
Tannins are found in many red wines. They're acids that create the same feeling as tea that's been steeped a bit too long. Fruit tannins are from the grape skins. Wood tannins are from the oak barrels. They can be very soft and luxurious or almost like sandpaper. Some folks love the "grip in your mouth" that tannins provide. Others find it unpleasant and avoid tannic wines. Tannins have a dramatic effect on the texture of the wine.
Oak can be a very important key. If used in moderation, it amplifies the wine's color, body, and flavor. If over-oaked, the wine is clumsy, bitter, and frankly unpleasant. Oaky aromas and flavors should be components of the beverage. Balance is key. Some wine lovers enjoy lots of oaky aromas and flavors while others don't like the lumberyard. A recent trend, particularly with chardonnays, is to use no oak at all. Unoaked wines can be more flexible in pairing with a variety of dishes.
Alcohol content is also key. The lower the alcohol, the lighter the wine. The level of alcohol is a reliable indicator of mouth feel and weight. However, a wine with 14 percent alcohol may be so well-made and balanced you don't really notice the alcohol. A reliable indicator of the wine's body and alcohol are the "tears" or "legs" of the wine as it swirls down the glass.
Applying Food and Wine Keys to Pairing
Now we can apply the food and wine keys to the three main pairing principles. Matching is simply mirroring the wine to the dish. Is it a light, mild dish? Are the aromas and flavors delicate and elegant? Or is it a big, bold heart dish? Is there a dominant flavor or ingredient?
Matching flavors and textures involves mostly common sense. Light dishes are enhanced with lighter wines. Big, bold robust recipes call for heavier, denser wines. A spring salad works well with a crisp sauvignon blanc. Rich flavors like lobster in a cream sauce are flattered by a buttery, oaky chardonnay. Earthy flavors such as mushrooms or truffles are reflected by pinot noirs from Oregon or France's Burgundy region. A juicy, well-marbled steak with hollandaise sauce is best with a hearty Bordeaux or cabernet sauvignon. If we're digging into a beef stew, then a full, robust red - say a full-bodied syrah or zinfandel - will mirror the body of that hearty entree.
You can also match the wine to the cuisine. If it's a particular ethnic cuisine, then pairing wines from that country or region is your best bet. Italian wine with Italian food, French wine with French food, etc.
The Old World (Europe) has a storied history of pairing local wines with local foods. New World (the rest of the planet) winemakers and chefs are quickly catching up with innovative food and wine combinations.
Bridging is linking aromas and flavors in the food and wine. Herbs such as dill, oregano, and even cilantro frequently waft from our glasses. New Zealand sauvignon blancs frequently have herbal, citrus, and mineral aromas with zesty, zingy acidity. Bridging those aromas with a lemon dill sauce on fresh whitefish is a match made in heaven.
Spice aromas of pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg are frequently found in wine. Using those spices in a dish make it easy to bridge. A "Michigan salad" with nuts is complemented by dry sherry. Pork or chicken with a sauce of apples or cherries works well with viognier, riesling, and beaujolais.
Smoke is a classic bridge between food and wine. That brisket will taste even better with a smoky syrah from the Rhone Valley in France. A hearty entree like venison sauced with lingonberries or blackberries has many of the same aromas and flavors as a zinfandel. Sommeliers often think of the wine as a condiment or sauce in and of itself.
Contrasting the flavors and textures of wines and foods is fun, but a bit more challenging. While there are some classic contrasting combinations, creating new pairings can be an adventure. Guidelines for contrasting include sparkling wines with crunchy foods like deep-fried chicken. Heat likes sweet. If you're dining on spicy dishes, a riesling, chenin blanc, or Gewurztraminer (with a little residual sugar) are a soothing contrast to the heat.
When contrasting flavors and textures, be adventurous! For salty foods such as a smoked salmon or caviar, select a wine with little or no tannin and low alcohol - rieslings and sparkling wines are your best bets.
A Note on Desserts
Dessert is a special category when pairing with wine. While vintage port and some chocolate desserts are marvelous pairings, many wonderful dessert wines have been obliterated by an overwhelming dessert. The wine should always be sweeter than the dessert. If not, the wine will taste flat, bitter, and insipid.
The goal is to have a delicious and enjoyable experience. Pleasure is the guiding principle. Have fun, and may your previous meal be half as delectable as your next.
Easy Rules of Thumb
- Pair complex food with a simple wine.
- Refined wines with refined cuisine, robust wines with robust food.
- When in doubt, pair the wine to the sauce, rather than what the sauce is complementing.
- The two most flexible wines are sparkling wines, and wines made from the pinot noir grape.
- Pair the wine to the occasion: value wines with casual cooking, champagnes for celebrating, complex wines with elegant dining.