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Wine & Food Pairings

Wine and Food PairingsWine and Food Pairing

An immense amount of pleasure can be derived by pairing food with wine and when done correctly can enhance the flavors of both – and done incorrectly, can have the opposite effect.

For best results when pairing wine and food that will compliment each other, follow these simple guidelines:

Wines and foods with similar elemental tastes tend to work best together.

Sweet (fruit and/or sugar) – The sweetness of a dish should always be lesser, or more subtle than the sweetness of the wine that accompanies it. Otherwise, the palate can not perceive the fruit in the wine and it will appear thin, sour, and even bitter.

Sour (acidity) – Always make sure that the acid levels in a dish, such as vinaigrette dressing on a salad, are lesser than that of the wine. If you lose the perception of the acid in the wine, it will seem flat or dull.

Salty – Salt and sour work very well in opposition. As a result, highly salted foods go very well with high-acid wines. Salty foods also work with sweet wines, another successful contrast. Interestingly, salt in small quantities can take the edge off the bitterness in wines, but a lot of salt will make them taste more bitter.

Bitter (tannin) – Bitter foods such as oil-cured olives will diminish the perception of bitterness or astringency from the tannins in young red wines, allowing the full impact of the fruit flavors to come through.

Fat – High-fat foods generally require the intensity of rich, intense, fat wines to balance them. Sometimes fat dishes’ palate-coating ability will lessen the perception of tannic or bitter flavors in red wines. However, this is not always successful.

Hot Spice – Uncooked garlic, horseradish, hot mustard, black pepper, and chile peppers all have the capability of burning or numbing the palate, making it less able to perceive the subtle flavors in wine. Some of these, horseradish and hot mustard in particular, seem to burn in the sinuses and disperse fairly rapidly, leaving the palate ready for the next sip of wine. Chile peppers can numb the palate long enough to make them poor companions for wine.

Complementary Cuisines:

Sauvignon Blanc (high acid) with Mediterranean, vegetarian and California cuisine. Other varietals that have a profile similar to Sauvignon Blanc are Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine and Champagne, Abarino, Verdeho and Cava. Ideal occasions to serve Sauvignon Blanc would be luncheons, crabfests, or a Friday night grill with chicken or fish.

Chardonnay (fat) with French, North Italian and American dishes tend to combine well with Chardonnay. Other varietals that have a profile similar to Chardonnay are Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and California-style Pinot Blancs. Pair with roasted chicken or scallops sautéed in butter.

Rose & Blush Wines (sweet/fruity, sour/acidic) with Mexican foods, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Thai, Cajun, Southwestern, and Indonesian cuisines. Other varietals that have a profile similar to Rose and blush wines are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Blanc de Noir sparkling wines. Great accompaniment to barbecues, picnics, Sunday brunch and holiday turkey dinner with cranberries.

Pinot Noir (fruit, acidic, slightly tannic/bitter) with contemporary French and Northern Californian cuisines. Other varietals that have a profile similar to Pinot Noir are French Beaujolais (more delicate) and French-style Syrah (more intense). Perfect with grilled meats, braised short ribs, and sautéed veggies.

Zinfandel (fruity/sweet, tannic/bitter, acidic) with robust flavored cuisines, particularly those with tomato based, such as southern Italian, Creole, Southwestern and barbecue from almost anywhere in the U.S. Other varietals that have a profile similar to Zinfandel are Australian Shiraz, Italian Chianti and Sangiovese. Pairs best with anything on the barbecue.

Cabernet Sauvignon (tannic/bitter, acidic) with simpler preparations from France, Italy or the Northern U.S. Grilled, roasted and braised meats. Other varietals that have a profile similar to Cabernet Sauvignon are Petite Sirah, Malbec, Nebbiolo (Italian Barolo and Barbaresco), and Tempranillo.

Sparkling Wines & Champagne are all quite high in acid. With dry sparkling wines such as Rose/Blush or Blanc de Noirs, the best success in food pairing is to compare their styles to the still wine categories listed above (such as Sauvignon Blanc). Some finer Champagnes have a yeasty and/or toasty richness that aligns very well with foods paired with Chardonnay. Sweeter Sparkling Wines and Champagnes such as Doux (the sweetest), Demi-Sec (medium sweet) and Sec (slightly sweet) pair very nicely with sweet desserts and certainly make a dramatic finish to a meal. Try with shortcake with fresh figs and pears and walnuts.

Dessert Wines have three (3) categories:

The first category is comprised of wines that are sweet due to the fermentation being stopped by filtering out the yeast before all the sugar in the grapes can be converted to alcohol. Examples of these are Muscat Canelli and Asti Spumante.

The second category is late harvest wines where the grapes are left on the vines well beyond the normal harvesting time allowing very high sugar levels to develop. Examples of these are late harvest Rieslings, Gewurztraminer and Zinfandels. Try these late harvest wines with desserts that are not overly sweet like an apple galette or fruit cobbler.

The third category is fortified wine, which is made by adding pure alcohol to a partially fermented wine. As a result, we get Port which pairs well with chocolate mousse, and Cream Sherry which pairs very well with ginger flavored desserts.

Parting comments – there are many differences of opinion on the subject of wine and food pairing and many other influences besides taste and aroma. Some other variables to take into account are the temperature of the wine, your mood at any particular time or a specific occasion, body chemistry and the quality of the wine.

Remember, the first and last principle is simply your own personal preference. What you like best is always best.


The Wine Bible by Karen McNeil

The Vintners’ Table Cookbook by Mary Everly

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