Sometimes selecting a wine to go with your meal can seem daunting. You’ve breezed through the menu, confidently selecting an appetizer and entrée, only to be faced with a wine list the size of a small novel. Ideally, a good wine pairing will enhance the flavor and enjoyment of both the wine and the meal.
While your own palate and personal preferences should be your ultimate guide, knowing a few basics about how wines pair with certain general categories of food can help enhance your overall dining experience.
Are we a match?
While you are not necessarily looking for a “perfect match,” you will want to consider a few things when choosing a wine, such as your meal’s flavor and intensity profile. Some restaurants take the worry out of the equation, like Wink Restaurant in Austin, Texas, which creates pairings with its five-course chef’s tasting menu that changes daily. But the majority of restaurants just offer a wine list for you to choose from.
Heavier dishes with strong flavors, such as steak or game, can handle a more robust, full-bodied wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Malbec. By contrast, a more delicate dish of fish or seafood can be matched with a more subtle wine, such as a Pinot Grigio or a Sancerre. While you can certainly pair red wine with fish or white wine with meat without dramatic consequences, the more powerful flavor profile of either the wine or the food will likely overwhelm its counterpart, rather than complement.
Foods and wines that share the same or similar flavor profiles are also good matches. Dishes high in acidity, like pasta with red sauce, pair well with more acidic wines like Sangiovese or Tempranillo. Savory dishes that include fruit go well with wines that have similar fruit notes. A pork loin with apricot sauce, for example, would pair well with a Riesling, which often has stone fruit notes.
Sweet foods generally should be paired with wines that are also sweet. Have you ever washed down a bite of dessert with that last bit of red wine in your glass? If you have, I’m sure it’s a taste you haven’t forgotten. A dry wine will taste bitter and sour when paired with something sweet. Dessert wines, like Sauternes or Muscat, might seem cloying and syrupy on their own but when paired with dessert, the sweetness of the wine and the food will balance each other out and enhance the other flavors of the dish.
Opposites can be delicious.
While some wines are paired for their similarities with food, others are paired for their differences. Foods that are more rich and fatty can pair well with wines that are crisp and clean in profile. The wine acts as a cleanser, refreshing the palate for the next bite. A Pinot Grigio or Chablis, for example, can pair nicely with a creamy dish or fried foods, as can light-bodied reds with high acidity, such as Pinot Noir.
Spicy foods can be challenging to pair because the intense flavors can increase the perception of bitterness, acid, and alcohol in the wine. White wines with a bit of sweetness, or red wines with low tannins, can balance the heat and spicy flavors. An off-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer can work well, as can a Beaujolais or Côtes-du-Rhône.
Taste it to believe it.
There are certainly other factors you can use to determine which wine to drink with your favorite foods. Just like wines, our meals are composed of many layers of flavor, and you could spend a great deal of time perfectly aligning those tastes. I raise my glass to those who endeavor to do so. For the rest of us, here’s a handy cheat sheet to guide us in the general direction of better food and wine enjoyment.
Are their exceptions to the guidelines? Always. The best way to find out is to taste and compare for yourself.
If your food is rich:
Wines higher in acidity (Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc)
Wines higher in tannins (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Rioja)
If your food is salty:
Wines higher in acidity and sparkling wines (Vermentino, Albariño, Cava)
Low tannin reds (Beaujolais, Pinot Noir)
If your food is spicy:
Off-dry or sparkling wines (Riesling, Viognier, Prosecco)
Low tannin, low alcohol reds (Pinot Noir, Beaujolais)
If your food is acidic:
Wines higher in acidity and sparkling wines (Muscadet, Champagne, Chianti)
If your food is sweet:
Dessert wines (Muscat, Sauternes)
Fortified wines (Port, Madeira)
But if you aren’t able to keep all these pairings straight, a few savvy restaurateurs have got you covered. For instance, Robust Wine Bar in St. Louis, Missouri, has an internal system of suggesting wine pairings for each dish on their menu. They call it the “Robust Factor.” Each dish has two or three numbers next to it that denote what style of wine would pair best. Their wine list is then broken down by those “Robust Factor” numbers for easy cross-checking when ordering. Innovations like this, in absence of a table-side sommelier, makes wine pairing simple for the everyday diner.
Remember that you must be at least 21 years old to drink in the USA and to always drink responsibly. This information is intended for informational purposes only, and not to promote the consumption of alcohol.