For people who drink to get drunk, food is a way to slow down the process and pace yourself through the course of a night. But for centuries, food and wine have been a match made in heaven, designed to properly mesh together and complement one another. The art and science of pairing food and wine may seem complicated and daunting at first but hopefully my explanations and graphics can help clear it up a little bit.
Perhaps most important to ask, why do certain wines go with certain foods? Bear in mind that wines are a complicated, interactive matrix of chemicals, primarily acids, tannins, sugars, flavor compounds, and alcohol. But not every wine is the same, and different types of foods will explore certain flavors and textures in more depth. Some will show more savory/umami components. Others may be bright, zesty, and acidic. Still others may be heavy, fatty and greasy. The key to pairing wine and food is to understand how to let each component shine without compromising one another.
Below I have a beginning list of how basic foods and general wine categories go together. And remember that it’s a basic starting list, there will always be exceptions to the rules, but I have tried to make it as comprehensive as possible.
From the chart it’s pretty easy to tell that there are some emerging trends. Darker meats require darker wines. Cream goes well with just about everything except the boldest stuff. Dessert wines live up to their name. Sparkling wines are probably your safest bet if you have no idea what you’re doing. Really though, this chart is just the beginning. When you’re pairing wine with a meal, you’re going to have to take several components into account.
Let’s take an example dish to demonstrate the process of figuring out what will work best. Say you’re preparing a batch of coconut curry shrimp served over rice. To get things started, pick approximately four or five of the most important flavor and texture components that are in your dish. In the case of my suggestion dish, that would be:
- Shrimp (shellfish)
- Curry (aromatic spice)
- Coconut (fruit)
- Rice (probably a white starch, possibly whole wheat depending on preferences)
Now that we have our important ingredients, let’s take a look at the wine categories that pair best with each one.
- Shrimp: Rosé, Rich White, Light White, Sweet White
- Curry: Medium Red, Light Red, Rosé, Sweet White, Sparkling
- Coconut: Sweet White, Dessert, Sparkling
- Rice (white grain): Everything
- Rice (whole grain): Light Red, Rosé, Rich White, Sweet White
There’s only one wine category that works with all the important ingredients: the sweet white wines. In many of the cases up above the sweet white would have qualified as “excellent” in accompaniment with the ingredients, so a good quality Riesling would probably be the best option for that meal. If no sweet whites were available a rosé would be an acceptable substitute.
While not a perfect system, there’s also obvious merit to the process of regional pairing. What’s going to go better with Italian food than a classic glass of Chianti, Brunello, Amarone, or Barolo? The big and bold classics of Bordeaux are a perfect match for a Bordeaux-style leg of lamb. Oregon Pinot Noir will shine alongside its dairy counterpart, local cow’s-milk cheese. When it comes to Old World wines, remember they’ve been in the business for centuries. Many of their wines are designed to be consumed with food, so local cuisine can be an inspiration for them.
If you can’t have the chart handy and you don’t want to write down the different parts of your meal every time you’re figuring out what wine to pick, remember at least a few of these basic rules:
- If the food has more acidity than the wine, the wine will taste flat and dull.
- Fats and tannins help clean one another while bolstering savory flavor.
- Acid cuts into fat and can create a unique spectrum of flavor.
- Sweet and salty isn’t just for treats at the fair; sweet wine does wonders for salty food.
- High alcohol works in the same way as acid and can cause you to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of you.
- Two bitter things together will only make you bitter about your choice.
- Don’t pick wine or food that you already know you don’t like!
Hopefully this page has offered you some helpful tips to bringing out the best in your food and wine combinations. Great food and great wine deserve one another!