Wine Pairing 101

by Pamela

wine pairing, pair wine, how to pair wine with food

I hear the phrase ” I don’t know how to pair wine with food, so I don’t ever buy wine” a lot. Hearing this actually bothers me because, while wine pairing can be a bit tricky sometimes, a lot of the pairing magic occurs with trial and error. This quote, from Julia Child, sums it up really well: “Just like becoming an expert in wine–you learn by drinking it, the best you can afford–you learn about great food by finding the best there is, whether simply or luxurious. The you savor it, analyze it, and discuss it with your companions, and you compare it with other experiences.” Your best learning tool is your set of taste buds and your wallet. Drink what you like and what you can afford.

I am far from a wine expert but, by my own admission, I drink wine…all kinds of wine (how do you know you don’t like something if you don’t try it first). My experience with trying wine has taught me a lot about pairing wine with food. For the rest of my wine pairing knowledge, I turn to the pros. I ask restaurant wine managers and sommeliers for their recommendations and favorite pairings. I also turn to books for the answers. Books like Perfect Pairing, by Evan Goldstein and The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.

I hope that these wine pairing tips will help diminish your fears of serving wine with your favorite foods. And no, you don’t need to be a wine geek to make a successful wine pairing.

To pair wine with food you need to ask some questionsOnce you have answered the above questions, you can more easily determine how to pair wine with food you are serving.

What if the wine is tart….

A tart wine pairs with somewhat tart food. The tartness in the food will make the tartness in the wine milder. Things like goat cheese, salads with bitter greens, sushi and its accompaniments, smoked fish and shellfish pair well with Pinot Grigio , Champagne , Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Unoaked Chardonnay, Rosé, Beaujolais , Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese or Dolcetto. (To find an unoaked chardonnay, read the label or ask someone that works in the wine department at the store. Wines not aged in oak are stored in stainless steel tanks, which is why some say they taste ‘steely.’ Which is not a bad thing.)

What if the wine is sweet….

The most obvious wine pairing here is with desserts. If you’re serving a white wine with dessert though, the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. If you’re serving a red wine with the dish, the dessert should be sweeter than the wine. If the wine isn’t too sweet, you could also pair it with slightly spicy dishes. Chocolate desserts, stone fruit desserts, caramel and strong blue cheeses pair well with: Madeira, Sweet Sherry, Port, Muscat , Riesling, Sauternes or Ice Wine. For your spicier Asian dishes, try a wine pairing like a German Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or Muscat. Sometimes, the wine is sweet enough to be served on its own as a dessert (port and ice wine are two of such wines).

What if the wine is hot…

By ‘hot’ I don’t mean it’s sexy looking or temperature ‘hot.’ A hot wine is one that actually leaves a burning sensation in your throat as you swallow it. That heat comes from the high alcohol content in the wine. Yes, you can still pair a ‘hot’ wine with food. Pair wine that’s hot with hearty and flavorful dishes that can stand up to the high alcohol content and not be overwhelmed by it. Things like braised short ribs or a grilled rib eye can stand up to these wines. Definitely stay away from pairing spicy foods with this type of wine. You know what happens when a fire eater gets a mouthful of flammable liquid and spits it toward an open flame? That’s what your mouth will feel like if you do that. A wine with an alcohol percentage reading 15% is going to be ‘hot.’ Wines that are listed at 14% and 14.5% alcohol are also generally considered ‘hot.’ These wines are typically reds and most commonly cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.

What if the wine is tannic…

Tannins are those things in red wine that after a sip make your mouth feel dry as the Sahara, but tannins can be your friend if you pair them correctly. Unfortunately, tannin counts are not found on the bottles. To make these wines really shine, serve high protein and/or high in fat dishes (think rib eye or even hamburgers). These wines also pair beautifully with foods that are considered bitter like: eggplant (think eggplant parmesan) and broccoli rabe. Grilled foods also taste great with tannic wines. Like the ‘hot’ wines above, tannic wines tend to be cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah (aka shiraz).

What if the wine is oaky…

What do they mean by ‘oaky?’ Some white wines are stored in oak barrels, which is where they pick up a lot of their complex flavors, like vanilla, caramel and buttery flavors. These wines taste good on their own, but can sometimes be a bit tricky to pair with foods. Oaky wines need to be paired with bold foods. Grilled or smoked foods and dishes with rich and creamy sauces pair well with Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay that have an oaky characteristic.

I hope that this quick post will help you to be more confident with wines and enable you to have some fun while learning how to pair wine with food. Worse case? You have great food and a great bottle of wine that you can have separately, so all is not lost.

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Madonna August 29, 2012 at 9:34 am

Ok, got to bookmark this since I can never remember. Up until now I just make friends with the Trader Joe’s guy. I usually keep a bottle of champagne because I think it goes with everything. Seriously, this is a great post. Thanks.

Pamela August 30, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Making friends with your TJ guy/or any wine shop guy is always a good idea. They can usually give you some good tips on the delicious, but not bank breaking bottles. I hope this tutorial can help you when you get into one of those jams where you just get stuck. 🙂 Just remember…it’s wine…have fun with it!

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