by contributing writer Mary Cressler
It’s September, which for many of us means back-to-school time. So while the kids are learning their writing, science, and arithmetic, we’re going to learn about pairing wine with food. And if you’re up for the challenge, I’ve even included a homework assignment just for you.
The Lesson: Food and Wine Pairing
Almost everyone who writes about food and wine pairing will tell you the number one rule is always, “Drink what you like.” While this is important, I do firmly believe there are recommendations you can follow to make the most out of any dining experience where wine is involved. So let’s put the number one rule aside for a moment.
For me, the primary focus of food and wine pairing is about synergy. Creating something that tastes better than the individual components on their own. It is also about balance. The food should not overpower the wine, nor should the wine overpower the food.
Food and Wine Elements
Pay attention to the following elements of food and wine.
The taste of the food and the wine should be similar. A sauce shouldn’t be sweeter than the wine, or acid in the dish should be sufficiently matched to the acid levels in the wine.
Opposites attract. Match up contrasting flavors such as sweet wine with a salty dish, or sweet wine with a spicy dish.
The weight of a dish should be matched by the weight of the wine.
- Full bodied with full bodied — Rich, heavy meat paired with full-bodied red wine
- Medium with medium
- Light with light — Light white fish with unoaked, light bodied white wine
The sweetness of a dish should be matched to or exceeded by the sweetness of the wine. This can be hard to detect (especially in desserts). See this chart for pairing wine with chocolate and other sweets. Sweet wines also pair well with a contrasting flavor, like spicy food. This is because sweet wines can cool and refresh the palate when paired with something spicy.
The acidity of the dish should be matched by the acidity in the wine.
If the food is more acidic than the wine, then the wine will taste flabby or flat. Try tasting a salad with lemon and vinegar based dressing paired with a Viogner or an oaked Chardonnay. The wine will taste unbalanced and flabby paired with the high acid dish.
This is one of the reasons why Sangiovese (Chianti) and spaghetti or pizza (tomato sauce) pair so well. The tomatoes are high in acid and the sauce is usually medium-heavy bodied. Both go well with a wine that is matched in weight and also high in acid.
Generally speaking, wines from cooler climates tend to display higher levels of acidity. Wines that are generally high in acid include:
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Pinot Gris/Grigio
- Pinot Noir
If a food is intense in flavor, then the wine should also be intense in flavor. You want the same intensity, not combative. This is why something like smoked (barbecued) foods go better with bold wines. See this article for more details on pairing wine with barbecue.
Intense wines can stand up to fuller bodied foods. Bold and intense wines, however, will overpower delicate, lightweight, dishes. Similarly, light bodied or delicate wines don’t stand a chance with heavy, rich bold dishes – the wine will get lost in the bold flavors of the food.
Pair complex wines with simple dishes such as a simple roast paired with aged, quality red wine. The wine will stand out, yet not be overpowered by the food and you can focus on the complexities of the wine.
Pair simple wines with more complicated dishes such as a spicy Asian dish with a simple, sweet white wine. Here you’re incorporating contrasting flavors, while balancing the spicy and sweet.
Think regional pairing – what grows together goes together.
- Goat’s cheese with Sancerre is a traditional pairing and an excellent match
- Pacific Salmon with Oregon Pinot Noir
Components that Interact
Alcohol accentuates heat. Try tasting a high alcohol wine like a Zinfandel paired with a really spicy dish. Everything, both the wine and the dish, will taste hotter (the food will seem spicier and the wine will seem more alcoholic).
Sweetness reduces perception of sweetness. When you taste a sweet wine paired with an equally sweet dish, you notice the sweetness less. When paired right, they balance each other out.
Fat and protein reduce perception of tannin. This is why red meat and Cabernet Sauvignon go so well together. (See homework assignment below.)
Salt reduces perception of tannin. Try melting salty blue cheese on a steak and pairing it with a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Tempranillo from Rioja or Ribera del Duero. That element also reduces the otherwise noticeable tannins on the wine.
Drink What You Like!
As I mentioned above, you’ll hear almost every wine expert tell you that the number one rule is always, “Drink what you like.” And while this is true I firmly believe if you want to get the best out of both your food and your wine, there are recommendations you can follow to get the most out of your experience.
For example, what if your favorite wine is Sauvignon Blanc, and you’re about to head out to a steakhouse for a special dinner? Would you pair your favorite wine – a crisp, high acid white wine — with a rich juicy peppery steak? If you follow the #1 rule of food and wine pairing you may be tempted to do so. But let’s do some homework first to see if that is a good idea.
Homework Assignment – Pairing Wine with Steak
In order to test this out at home, I recommend trying a simple dish and pairing it with three very different wines to see how each wine interacts with the food. Today’s assignment involves one of the most basic pairings. Steak and wine.
I tested this on my sister who is not a wine professional, just a casual wine consumer. I collected all supplies (including all wines) at her local grocery store. I selected the wines based on their popularity and consistent style – they are all good representatives of their style. Plus they are all widely available throughout the US if you should decide to conduct this experiment.
What You’ll Need
- A steak, prepared simply. For this assignment, I cooked a rib eye prepared with salt and fresh ground pepper and grilled to medium. There was no sauce involved. I didn’t want anything else to interfere with the experiment, so we tried the wines with just the meat.
- A high acid, light bodied, white wine: Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
- A med-high acid, light bodied, red wine: Louis Jadot Bourgogne, Pinot Noir
- A full-bodied, tannic, red wine: Beaulieu Vineyard BV Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon
2012 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, New Zealand
12.5 % abv | $15 avg retail
Notes before the pairing:
Consistent in style year after year, this wine displays bright grapefruit, lime and a lovely hint of sweet passion fruit in the background. The mouth is zesty with vibrant acidity. Considered a benchmark for those who love this grassy-grapefruity style of Sauvignon Blanc and a classic example of New Zealand style. Key characteristics here are strong acidity, and light, fresh, body.
2008 Louis Jadot Bourgogne, Pinot Noir
12.5% | $15-$20 avg retail
Notes before the pairing:
This light bodied wine has a slightly dusty/earthy on the nose with cherry cola and aromatic cherry fruit. Silky on the mouth with delicate earthy tones and mild tannins this is a nice example of an entry level red burgundy and light bodied red wine with delicate aromas. I chose this for its light body, fruit, and delicate nature.
2010 Beaulieu Vineyard BV Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley, USA
14.6% | $25-32 avg retail
Notes before the pairing:
Deep intense nose with blackberries, plum, cherries, and cocoa powder. The mouth is spicy and rich with more bold dark fruit coating the palate along with toasty oak, firm tannins, and a velvety texture.
We tasted all three wines alongside the steak to see which went best and why. And while it might seem obvious which paired best, we did this to see what would happen if we followed the “drink what you like” rule.
We tried the Sauvignon Blanc first. In this situation I was surprised to see that the wine actually killed the food (rather than vice versa). The grapefruit flavors became overwhelming to the steak and killed everything good about the meat completely muting the steaks deliciously juicy flavors. You don’t even taste the meat, but instead just the bold acidity from the wine. In this situation both the wine and the steak tasted worse.
Next we tried the Pinot Noir. At first taste, everything seemed fine, nothing was offensive. The fruit on the Pinot becomes elevated, and you soon taste only the bright cherry flavors. It’s not strong enough, however, for the meat. The pepper on the steak becomes the dominant flavor. Pepper and cherry is all I get. It’s okay, but in this situation neither the wine nor the meat is enhanced by the pairing. The wine is a bit too delicate.
Finally the Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasted alone the wine is bold and rich with noticeable tannins, but tasted alongside the steak, the fruit is softened and becomes more elegant, and the tannins are gone. The juices in the steak are enhanced and the savory qualities in the dish become more evident.
Intrigue rises and more elements of both the steak and wine are noticeable with every bite. “Everything tastes better. A lot better,” said my sister. A woman who would otherwise never order a Cabernet Sauvignon in a restaurant (it’s just not her preference) said, “I will definitely consider ordering a glass of Cab next time I order a steak in a restaurant. These taste awesome together.”
Pairing these two together enhanced both the flavor and enjoyment of the wine and the steak, making both of them taste even better than they were alone.
What’s your favorite food and wine pairing?
Mary Cressler is a Certified Sommelier, a Wine Location Specialist, and the proprietor of Vindulge: Wine Education & Consulting. She conducts wine classes and events and offers consulting for individuals, restaurants, and event planners.
She writes about wine, food, and travel on her blog Vindulge. Mary resides in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, twin boys, and two Chihuahuas.