Walter on Wine:  Food & Wine Pairings

Discover the art of food and wine pairing with expert tips and recommendations

Picture this: a beautifully set table, a sumptuous meal spread out before you, and a glass of wine held up to catch the soft glow of candlelight. Ah, the sheer delight of a well-paired food and wine experience! It’s a culinary symphony that dances on your palate, creating harmonious sensations that elevate your dining experience to new heights. Welcome to the enchanting world of food and wine pairing, where flavors and aromas come together like old friends, creating moments of pure gastronomic pleasure.

glass of wine

In this journey through the art of food and wine pairing, we’ll explore the basic principles that underpin this delightful practice, dive into the nuances of matching different foods with various types of wine, and provide you with practical suggestions for your next culinary adventure. Whether you’re a seasoned wine connoisseur or a curious beginner, this guide will help you master the fine art of pairing food and wine to perfection.

Understanding Food and Wine Characteristics

Before we delve into the intricacies of food and wine pairing, it’s crucial to understand the fundamental characteristics of both. Imagine wine and food as puzzle pieces – each with its own shape, texture, and flavor. To create the perfect pairing, you need to find pieces that fit seamlessly together.

Flavor Profiles of Different Foods

Foods come in an astonishing array of flavors, ranging from sweet and sour to spicy and umami-rich (that savory flavor found in meats, mushrooms, cheese, some vegetables like broccoli or soy sauce). They can be bold and hearty or delicate and subtle. Consider, for instance, a spicy Thai curry versus a delicate piece of sushi. These contrasting flavors will interact with wine in distinct ways.

Wine Characteristics and Varietals

Similarly, wines possess their own unique characteristics. The type of grape, the region where it’s grown, the winemaking process, and aging all contribute to a wine’s flavor profile. Red wines can range from bold and tannic to savory, silky, or fruity and light, while white wines can be creamy, aromatic, or crisp. For instance, a robust Cabernet Sauvignon and a delicate Pinot Grigio offer entirely different tasting experiences.

delicious food with wine
different types of wine

Common Taste Elements and Their Interactions

At the heart of food and wine pairing are common taste elements that interact to create congruent or contrasting pairings. These elements include acidity, sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, and umami. For example, pairing a high-acidity wine with a tangy dish can enhance the flavors, while matching a sweet wine with a salty cheese can balance the palate.

Basic Principles of Food and Wine Pairing

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s explore the two fundamental principles of food and wine pairing:

a. Complementary Pairings

In complementary pairings, the goal is to match the flavors and characteristics of the food with those of the wine, creating a harmonious union. Here, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, a bold-flavored steak pairs beautifully with a bold and tannic red wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon. The richness of the wine complements the meat’s savory notes, resulting in a mouthwatering combination. Likewise, the classic pairing of a creamy, buttery lobster paired with a creamy Chardonnay, the textures in harmony and complementing each other.

b. Contrasting Pairings

Contrasting pairings, on the other hand, bring together flavors that counterbalance each other, creating an exciting interplay of tastes. Consider the creamy, buttery lobster now paired with a crisp, acidic Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s acidity cuts through the richness of the dish, creating a dynamic contrast that keeps your palate engaged. Likewise, consider a sharp Roquefort blue cheese paired with a sweet Sauternes, a classic pairing from the south of France.

Pairing Suggestions for Different Food & Wine Categories

Now, let’s get to the fun part: pairing food and wine for various courses and occasions.

a. Appetizers and Small Bites

For those delightful pre-meal morsels, such as bruschetta, oysters, or cheese platters, sparkling wines like Champagne, Prosecco or Cava are perfect companions. Their effervescence cleanses the palate between bites and pairs wonderfully with a variety of flavors. Consider a fruity sparkling wine with mild cheeses and a drier option with oysters.

main course food with red wine
b. Main Courses

Pairing wines with the main course can be a delightful adventure. Here are some recommendations for different types of red wines:

  • Bold Red Wines (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz): These wines are ideal for hearty, red meat dishes such as grilled ribeye steak or a rich, savory beef stew. Their strong tannins complement the meat’s flavors and provide a robust backbone to the meal.
  • Savory Red Wines (e.g., Sangiovese, Nebbiolo—Barolo, Barbaresco, or Tempranillo): For dishes with earthy or mushroom flavors, like truffle risotto or roasted chicken with mushrooms, opt for a savory red wine like Sangiovese, Barbaresco or Tempranillo. Its subtle fruitiness and earthy aromas blend well with the mushrooms’ umami flavors.
  • Silky Red Wines (e.g., Grenache, Malbec): Silky red wines, with their smooth texture and moderate or silky tannins, pair wonderfully with dishes like pork tenderloin, roast chicken or duck confit. The wine’s elegance complements the meat’s tenderness.
  • Fruity Red Wines (e.g., Syrah, Merlot, Gamay, Zinfandel): When enjoying dishes with fruity and spicy elements, such as barbecue ribs or spicy Mexican cuisine, reach for a fruity red wine. Its ripe fruit flavors and subtle spice notes harmonize with the dish’s profile.

Now, let’s explore pairings for different types of white wines:

Creamy White Wines (e.g., Chardonnay, Viognier, Grenache Blanc): Creamy white wines are the perfect match for creamy dishes like lobster bisque, chicken Alfredo, or dishes with a velvety sauce. The wine’s richness complements the dish’s texture.

  • Creamy White Wines (e.g., Chardonnay, Viognier, Grenache Blanc): Creamy white wines are the perfect match for creamy dishes like lobster bisque, chicken Alfredo, or dishes with a velvety sauce. The wine’s richness complements the dish’s texture.
  • Aromatic White Wines (e.g., Riesling, Gewürztraminer): Aromatic whites shine when paired with spicy or highly aromatic dishes. Think of Thai green curry, Indian cuisine, or spicy Sichuan dishes. The wine’s floral and fruity notes provide balance and contrast to the heat. Also, spices accentuate the perception of alcohol on the palate, which can be undesirable if paired with higher alcohol wines. (Walter’s note: pairing Chinese or Thai food with a good Gewurztraminer is one of my favorite food & wine combinations!)
  • Crisp White Wines (e.g., Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio): Crisp whites—including Champagne or sparkling white wines— are refreshing choices for lighter fare, such as seafood salads, grilled vegetables, or sushi. Their vibrant acidity and clean finish make them a versatile option for a wide range of dishes.
regional cuisines
regional cuisine with wine

Regional and Cuisine-Specific Pairings

Food and wine pairing also takes inspiration from regional cuisines. Here are a few examples of how different cuisines can influence your wine choices:

a. Italian Cuisine

Italian cuisine and Italian wine are both renowned for their superb diversity. From the rich, tomato-based dishes of Southern Italy to the delicate flavors of Northern Italy. For a classic pairing, enjoy a bold red Chianti with a hearty plate of spaghetti Bolognese, or opt for a crisp Pinot Grigio or aromatic Vermentino with a light Caprese salad. When in doubt—or just for inspiration!—pair a wine from the same region where the food dish originated. The locals figured this out a long time ago.

Italian cuisine with wine
French cuisine with wine
b. French Cuisine

French cuisine offers a treasure trove of pairing opportunities. Try a creamy Chardonnay with Coq au Vin or a delicate Sancerre—or a Muscadet—with moules et frites or escargot. The French have mastered the art of pairing wine with their regional dishes. Again, look to local pairings for sublime inspiration.

c. Asian Cuisine

The complexity of Asian cuisine calls for versatile wines. Pair a spicy Thai curry with a Gewurztraminer or off-dry Riesling (halbtrocken, or “half-dry”) to temper the heat, or enjoy a high-acid Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling white wine with sushi to enhance the flavors of the delicate fish.

Asian cuisine with wine
Mexican cuisine with wine
d. Mexican Cuisine

Mexican dishes can range from delicate to bursting with vibrant flavors and spices. A zesty Margarita may be your go-to (and will always a good choice!) but consider a pairing ceviche or light meat or fish tacos with a lighter, brighter Sauvignon Blanc/Sancerre, Albariño, or Chenin Blanc; or pair hearty and flavorful dishes like enchiladas or carne asada with a medium-bodied red like Cabernet Franc, Carménère, or Carignan. A Tempranillo, Sangiovese or Malbec can also work if the food is not very spicy.

Tips for Perfect Food and Wine Pairings

Now that you have a better grasp of the principles and possibilities of food and wine pairing, here are some additional tips to enhance your pairing experience:

a. Considering Regional Wine Traditions

When enjoying cuisine from a specific region, consider pairing it with a wine from the same area. There’s a reason why Italian dishes often pair well with Italian wines – they’ve evolved together over centuries.

b. Take Into Account Personal Preferences

Everyone’s palate is unique, and personal preferences play a significant role in food and wine pairing. Don’t be afraid to break convention and try combinations that appeal to your taste buds.

c. Experimenting with Different Combinations

The joy of pairing lies in experimentation. Try contrasting or complementary pairings to discover new flavor experiences. Keep a wine journal to record your favorite discoveries.

d. Seek Expert Recommendations

If you’re uncertain about pairings, seek guidance from wine experts, sommeliers, or even your local wine shop. They can offer valuable insights and recommendations tailored to your specific meal.

Some Foods That May Cause Pairing Problems

a. Asparagus

Asparagus contain a sulfur compound (methyl mercaptan) that may cause a metallic taste

b. Artichoke

The organic compound cynarine inhibits taste receptors for salt, acid, and bitterness, and may make the wine taste oddly sweet

c. Spicy peppers

The active ingredient capsaicin increases the burning perception exponentially as alcohol increases

d. Sugar

Sugar dulls all flavors, resulting in palate boredom

e. Blue cheese & Brie:

The Penicillium fungi in these cheeses affects half the population, resulting in a metallic taste when paired with red wine

f. Iron

Sometimes found in fish, especially tuna, haddock and sardines, results in a fishy taste when paired with red wine

Recommended Wine Resources and Tools

To further enhance your food and wine pairing journey, consider using the following resources and tools:

a. Wine Pairing Apps and Websites

There are numerous apps and websites dedicated to wine and food pairing. They often provide pairing suggestions based on the wine or dish you have in mind. Some popular options include Vivino, Wine Spectator, and Wine Folly.

b. Wine Tasting Events and Workshops

Attending wine tasting events or workshops can be an enjoyable and educational experience. You’ll have the opportunity to taste wines alongside various dishes and learn from experts in a hands-on setting.

c. Books and Magazines on Wine and Food Pairing

Books and magazines dedicated to wine and food pairing are excellent resources for in-depth knowledge. Consider titles like “What to Drink with What You Eat” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page or subscribing to wine-focused publications for ongoing inspiration.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Before we conclude, let’s address some common questions about food and wine pairing:

a. How do I pair wine with spicy foods?

Pairing wine with spicy dishes can be challenging. Opt for wines with lower alcohol and a touch of sweetness, such as a Riesling or a slightly off-dry Gewürztraminer. These wines can cool the heat and complement the flavors of spicy cuisine.

b. Can I pair white wine with red meat?

While red meat typically pairs best with red wines due to their boldness and tannin structure, you can still enjoy a white wine with lighter red meat dishes, like ham or pork loin. A light Pinot Noir or Chardonnay can work surprisingly well.

c. What are some affordable wine options for pairing?

You don’t need to break the bank for a great food and wine pairing. Look for value-driven wines from regions like Argentina, Chile, or Portugal. These countries produce excellent wines at affordable prices. Look also to regions within the U.S. outside of Napa; consider Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, or Chardonnay or Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills.

d. How do I pair wine with vegetarian dishes?

Pairing wine with vegetarian cuisine offers a world of possibilities. Consider the dish’s dominant flavors and textures. For example, a vegetable stir-fry may pair well with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, while a hearty mushroom risotto complements a Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.

Conclusion

In the world of gastronomy, the perfect food and wine pairing is like a beautiful melody – it can evoke emotions, elevate your dining experience, and create lasting memories. Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or simply enjoying a quiet evening at home, understanding the art of food and wine pairing can open up a world of culinary delight.

As you embark on your journey of exploration, remember that the best pairings often come from a combination of knowledge and intuition. Don’t be afraid to try new combinations, seek expert guidance when needed, and savor the joy of discovering your own perfect matches.

So, raise your glass to the endless possibilities that food and wine pairing offer. Cheers to the delightful moments, the harmonious flavors, and the great food and wine pairings that await you. May your palate be forever tantalized, and your dining experiences enriched by the wonderful world of wine and food pairing. Bon appétit!

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