Wine and Food Tasting:
Pairing Wines with Food
Whether at a wine and food tasting or a simple dinner party, the art of wine and food pairing is one which can bring our experience of both the food and the wine to new levels. There is something almost magical about the interaction of some food and wine, creating a synthesis that is above and beyond either alone. However, while the right wine and food pairing can increase your pleasure, matching the wrong food and wine can cause the diminution of either or both. For example, too bold wine with a delicate food can prevent you from appreciating the nuances. In fact, wine and food tasting epiphanies, those magical moments, can be hard to come by. However, with a little know how, and some creativity, you can increase your chances of creating great food and wine pairings.
General Principles on Wine and Food Tasting and Pairing:
- Drink what you like with the food that you like:
There are no absolute rules in wine and food pairing. While wine and food "snobs" will tell you there are golden rules to pairing food and wine, there really is no right and wrong. This is all subjective after all. If you like a food and wine combination, then it is good, end of story. So have fun with it. Pair wines you like to drink with foods you like to eat. If it works, great. If not, then try something new the next time. However, over centuries of experimentation people have discovered some basics which seem to hold true more times than not. Therefore, rather than reinventing the wheel every time you plan a wine and food tasting or dinner party, it can help to use some of the knowledge our culinary forefathers have discovered for us.
- Match Intensity of Flavors
One important principle of matching food and wine is to match the general flavor intensity. In other words, match foods with bold, rich flavors (such as a grilled steak or leg of lab, for instance) with big, bold wines that stand up to that richness. So, following our example, a rich, structured red wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah might pair better with that rich grilled steak, whereas a lighter wine like a Beaujolais or most white wines would clash with the steak. Their delicate, bright flavors would not stand up to the fatty, meatiness of the steak and you would not be able to appreciate their subtleties. Likewise, foods with more delicate flavors would pair beautifully with more delicate, lighter wines which will not overpower the food. Image washing down a gently braised fillet of sole with a big, chewy red wine. Doesn't quite go! Again, experiment a bit and you may be surprised by some pairings, but the general rule will hold.
- Match Regional Recipes with Regional Wines
In regions in which wines and cuisines have developed over centuries, as in many parts of Europe, oftentimes the wine and food of each region has grown up alongside each other and have evolved to complement each other. Let hundreds of years of experimentation and culinary evolution do the work for you! Rely on these classic pairings to find great wine and food tasting pairings.
For example, say you are cooking up a great rustic Provençal leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic. These Southern French flavors and style are perfectly complemented by wines that grew up in the same neighborhood! Try a Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Southern Rhône Valley or a Bandol. Their rustic, rich meaty flavors and aromas of Provençal herbs will compliment the lamb perfectly. Likewise, if you are serving a northern Italian dish like mushroom risotto then it may pair beautifully with northern Italian wines like a nicely aged Barbaresco. While there are many exceptions to this rule (like German Riesling being a perfect match for spicy Thai cuisine!), it is hard to go wrong when pairing local cuisines with local wines in a wine and food tasting. In fact, a dinner party built around a certain regional cuisine is a fun theme for your next event! For more ideas about region-themed dinner parties, be sure to check out our Region-Based Dinner Party Theme page.
A Few Specific Recommendations
While we will make suggestions for wine and food pairing elsewhere as well, here are a few recommendations for how certain types of food are classically paired with wines.
- Apéritif (Starter Drinks)
An aperitif is generally a simple, light, refreshing wine or cocktail, served chilled which welcomes your guests and wakes up their taste buds for the food to come. While it is sometimes served alone, these simple, light crisp wines can pair with any number of simple appetizers like cured olives, light cheeses, bruschetta, tapenade and others. For more information on the apéritif see our Apéritif page.
In general, lighter fleshed fish pair well with lighter white wines. In the case of richer fish like salmon or shark, particularly if they have a rich sauce, a light to medium-bodied white or red can do beautifully as well. For richer whites think of something like Chardonnay and for an appropriate red Pinot Noir-based wines should do the trick!
While simple, lighter flavored chicken and turkey dishes can go both ways, pairing nicely with many medium to full-bodied white wines as well as medium-bodied reds, richer poultry dishes of game birds, rich sauces or mushrooms can go nicely with many bolder reds. Think Pinot Noir and Gamay based reds unless you have a nice rich, smoky dish which may pair nicely with a Rhône red or Zinfandel.
Beef almost always demands a big, rich red wine to stand up to its bold flavors. Structured red wines often have hefty tannin and the rich fattiness of a well-marbled steak stands up to tannins nicely and even helps soften their impact. Think big, structured reds like Bordeaux and Cabernet-based wines or rich Rhône wines made from Syrah.
- Lamb and Game
Because of their "gamey" flavor, lamb and game meats like venison and others really shine with a wine that has a rich, bold personality to stand up to them. Depending on the style of lamb you can do anything form a rustic southern French type wine or a Bordeaux for more refined dishes. Look for aromatic wines with bold flavors and maybe even some smokiness or meatiness which will compliment the meat.
Cheese really comes into its own when paired with wine. Wine and food tasting doesn't get much better than a great cheese washed down with a great wine. There are so many different styles, it is hard to generalize and we will go into much more detail in our Cheese and Wine section. In general, pair light, creamy cheeses with high butterfat with slightly acidic white wines like Champagne and pair richer, bolder-flavored cheeses with rich meaty red wines. There are many classic cheese and wine pairings to explore like Champagne with Explorateur or Port with Stilton! Yum!
Good luck creating some great wine and food tasting combinations! Remember that while there are some guidelines to help you get started, you can experiment in any way you want to find food and wine pairings that please your palate. If you discover any interesting pairings, we'd love to hear about it!
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