How to Pair Wine with Food:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank the cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans.”
–Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
What goes together better than wine and food? It’s the quintessential pair-up, isn’t it? In fact, according to celebrated French chef Daniel Boulud, “the two cannot be considered separately if they are on the table at the same time.”
Some wines are indeed better friends with some foods than others. And that’s especially true when the strong and pungent flavors of aromatic herbs and spices enter the picture. Two basic approaches to wine pairing are like-with-like and opposites-attract. You can choose to team up foods and wines that are similar in some way (buttery California Chardonnay with beurre blanc sauce) or allow opposing forces to balance each other out (blue cheese and port). The real fun comes when you begin to play with your food (and wine)–when you embrace the rules just enough to enjoy breaking them.
Maybe you’re intimidated by the idea of trying to serve the right wines with the right foods. Or maybe you think the rules are so complex that you’ll never understand any of it. Before we get started, let’s establish the cardinal rule: Drink what you like!
Of course, in learning to pair wines with food you will hopefully discover new wines to like, too. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a wine that doesn’t simply avoid competition with your main dish, but one that complements it so much that a new level of flavor ecstasy is achieved–when the food and the wine actually make each other taste better–specifically when the herbs in the food are brought to their very best by a wine match made in heaven. According to master sommeliers Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, this is the case with certain time-honored match-ups like dill and Sauvignon Blanc, basil and Sangiovese or rosemary and Cabernet Sauvignon.
How much does my wine weigh?
Perhaps the most important factor to consider when choosing the team players on your dinner table is weight. Hold up … did I say “most important”? I’ve broken the cardinal rule! Just checking to see if you were paying attention: First and foremost, drink what you like!
That said (again), you’ll almost always want to match the weight of the wine with the weight of your meal. You can probably decide the weight of foods instinctively. Steamed shellfish? Grilled chicken? Light. Braised lamb shank? Spaghetti carbonara? Heavy. In general, rich dishes call for rich (full-bodied, highly flavorful) wines while light, subtle dishes call for light, subtle wines.
So is the dish you’re serving tonight light, medium or heavy? Start by trying to match it to a wine with similar body. Heavy red wines have always and will always call out for heavy red meats, but some lighter reds (Pinot Noir, for example) might be a better match for a heavier fish like salmon than would a full-bodied, oaky Chardonnay. For more about wine body, see Page 53.
How do you determine wine weight? When you read about specific wines in books or wine publications, or glance at the wine descriptions on cute little placards in the wine store, look for words like big, oaky, buttery, bold and luscious to reveal the fuller-bodied wines. Soft, delicate, light … now you’re talking light-bodied wine. The following general classifications will also help you out, but keep in mind that some wine styles fall on the spectrum in more than one spot, depending on age and other factors. Read those cute little placards!
Pairing Wines with Flavor Qualities
Some foods and wines will fight with each other. Bitter foods (like walnuts or arugula) will become even more bitter if you wash them down with puckering, overly tannic wines (such as young Cabernet Sauvignon). But the bitterness in the food begs the wine to have a bit of backbone to stand up to it. Go for something like Pinot Noir with moderate tannins. The same can be said of acidic foods. Acid in a food will heighten the fruit flavors in wine, and tartness in food softens tartness in wine. So if you’re serving a tangy dish featuring young goat cheese or tomatoes, opt for acidic, crisp and fruity wines. See chart on Page 49.
How do you know when to compare versus contrast? Derek Todd, sommelier at the farm-friendly restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, enjoys searching for that just-right pairing: “There is magic in that distance between the food and the wine. The ideal match fills in that space.” Feel free to experiment, too. Sometimes an unorthodox pairing will become your new favorite meal. Amy Reiley, a Master of Gastronomy and an expert on aphrodisiac foods, loves to pair dark chocolate truffles with a full-bodied, oaked Chardonnay from Peju winery in Napa. (For her handmade truffles recipe, visit www.peju.com.)
Ready to experiment? Here are a few ideas to help you work on your matchmaking chops, and a handy chart to help you get a handle on some basic flavor quality pairings.
• Serve bitter foods with tannic (bitter) wines. Just be careful not to overdo it. You never want the food or the wine to erase the taste of the other.
• If savory dishes have a bit of sweetness to them, pair them with slightly sweet wines.
• If dishes have a lot of sweetness to them (desserts), pair them with really sweet wines (dessert wines). Most sommeliers agree the dessert should never be sweeter than the wine.
• Match acidic wines and acidic foods.
• Team up buttery wines and buttery dishes.
• Serve bitter foods with fruit-forward wines.
• Pair tannic red wines with fatty red meat.
• Match supersalty and super-rich foods to highly acidic wines. The acid will cut through the richness.
• Pair salty and creamy foods with sparkling wines. The bubbles act like scrubbing bubbles on your tongue, enlivening the palate.
• Try sweet wines with salty and spicy foods.
Pairing Herbs with Wines
There are tons of affordable wines that pair well with herbaceous foods. In fact, you would be wise to avoid serving any especially aromatic and herby foods with aged, complex (read: expensive) wines. The chart on Pages 50 to 52 will help you choose wines for dishes that have pronounced flavors from specific herbs and spices. But remember to consider what you like, as well as the “weight” and other flavor qualities of the main dish.
That Headache Might Not Be a Hangover
Sulfur dioxide preservatives, or sulfites, are one the classes of chemicals widely used in winemaking. The reason you have probably heard about sulfites but not other chemical additives in wine is that a small percentage of the population has sulfite sensitivities, and drinking wine can cause rashes and other allergic reactions. Wine naturally contains some sulfites, but the winemakers must label that their product “contains sulfites” if the proportion exceeds 10 parts per million. Many other products contain sulfites; dried fruit can have up to 1,000 ppm. It’s more likely that your wine headache is related to other compounds in the wine–namely, tannins, histamines and of course, alcohol. Organic winemakers cannot add sulfur dioxide or other unnatural chemicals, so the best way to avoid sulfur dioxide is to opt for organic wines. Also, red wines contain less sulfites than white wines because the tannins in the wine act as a natural preservative. White dessert wines generally have the most sulfites, followed closely by blush and semi-sweet wines.
Cheers! Wine and Your Health
Like all really great things, if you enjoy it in moderation, wine is really great for you. It can reduce your risk of heart disease and some cancers, raise your good (HDL) cholesterol, thin your blood, and slow degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The antioxidant phytochemicals in wine (flavonoids and resveratrol) prevent cellular damage in the body and help prevent plaque formation in arteries.
So what’s a moderate amount anyway? In general, ladies, that’s a glass a day. ONE glass. Fellas? Go ahead, have two!
For more good reads on the subject of wine picking, try these selections. The Flavor Bible is available on Page 70 or at www.herbcom panion.com/shopping.
The Wine Bible (Workman Publishing Company, 2001)
What to Drink with What You Eat (Bullfinch, 2006)
The Renaissance Guide to Wine and Food Pairing (Alpha, 2003)
Cooking With Wine (Hoffman Press, 1997)
The Flavor Bible (Little, Brown and Company, 2008)
Andrea Immer’s Wine Buying Guide for Everyone (Broadway, 2002)
The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Tabitha Alterman is the food editor at Mother Earth News and Natural Home magazines. She wonders if a small-fishbowl-sized glass counts as ONE glass of wine.