When it comes to pairing wine and food, let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: if you like a particular dish with a particular wine, no one gets to tell you otherwise. You’re also not obligated to enjoy traditional wine and food pairings. These kinds of guides come from people that are just trying their best to simplify a vast world of flavor combinations and experiences. That’s it.
With that being said, it’s admittedly easiest to talk about pairings in definitive terms. Try some of the pairings suggested below and decide for yourself. There will probably be some combos that are winners and others you’d pass on the next time around – that’s okay! At least you’ll have tried.
So let’s get into how to get started pairing food and wine, basic rules around pairing, and some flavor combinations to try out.
Learning to Pair Food and Wine
Before choosing a wine to go with tonight’s dinner, think about the basic tastes of what you’re serving. Is it sweet, acidic, salty, fatty, spicy?
Next, think about the basic rules around different styles of wine. Be careful here, though, because this is a generality and not the end-all, be-all. But generally speaking, red wines contain tannins, white and sparkling wines contain more acidity, and sweet wines are…well, they’re sweeter than red or white wines.
From there, you have two basic options to narrow down to one bottle: congruent or contrasting pairing.
A congruent pairing takes into consideration the similarities between various foods and wines and seeks to amplify those compounds. Buttery oaked Chardonnay and roasted chicken with a cream sauce, for instance – that’s a congruent pairing relying on the richness of both the wine and the chicken to play nicely together. Another example is peppery Syrah paired with steak au poivre; they share those toasty, peppery notes, and the structure of red wine can stand up well to the steak.
Here, you’ll choose a wine that will create balance throughout the meal. Maybe you’re serving shatteringly-crispy fried chicken. A sparkling wine with high acid will cut through that fat and salt to bring some levity to dinner. It’s also popular to pair a sweeter wine, like a Riesling with a touch of residual sugar, with spicy dishes (think curries, spicy Thai noodles, Cajun cuisine, etc). The little bit of sweetness from the Riesling balances out the scorching heat of the spices.
In most cases, there are a few food and wine combinations that simply won’t be pleasant. These include:
- Highly tannic wine and spicy food: these two together can cause actual pain in your mouth!
- Tannins and oily fish: while tannins balance out other fats, fish oil can taste metallic against a tannic red wine.
- Creamy wine with highly acidic dishes: yes, an acidic wine can cut through the fat of a rich dish, but creamy, buttery wine will be flabby against lime-soaked ceviche or raw oysters.
- Asparagus and…almost everything: the chlorophyl that gives asparagus its color clashes with most other acid compounds, creating a metallic, harsh taste. Various cooking methods can help tamp that down, but it’s not easy.
Quick and Easy Pairing Generalities
If you find yourself standing in your neighborhood wine store deciding between half a dozen bottles for just one meal, run through this easy food and wine pairing guide to figure out which bottle (or bottles!) are going to make it home:
- The wine should have the same intensity as the food. A bashful wine against a bold dinner may as well have you drinking water instead.
- The wine should be more acidic than the food in order to stand up to the various flavors present in the dish.
- If pairing dessert and wine, make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert to avoid a bitter aftertaste.
- What grows together goes together. Think about the origins of your dish. Making lasagna? Head over to the Italian section of the wine store, where Sangiovese and Nebbiolo happily neighbor the region of Bologna, where many lasagna recipes were born.
And really, if all else fails, ask someone working at the wine store their opinion. They’ll happily tell you what they’d drink with what you’re cooking!
Popular Food and Wine Pairings
Below are some of the most popular food and wine pairings to try out. Of course, your palate may disagree with some, but many are longstanding, traditional pairings that have withstood the test of time. Others are more controversial. That’s half the fun of immersing yourself in the wine world: all the different combinations and all the debate around each one!
Some popular food and wine pairings include:
- Turkey and cranberry sauce with Pinot Noir: a congruent pairing that relies on the tartness of both the wine and the sauce to bring the combination together
- Muscadet and oysters: another congruent pairing uniting over each other’s salinity
- Lambrusco and pizza: a contrasting pairing leveraging the very-berry, lightly effervescent nature of the wine against oily pepperoni, bold tomato sauce, and stringy cheese
- Sauternes and foie gras: an age-old contrasting pairing between thick, sweet Sauternes and rich, fatty foie gras
- Barbecue pork and Zinfandel: both have a fruity acidity to them, with Zinfandel’s weight matching that of the pork
- Champagne and caviar: The crisp bubbles of dry Champagne offset the buttery, salty caviar (not to mention together they scream lavishness!)
Try for Yourself
Don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of food and wine pairings. One way to try out different experiences is to wait to order a glass of wine until your food has arrived at a restaurant, and then ask to sample two wines you feel may go well with the food (it’s generally good manners to order one of the wines after trying out the pairing).
Another way to start trying out various combinations is by attending local wine dinners or classes held at boutique wine stores. You can simply Google ‘[your town] wine store’ and take a look through their events calendars.
And of course, you can follow this helpful guide to make great food and wine pairing decisions.