“Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures ...”
-M.F.K. Fisher, Vin et Fromage, Introduction
One of wine's greatest pleasures is its ability to enhance the dining experience, to join its solid counterpart at the table and to transform a meal from simple nourishment to sensual pleasure. At its best, a well-matched wine will enhance the tastes and textures of a dish, or elicit subtle flavors that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some wines and food pairings are classic—it is almost as if certain wines were designed to accompany particular foods. Most, however, are flexible and versatile—the fun comes in experimentation. Here are a few classic pairings as well as some general guidelines for selecting a befitting wine to accompany your meal.
There are two things to keep in mind with all wine pairings. First, there is no single rule that can apply to wine pairing in general. Both wine and food can be quite complex, and the possibilities in pairing the two even more so. (The decades-old adage, “red wine with red meat; white wine with white meat,” hardly applies to the full spectrum of foods and wines).
Second, the ultimate goal of a wine and food pairing should be to increase your enjoyment of your meal. It doesn't matter if the sommelier swears by pairing a hearty Pinot Noir with the duck confit if you don't enjoy red wine. The most important thing is to be aware of what you enjoy, to note which wines increase the pleasure of a dish for you and which wines just don't excite you, and to apply that awareness to your decisions each time you dine.
The overall goal in selecting a wine to accompany a meal is to have the wine and food balance—you don't want the wine to overpower the food or vice versa. There are two reliable approaches you can use to achieve this: you can select wines whose features compliment those of the food, or wines whose features contrast those of the dish. What factors into pairings:
The body is the actual weight or thickness of a wine, or how a wine feels (not tastes) in the mouth. Light bodied wines are comparable to the feel of water in your mouth; full-bodied wines feel more like heavy cream. In terms of body, it is usually advisable to look for complimentary features—to pair light-bodied wines with lighter food, and full-bodied wines with heartier fare. For this reason, full-bodied whites, such as Chardonnay, often do not pair well with delicate seafood, and lighter reds, such as Beaujolais, don't do justice to a hearty steak but will pair well with chicken or pork.
Classic Pairings: Full-bodied Chardonnay with thick cream- or butter-based sauces, medium-bodied Pinot Noir with salmon, light-bodied Sauvignon Blanc with delicate fish.
Tannins are a chemical compound present in grape skins, seeds, and stems, as well as in wood barrels. They are especially prominent in red wines, as grape skins are left on for a portion of the wine-making process, but are also present in some oak-aged white wines. Tannins are a natural preservative and are most prominent in young wines; as wines age they become less tannic. Tannins taste dry (astringent) and bitter, and have a very particular effect when paired with certain foods. For example, salty foods bring out the bitterness in tannins, and cream-based foods make tannins seem more astringent. Tannic wines pair well with low-salt and high-fat food, like well-marbled meat. When enjoyed together, fat lessens the astringency of tannins, and conversely tannins prevent fat from seeming too rich.
Classic Pairings: Cabernet Sauvignon with steak
Acidity in wine comes from both the grapes and the fermentation process. There is some degree of acidity in all wines, although it can be overshadowed, or masked, by tannins. Acidity is most noticeable in wines where tannins are not very prominent. White wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, often have prominent acidity, which gives them their crispness. Low-tannin red wines also present acidity, such as Beaujolais and Chianti. As a general rule, acidic wines are very food-friendly. Acidic wines pair well with acidic foods, including citrus fruits, tomatoes, and tomato sauces, as well as rich, creamy foods, as the acidity “cuts through” the richness. They pair particularly well with fish as well as fried foods—the acid in the wine serves the same role as the acid in fresh lemon so often squeezed on these dishes. Acidic wines also often pair well with salty foods, helping to cut the salty taste on the palate. Conversely, low-acid wines often clash with acidic foods—the pairing of the two should be avoided.
Classic Pairings: Sauvignon Blanc with fish, Chianti with fresh tomato sauce
Sweetness in wine is a result of sugar in the grapes that is not converted to alcohol (called residual sugar). In an excellent example of contrast, sweet wines are a natural match for very spicy or salty foods. However, the sweet flavor of semi-sweet or off-dry wines also pairs well with naturally sweet dishes, such as honey-glazed ham, or pork with a port wine reduction sauce. Sweet wines are also often served alongside desserts. The general rule with sweet and semi-sweet wines is to pair them with foods that are less sweet than the wine itself.
Classic Pairings: Sauternes with foie gras, Riesling with spicy Asian dishes, Sauternes with créme brûlée
The percentage of alcohol in a wine can influence a wine's ability to pair with certain foods. Cream-based, spicy, or salty foods particularly clash with high-alcohol wines—cream makes alcohol seem stronger; alcohol makes spicy foods seem spicier; and alcohol together with salt can taste bitter. High-alcohol wines often pair well with high-fat dishes, such as steaks, as the fat can lessen the intensity of the alcohol
Classic Pairings: Chardonnay with lobster beurre blanc, American Zinfandel with barbecued beef
Aroma may be the most difficult, as well as the most gratifying component of pairing wine and food. If all other factors of a wine (say body, acidity, tannins, sweetness, and alcohol) are harmonious with a food, a mismatched aroma won't necessarily hurt a wine pairing; however, if all factors are harmonious and the aromas of the wine match those of the food, the pairing can be elevated from excellent to sublime. Highly aromatic wines, such as Gewurztraminer and Viognier are often best paired with aromatic dishes, such as those with orange or exotic fruit flavors. Nutty Chardonnays can seem ideally suited to roasted nut flavors. Earthy Pinot Noirs pair especially well with wild mushrooms, while peppery Syrah can seem dynamic with a peppercorn sauce. Aromas of herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables in a dish as well as hints of minerality, earthiness, and other notes can all be cues to pairing a wine.
The intensity of a wine should in general match the intensity of a dish. If you are going to sample a rare, mature Bordeaux, you want the delicate complexity of the wine to be heightened, not overshadowed, by the intricate complexities of the food it accompanies; similarly if you are going to drink a simple Beaujolis, you don't want a complex, intricately flavored dish that will make the wine seem thin or dull.
If you are going to be sampling more than one wine over the course of your evening, you should also consider the intensity of the wine. The flavors of wines should become more intense as the evening progresses. In general, aim to enjoy light, fresh wines before luxurious, rich ones; steel-fermented before oak-aged, simple before complex, dry before sweet, and less tannic before more tannic.
Thousands of years ago, before wine became an international commodity, wines made in a region were enjoyed with traditional foods of that region. Based on the theory that grapes from a climate will pair with foods native to the same climate, it is safe to assume that regional foods will pair well with wines from the same region. Think Pinot Grigio with prosciutto, Riesling with Wiener schnitzel, or American Zinfandel with barbeque.
If a dish is prepared with wine, such as Coq au Vin, boeuf Bourgogne, or pasta with white wine garlic sauce, consider matching the wine you drink to the wine in the dish. Always classic are a Burgundian Pinot Noir with beouf Bourgogne or a hearty Cabernet with a Cabernet-Shallot reduction.
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