How to Pair Food and Wine
Even the most experienced cook can feel a little inadequate when faced with pairing food with wine. It used to be red with meat, white with fish or chicken and I'm sure many of you still look at it that way but which red wine with red meat? - Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Barbarossa, Shiraz?
The same goes for white wine. There are hundreds of white grape varieties including the more well know Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon plus all those you probably never heard of like Azal, Inzolia, Juhfark. So which grape goes best with what you are serving?
With some wines going for literally thousands of dollars a bottle and flowery reviews that seem to be written in another language (nose? finish? terroir?), it's no wonder that many of us just close our eyes and grab a bottle. Either that, or we serve whatever our guests have brought over and hope for the best.
I think with a little guidance and a few rules for pairing, anyone can choose a bottle of wine to go with a specific dish. So, take a deep breath and let's look at food and wine pairing, knowing that at the heart of it all, it's really no more difficult than "Drink what you like."
Drum Roll Please - A Little History
First up, people have been making and enjoying wine with food for thousands of years. I doubt that that Roman centurion ever complained that the red wine he was served didn't go with his salt cod and he'd rather have a white, thank-you-very-much. Please don't go fact checking - I have no idea whether the Romans ate salt cod, but my point is simple: people have been drinking wine with their food for eons, and if we try to over-think that relationship, we might miss out.
There is no doubt that food and wine go together. Before global or even intra-continental shipping, wines were made and drunk locally, and that old adage "What grows together goes together" certainly held true. Now, when we are able to get great wines made literally all over the world, the basic rule still applies: Grapes grow. Vegetables grow. Meat grows. Fish grows.
It's All About Terroir
You may have noticed that I mentioned "terroir." Terroir is a French term that really doesn't have a one-word translation into English. Terroir is the character a wine gets from the place it was grown - soil composition, amount of sunlight, what is growing near the grapes, microclimate"”every environmental factor you can think of plays a role in shaping the final terroir of a particular wine.
I think that this is where Old World (European) wines differ from New World wines - most Old World winemakers showcase terroir while many New World wineries play down terroir in favor of a more consistent, mass market appeal. Regardless, wines of northern Italy go well with the food of northern Italy just like the wines of Alsace go well with Alsatian foods. It's all about the terroir.
The great thing about pairing wine and food is that not only does the wine enhance the food, but the food enhances the wine. Wine and food are a happy example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For example, I often find that if I have a wine that's a bit tannic - one that makes my mouth feel really dry and like it's turning inside out - serving it with meat really balances it out nicely.
Like I said earlier, up until fairly recently, the rule of thumb for pairing wine and food was "Red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat and fish." This isn't necessarily a bad rule to follow, but I think it has more to do with matching body and complexity than it has to do with matching colors.
For example, if I stew or braise a chicken in wine and stock, it will have a pretty complex and deep flavor that I might prefer to pair with a complex wine. If I poach a chicken breast, I'll most likely end up with a more simply-flavored, much lighter dish that I might want to pair with a light wine.
While I find that, in general, red wines are more complex than white wines, the rule doesn't always hold. Often, it is a subjective comparison, and you have to decide for yourself what you think works best. And this brings us back to "Drink what you like."
Go Taste Wines
If you don't know what you like, I suggest going to a wine tasting. In most states, many local wine shops offer free tastings on weekend afternoons, and if you live near a Trader Joe's, I know that they offer wine tastings as well. Check with your local stores.
Not true in Pennsylvania where I now live, but some "big box" wine stores, such as Total Wine, BevMo or even your local ABC Store have tasting and their own experts you can talk to and ask questions. If you tell them that you think you might prefer a light, fruity wine to a warm, spicy wine, they can suggest wines for you to try so you'll know if you are right!
How Sweet It Is
Sweetness is a big consideration when pairing foods and wine. Wines range in sweetness from very dry (not sweet at all) to syrupy dessert sweetness. The general rule is NOT to have your wine be any sweeter than what you are serving. Therefore, you'll want to serve a very savory meal with a very dry wine.
Many dishes that have been seared either in the final cooking or as a step along the way (braises and stews) and those that contain sweeter vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips, can be paired with a sweeter wine. Again, make sure the wine isn't sweeter than the dish.
Sweet desserts go very nicely with a dessert wine. An exception to this rule, as there are exceptions to every rule, is with sparkling wine. There is something about the bubbles that sets these wines apart from others, making them appropriate to serve with almost any course. This is a nice thing, because while many people think of Champagne and other sparkling wines strictly for toasting, they are lovely paired with "regular food," too. Give it a try sometime.
There is one rule of wine pairing doesn't have any exceptions, in my opinion. And that rule is that wine just doesn't go well with vinaigrette. The acid in a vinaigrette somehow deadens the palate and makes the wine taste almost metallic and just all around unpleasant.
If you want to serve wine with a salad course, use a creamy dressing, such as creamy blue cheese or even Green Goddess. This brings me to another wine pairing point - just as you can sour milk by adding some vinegar to it, you can also sour a cream sauce by serving an acidic wine with it. A buttery wine, such as an oaked Chardonnay, will pair much more effectively with cream sauce than will a lemony/acidic wine.
Of course, if you have in mind the flavor profile of the wine you are going to serve before you start cooking, you can add to the dish to enhance the food and wine pairing. For example, if the back of your bottle or the wine tasting notes indicate that the wine has a lot of herbal components, you might consider adding fresh herbs to your dish to complement the wine.
If the wine contains notes of apple, think about making a pork dish, since apple and pork is such a nice pairing. Knowing what your wine tastes like gives you a better chance of cooking something that is complementary. That's why it's okay to accept a bottle of wine as host/hostess gift and then put it away for later. The wine they brought you as a thoughtful gift might not go with what you've cooked, so it's best to serve a "known" wine with your meal.
With everything I just said, I have probably touched on 1% of what there is to know about pairing food and wine. There are books written on this subject and web sites and blogs devoted to talking about wine and which ones should be served with what foods. I'll try to talk more about this subject in upcoming posts and even get a few experts to help with the discussion.
It still comes down to serving what you enjoy and can afford with your meals. Just because a big, earthy Cabernet may go well with a juicy Porterhouse steak - if you don't like Cabernet Sauvignon, don't serve it.
As always, I would love to hear what you have to say about some of your favorite food and wine pairings. We can all learn from sharing ideas especially with a topic like this one.