A major principle for wine and food pairing is that food changes the taste of the wine. A good pairing brings the taste of the wine into balance for your taste, when in fact that wine alone may not be your taste preference.
The opposite is not true, i.e., wine does not necessarily make food taste better. It stimulates saliva to help you digest food and the overall wine plus food may taste better to you, but that is because the wine is brought into balance for your tastes, not the food. In fact, with a poor pairing not only makes the wine taste worse than drinking it alone, but the wine/food combination can also be worse.
Before we dig into the complicated world of all the different wine flavors, aromas, and other memorable facts, let’s look at which characteristics you should identify in each wine in order to guess (yes, guess) at whether or not a wine and food pairing will complement or sabotage a particular food taste, or more commonly, will sabotage or enhance the wine for your palate.
Taste, sip, taste, sip, taste…
To keep things simple, you want to match the wine acidity level (low, medium, high) with the acidity level of the food (savory, slightly acidic, acidic) and you want to match the wine weight (light, medium, full-body) with the weight of the food. Of the two factors, weight and acidity, acidity is the most important.
If you can learn the acidity levels of various grapes and the weights of the wines made by those grapes, you can guess at the body and acidity level of the food from the recipe ingredients stated. This usually works to identify which wines will taste best with which food.
Taste Preferences and Experiences
No one would deny that people have different tastes, but sometimes in the wine world, people ignore or forget this. They declare a wine as “great” or as having an off-taste and the next person tasting it is confused because he or she does not agree with that description.
We do not know all the answers about why some people prefer a particular food or wine while others would shy away from those same foods or wines. Is it genetics in which your taste buds are programmed differently? Or was it the food you were fed growing up? Do your tastes change as you get older or is it just a change in preferences from experience? We cannot say with certainty all of the influences on taste, but let us look at some general principles that seem to apply to many people.
The sum of tastes is described in a term called mouth-feel although a better term might be mouth-balance. This is different from the tastes of acid, bitter, salty, sweet and savory that we usually attribute to tongue perception. Mouth-balance describes the interacting sensations of acidity, sweetness, bitterness, flavor, viscosity, heat (temperature), warmth (from spicy pepper), and astringency (from tannins and polyphenols). These interactions result in what is called “balance”. The stimuli are often divided into producing “hard” or “soft” mouth-balance.
For example, sweetness, savory, warm (temperature), viscous, low alcohol and fat in foods, would all be described as producing a “soft” mouth-feel. Either wine or foods that are high in acid, salt, tannins, alcohol, hot pepper spiciness or bitterness would produce a “hard” mouth-feel. In general, most people prefer a balanced mouth-feel, most of the time. They prefer equal amounts of hard and soft: acids plus sweetness; tannins plus fat or savory; spicy or bitterness with some sweetness, etc. In technical terms, the sweet elements of a wine (derived from alcohol and polysaccharides) must be in relative balance with the sum of the acidic elements plus the phenolic elements (astringency and bitterness).
Do all people generally like to have hard and soft tastes and mouth-feel equally balanced all of the time? No. Some people like sweetened lemonade (soft) or sweet tea (soft), coffee with ample cream and/or sugar (soft) while others prefer their lemonade lemony (hard), their tea unsweetened (hard) and their coffee black (hard). At different times we may prefer a vinegar-based salad dressing or marinade with some sugar added (balanced) or a vinaigrette with just vinegar, lemon and salt (hard and unbalanced), or a creamy sweet poppy seed dressing (soft). In other words our own preferences can change and adapt.
Especially for home entertainment, you should determine beforehand if your guest prefers soft, hard or balanced mouth-feel, i.e., southern style sweet tea, coffee with two creams and two sugars (unbalanced soft), unsweetened tea or black coffee (unbalanced hard) or somewhere in between the two extremes (balanced). The sweet tea drinker will probably not be excited by a dry, tannic red wine; a regular black coffee drinker may not relish a white zinfandel wine with its residual sugar.
While balance in wine or in a food is generally desirable, if a food is acidic (hard) or a food is sweet (soft) the wine should match the taste, not counter it. An acidic wine (hard) like a Sauvignon Blanc, would best match the hard taste of a salad with a vinegar-based dressing and thus pair well with it. A less acidic wine such as a Chardonnay that has undergone malolactic fermentation (malic acid which is a hard mouth-feel is converted to lactic acid which is soft like milk) would match a meat with a butter-based sauce (savory) much better than would an acidic, unoaked Chardonnay.
While taste in art or taste in clothes may not be in your mouth,
taste for wine and food must be.
Basic food tastes to pair with wines
We are taught that there are 5 basic tastes that we can clearly identify.
1) Acid (tartness, sour) – examples: lemon, lime, any citrus juice, vinegar or wine itself;
acidic foods such as tomatoes, corn (it is also sweet), coffee, liver and other organic meats; other fruits such as apples, cranberries, plums, rhubarb;
yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, aged cheeses.
2) Bitter – examples: coffee, teas, stout beer, tonic water, unsweetened chocolate or cocoa, green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, green beans, field greens, arugula, dandelion greens, collards, frisee, radicchio, brussel sprouts, asparagus; some nuts such as walnuts, black walnuts, pecans, filberts, almonds, Brazil nuts, olives; certain zests, if too much of the white pith is included, such as lemon zest, orange zest, grapefruit zest, lime zest
3) Salty – examples: salt or any food with added salt such as olives, pickles, tapenades; potato chips, pretzels, Cheetos®, salted crackers, salted peanuts; salted meats such as bacon, ham, sausages, hot dogs, canned meats and fish, deli meats; many canned soups and canned vegetables; salted butter, margarine; salad dressings, condiments such as mustard, ketchup. mayonnaise
4) Sweet (sugary, fruity) – examples: any food with sugar, syrup, honey or cinnamon added; starchy foods such as potatoes, rice, tapioca, white bread, pastas; milk and milk products such as cheeses, cream; sauces such as ketchup, sweetened chocolate, chutney, jellies, jams; ripe fruit, bananas, pineapples, peaches, melons
5) Savory (umami, pronounced ooo-MAH-mee) – examples: red meats such as beef, lamb, venison, buffalo, beef stock; flavorings such as mushrooms, truffles, soy sauce, Worcestershire® sauce, tamari sauce, fish sauce, black pepper, monosodium glutamate, vanilla; certain vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, shallots, garlic; dried, cured or any smoked meats or cheeses such as bacon, salami, smoked sausage, Cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese, smoked Gouda; cured fish such as canned or salted anchovies, smoked salmon
Basic Tastes in Wines
Of the five above tastes, saltiness is not found to any degree in wine with perhaps the exception of some Muscadet (not Muscat) wines from the Loire Valley in France and some Australian wines from heavily irrigated grapes.
Wines usually do not have bitter tastes unless a vintner leaves the juice on the grape stems too long. In most commercial wines, bitterness is minimal. However wines, especially red wines do have tannins that produce an astringent sensation or mouth-feel. Astringency is a touch sensation and not a taste. Tannins coagulate proteins from saliva and food in your mouth and create a puckering or drying sensation. The astringent mouthfeel of tannins in wine is NOT the same as a wine being dry. Wine drinkers who think that the astringent mouthfeel caused by wine tannins is what is meant by a “dry wine” often misinterpret this sensation. A “dry” wine is simply not sweet.
Although astringency in wine is not the same as bitterness, many wine drinkers interpret it as the same. Astringency is accentuated by food that is sweet or “hot” (spicy) and is suppressed by foods that are acidic, salty, or fatty. A tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux or Barolo wine is more astringent with hot or spicy foods so in general you would not serve tannic wines with spicy foods because the taste is too unbalanced. On the opposite side, a tannic wine is made less astringent by acidic, salty, or fatty foods. Acid, salt and fat suppress the tannins in wine.
All wines have acid in them and acid brings out more flavors in food. Acid in wine causes saliva to increase which in turn starts breaking down food in the mouth to release more flavors both desirable and undesirable. That is why wine can enhance the wine-food combination. This does not mean, however, that all wines are perceived as acidic. In general, wines under a pH of 3.4 are categorized as acidic and at 3.4 and above they are categorized as low acid or non acidic. Keep in mind that that level may vary with a person’s taste.
Wine and food pairing guidelines
Why do we even worry about trying to pair wine with food? The object is to use the wine to enhance the taste of the food. The overall dining experience with a good pairing should be much more memorable than having either the wine or the food alone. A poorly thought out wine-food pairing can actually detract from both the food and the wine, 1 + 1= 0. A good pairing is 1 + 1 = 2 but with a great pairing, 1 + 1 = 3.
1 food + 1 wine=better than the sum of the wine and the food
i.e., 1 + 1 = 3.
The key to a great wine and food pairing is balance. The pairing is a success if:
- You can taste both the food and the wine without one overpowering the other.
- The wine and food together bring out something new in either the wine or food that wasn’t present before. As an example, a Riesling wine will bring the sweet, juicy flavor of white peaches to an aged Gruyère cheese.
- An acidic wine (that isn’t your favorite wine) tastes much better (less acidic) because of having it with an acidic food.
- You are happy, and your guests are happy. Because ultimately, it’s all a matter of personal preference.
Here are a few baseline conditions to keep in mind when matching or recommending what wine or type of wine to have with food.
It is easier to pair food and wine that are themselves in balance.
Flavor balancing in a food means that the components of savory (umami), acidity, sweetness, saltiness, hotness (spicy) and bitterness are themselves in balance and no one of those components predominate. Wine’s flavor components are acid, residual sugar, tannins and alcohol. When they are in balance, that wine can be paired successfully with almost any balanced food. If a food is even slightly out of balance, you should be more careful with the wines you choose to pair with the food and that is where wine and food pairing guidelines come in.
Wines should be matched to the predominant taste of the food, in many cases the sauce or gravy rather than the base food itself.
Whenever the sauce becomes the primary flavor in a dish rather than the meat or vegetable base, it is best to pair the wine with the sauce. This is especially true with lighter meats such as chicken or pork that have sauces, butter or oils that dominate the meat taste. Thus a savory sauce could be paired with a savory (low acid) red wine such as a Merlot even if the meat is white. An acidic white wine is also acceptable with a red meat if the predominant taste of the red meat with its sauce is acidic as would an acidic red wine pair with a white fish or shellfish that had an acidic sauce.
Specific Rules or Guidelines
With the above prerequisite conditions in mind, here are some guidelines for wine and food pairing:
1) Pair acidic dishes with an acidic wine because the acid in the food, lowers the perception of acid in the wine, i.e., brings it more in balance.
If you have a tart dish such as a broiled fish with squeezed lemon juice on it or a salad with a vinaigrette dressing with no sweetness to balance, it is better to pair that dish with one of the more acidic wines. There are two reasons for this. The acid level in the wine brings the acidic food more into balance. Secondly, the acid in the dish cuts the perception of high acid in the wine; it actually accustoms your taste buds to acid so the wine itself is brought more into balance. A low acid wine will seem flat or flabby.
2) With a dish that is predominantly savory, pair it with a lower acid wine or an acidic wine that is balanced with residual sweetness.
If a high acid wine meets a savory food, then acidity in the wine is heightened making it seem more out of balance. That doesn’t mean you won’t like it if you have a preference for acidic tastes, but it does mean that many others without your taste will not like it. A low acid wine keeps a savory dish savory and makes the wine seem richer and smoother. Residual sweetness in a wine actually makes it more “savory.”
Two rules RULE the wine and food pairing world
acidic wine with acidic food and low acid wine with savory food
In addition to the two major wine and food pairing rules above, there are other guidelines that you may want to keep in mind:
3) Pair the weight (light, heavy) of the food with the body (light, heavy) of the wine
While some experts would tell you that this is the primary rule for wine and food pairing (match body/weight), it is not quite as important as matching the acidity levels of wine and food. The reason for this is because mouth balance is more influenced by balance in acid, tannins, sugar, alcohol and bitterness, than it is by the weight of the wine. Most experts do not recognize that the primary reason to worry about wine and food pairing is to make the wine taste better, i.e., bring it into balance for your tastes, than it is to make the food taste better. If it makes the food taste better, fine! But 9 times out of 10 it makes the wine taste better.
That being said, matching the weight of the wine and food is still important; or at least not detracting by mismatching the weights.
4) Low alcohol wines pair better with spicy foods.
Alcohol extracts and accentuates the burn of capsaicin oil that causes a food to be spicy. For this reason, beer at alcohol levels of 5-7% tends to go better with hot, spicy foods than most wines. A low alcohol Moscato d’ Asti can counterbalance spiciness like a curry or stir fry. A low alcohol (12% or below) Riesling even without residual sweetness would match spicy Asian dishes or Latin American dishes much better than a spicy Syrah at 14% alcohol. Conversely, do not pair a high alcohol wine with a spicy dish unless you want it to taste even spicier.
5) Wines with residual sugar or floral/spicy aromas can pair well with spicy foods.
In addition to benefiting from lower alcohol wines, spicy foods seem to mesh with sweeter wines such as German Rieslings, Muscat-based wines, any vinifera wines with flowery aromas such as Gewürztraminer or Torrontés and the Muscadine/Scuppernong hybrid wines of the eastern United States. Sweetness seems to counterbalance cayenne-type spiciness and flowery aromas counterbalance spicy aromatic foods such as black pepper, chili spices, Cajun spices, curry, cumin, etc.
6) A sweet food is best paired with a wine that is slightly less sweet.
Sweetness in food decreases both a wine’s fruit flavors and some of the sweetness in wine. Sweet foods can make the wine taste tart or even sour — unless the wine has some sweetness of its own. If you want to pair a dessert wedding cake with a Champagne, you would choose an off-dry or semi-sweet sparkling wine because the cake sugar needs to have some sugar in the wine to match it. A dry (brut, brut nature, extra brut) Champagne would be out of balance with a sweet cake. The reason you pair a sweet dessert with a slightly less sweet wine is because it is easy to overwhelm the sweet taste buds and make everything out of balance
7) Rich, tannic red wines typically go well with red and fatty meats that have been salted.
The astringency of tannins is lessened by the salt in savory meat dishes. Tannins also bring sauces that are oil-based, fatty or buttery into balance.
8) A sweet wine can counterbalance saltiness and bitter tastes.
Blue Cheese is actually a bitter and salty cheese. One of the great wine-food pairings that seems counterintuitive is to have it with a sweet wine like a German Riesling or French Sauternes or any sweet dessert wine. A somewhat sweet Tawny Port, Malvasia, Madeira or Sweet Marsala wine goes well with salted nuts. German Rieslings even pair well with salty pretzels.
Rules made to be broken are called “guidelines.”
Avoidance Food-Pairing Guidelines
9) Oak in wine often clashes with an acidic food but enhances roasted or grilled foods.
Oaky Chardonnay, Malbec, Cabernet or Bordeaux does not seem to pair well with acidic foods. Oak conveys a savoriness to the wine which is the opposite of acid. Also oak is often associated with the same processing that results in malolactic fermentation (MLF). MLF makes a wine seem low in acid because it converts the harsher malic acid to the softer lactic acid. Thus an oaked wine becomes the opposite of acidic and pairs better with savory dishes. It also enhances food prepared over a charcoal grill.
10) Do not pair a high alcohol wine with highly spicy dishes.
Wines over 14% alcohol content clash with spicy dishes. A hot, 15% Zinfandel should never be consumed with spicy, hot barbecue or Buffalo hot wings unless you are into a “hothead” experience.
11) Do not pair fruity wines with oily fish.
Oily fish such as tuna, sardine, salmon, trout, anchovy, and mackerel will make fruit flavors in wine taste strange. Not sure why but they do.
12) With bitter, oxalic acid vegetables, avoid wines with residual sugar or that are heavily oaked.
Bitter oxalic vegetables are difficult to pair with wines in any case. Brussel sprouts, asparagus, spinach, greens and artichokes seem more bitter with many wines. Unoaked, herbal whites and light reds seem to be less of a problem.
Practically speaking, only one rule is needed for 90% of food wine pairings: match the acidity of the wine with the acidity level of the food. With that in mind, Tables 1 and 2 below are important references until you become familiar with the body and likely acidity level of each wine.
With each sip of wine, study its body, and acidity to learn wine and food pairing.
It will taste different with food than it does alone.
You will read somewhere or hear some people say that opposites in wine and food (acidic wine with savory food) make good pairings. Or possibly that rosé wine or bubbly Champagne or sparkling wines go with everything. This is only partially true. The opposites, the tannins in rosé wine, or the effervescence in sparkling wines can serve as palate cleansers to wash away fat, sugar, and umami tastes in your mouth especially when you are mixing dishes both acidic and savory. A rosé wine goes well with appetizers that are both acidic and savory, fruity and bitter. So does Champagne with bready and buttery canapés and hor d’oeuvres. But the taste of the wines will often be changed for the worse. I wouldn’t recommend an expensive Champagne to be paired with appetizers.
You may hear of some food pairings that try to match what are called impact chemicals in wines. Substances such as pyrazines in Cabernet wines (green pepper, herbs), rotundone (black or white pepper), ethyl hexanoate, ethyl cinnamate (strawberry, cherry), or monoterpenes (slight floral, mandarin orange, sweet spice) for example. These can be subtle aromas and tastes that only experienced chefs or wine tasters can pick up in a wine. If they are present in a wine and you adapt the food to pair with them, that is great. However pairing on impact compounds is nowhere near as important as pairing on acid and body levels.
Part of the problem also is that these chemicals, while possibly characteristic of a given grape variety and its varietal wine, are expressed in a wine to degrees that range from not discernible to prominent, depending on where the grapes were grown and their local climate. Thus you cannot have a standard rule such as all Cabernet Franc wines have green pepper aromas. It depends upon where those wines are from. To know for sure, you have to have tasted the wine itself from that specific vintage year to see if the aroma is present.
List of Appetizers to go with Different Wines
Do you know your preferred Wine Style?
Acidity and Body Levels of Different Wines
How to make a Reduction Wine Sauce
Add your own discovered or created recipe to go with wine