Wine & Food Pairing 101

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, January 2014


The first thing to learn about pairing wine and food is there are no rules. I remember having dinner with a friend who looked aghast when I ordered a red wine to go with my fish. I explained the red-with-meat-and-white-with-fish mentality was no longer applicable or very much fun.

Some white wines can be bold and actually overpower a light fish, while some reds may be too delicate and wimpy for a thick, juicy steak. Even pairing wine and cheese for a simple snack can take on a whole new taste dimension when paired correctly. Food and wine should complement and enhance each other, not compete for attention. Sommeliers and chefs in fine restaurants often work together to achieve this yin and yang effect for their signature dishes.

The only rule I know about wine is that it is made to be enjoyed with food. I get annoyed when a server wants me to order a bottle of wine before I have decided what food to order. An aperitif to whet the appetite, like sparkling wine or a light Sauvignon Blanc, before dinner is fine. My main wine selection, however, depends on what I’m going to eat.

The pairing that changed how I felt about wine and food really is a classic: grilled salmon with Pinot Noir. I had no idea how much better salmon could taste when served with a soft, fruity red wine until I tried them together. Since then, I’ve become slightly obsessive about the creative science of combining food flavors with wines. Pairing food and wine is sort of like alchemy — the simplest dish can be exotic if the wine is a good match, and an inexpensive Cabernet can taste like a Wine Spectator Top 100 wine if it enhances the food. A poor match, however, results in disappointment with both the wine and the food. For instance, a sweet side dish or dessert can make some wines taste bitter, while sweet and fruity wines can impair or hide a food’s flavor.

When pairing wine and food, I often follow these three concepts:

  • Select light wines for light foods and bold wines with heavier foods. White wines can be bold. For example, some oaky Chardonnays stand up to a steak as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon does.
  • Let the wine “echo” the dominant flavors in a dish. Pork smothered with cooked apples pairs well with fruity wine; pork slow-cooked in a rich tomato sauce works much better with an earthy, herb-scented red. Look beyond the meat or main ingredient. Consider how sauces and spices also will influence the flavor.
  • Think regionally, especially when it comes to cheeses. If you pair wine and cheese by their region of origin, you seldom go wrong. The terroir similarly impacts the flavors of cheese and wines from a particular region. My favorite go-to pairings include Comté, a hard and mild cheese, with a French Burgundy, or aged Parmesan with Italian Chianti.

Pairing wine with food doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated. In her book, Great Tastes Made Simple, Sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson says the combination that opened her eyes to pairing food and wine was microwave popcorn with Chardonnay. Buttered popcorn brings out the buttery flavors in the wine; air-popped corn emphasizes the wine’s oaky and toasty flavors.

If you think sommeliers are fussy about pairings, then consider what Jason Cha-Kim, beverage manager for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, recently said in WDW magazine: “The rule is that there are no rules for pairings.” Food and wine pairings, he explained, should be “fun and easy.”

CLASSIC COMBINATIONS

Here are some of my favorite pairings, all of which were discovered through trial and error:

  • Pan-fried tilapia with French Graves (a white Bordeaux)
  • New York strip steak with a Bordeaux blend or a California Cabernet
  • Spicy Asian stir-fry with a Finger Lakes Riesling or an Alsace Gewurztraminer
  • Grilled shrimp with a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc
  • Lamb, preferably grilled, with an Australian Shiraz
  • Hamburgers with old-vine Zinfandel.

By no means are these pairings “right” or “wrong.” They are simply what I like, and I’m still learning. Every new bottle of wine becomes a game to figure out what food I can serve with it. Let us know your favorite pairings. And remember there are no rules — it’s all about what you like.


SOURCES: Great Tastes Made Simple, by Andrea Immer, Broadway Books, 2002, p.52. “Pairing Perfection,” WDW – The Grown-Up Side of Disney, A Walt Disney World publication, Fall 2013.

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