Good wine and food are among the great pleasures in life, but many of us are unsure about the best way to put them together. The first thing to remember is that you can’t be wrong. If it tastes good, it is good. Aside from being subjective, one of the reasons wine and food pairing is easier than you think is that the relatively high acid in wine makes it food friendly by nature. You may not find the pairing of the century if you don’t put some thought into it, but most likely it won’t be a disaster either. Let’s explore some ways to get beyond a so-so combination to one that’s unforgettable.
In the best pairings, the wine and food are like two individuals in a great marriage. Each one remains an individual and has his own personality, but as a couple they bring out the best in each other. In both cases, it’s chemistry!
Of course we’ve been liberated from the white wine with fish and red wine with meat rule. However, the cliché came about for a reason, so let’s not throw out the underlying concept along with the rule. It really means to match weight for weight. A food with delicate flavors will be overwhelmed by a big red wine and conversely, beef Bourguignon might overpower a delicate white wine. Trust your instincts. You have food combination rules that are so ingrained you’re not aware of them, for instance you don’t top your ice cream with mustard or put maple syrup on your broccoli. Eventually, your sense of how to pair the food with wine will be just as well developed as your food combination instinct.
A lot of it’s common sense, once you think about it:
The first guideline is a very simple one: light wine with light food; heavy wine with heavy food. The choice of protein is often less important than the preparation. Chicken is a good example. The old rule was to serve chicken with white wine. If you steam it or poach it, that’s probably a good idea, and a delicate white will work well. If you sauce the chicken with cream or butter, they add weight to the dish and a bigger white, like a Chardonnay, may be a better mate. Braising or roasting it deepens the flavors and it might be time to think about a medium-bodied red like a Pinot Noir or a Merlot. Put the chicken on the grill and a spicy, full-bodied Zinfandel or Syrah would be delicious. It depends upon what you like, and the best way to find out is to experiment. If you don’t like red wine, then drink your favorite white and don’t give it another thought.
Matching flavors is another good approach. Mushrooms and Pinot Noir are wonderful together because they have earthiness in common. If you put a mushroom sauce on the chicken, a Pinot Noir or an earthy Merlot would probably be better choices than the traditional white wine. If you like a squeeze of lemon on your halibut, you’re likely to enjoy a crisp Sauvignon Blanc along with it. These are pairings that complement one another.
When Colleen develops new recipes, quite often she uses a little wine in the sauce to seal the match. If you add some Pinot Noir to the mushroom sauce, the marriage is certain to be a happy one.
Sometimes opposites attract and a contrast is more exciting than a complement. A hot, spicy Thai or Indian dish is refreshingly offset by a slightly sweet white like our Chenin Blanc. Next time you have a rich cream or butter sauce, try it with a crisp wine like Sauvignon Blanc. The acidity in the wine will cut right through the rich sauce and makes a lively contrast.
Bad match? Add salt and lemon: There is a school of thought that suggests that when the wine and food don’t get along, it’s because the food needs to be balanced by the addition of salt and/or lemon. Surprisingly, it works well a lot of the time. As you can imagine there are plenty of chefs who think their food is already balanced, and that this is a simplistic approach, but if you’re not happy with your wine and food combination it’s worth a try. Part of the theory is that highly savory foods like mushrooms and meats need to be balanced with a bit of tartness – just like putting lemon zest or gremolata on your rich lamb shanks.
Tart foods: However, if the food is extremely tart, select a wine of equal acidity or the wine will seem flat. This is why sharp salad dressings can be tough to match. Try using judicious amounts of soft balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon or lime juice in the dressing when you’re serving wine with your salad.
Spicy foods: These are challenging because the spices tend to bring out bitterness and astringency in wine, so again, think about a fruity and perhaps sweet wine for heavily spiced food rather than a big, tannic red. A lively Viognier, Chenin Blanc or Gewurtztraminer refresh the palate, or try a fruity Beaujolais style or a soft, delicate Pinot Noir if you feel like red wine.
Sweet foods: Desserts present the greatest challenge for wine. The general guideline is that the food should be less sweet than the wine or it will make the wine taste sour. This is one area where it’s smart to try the combination before serving it to guests. Fruit desserts can be very successful with wine because the fruit isn’t overly sweet unless you add a lot of sugar.
Speaking of guests, here are some suggestions for your next dinner party: If you are serving several different wines, it’s best to go from light to dark and more importantly, from dry to sweet. Take advantage of the situation and use your guests as guinea pigs for wine and food combinations. Try serving more than one wine with each course to see what everyone prefers. You could serve the chicken with mushroom sauce with a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. Pair the grilled swordfish with a Sauvignon Blanc and a Zinfandel. It should produce a lively debate at the table and you’ll have fun discovering your own preferences along the way. You’ll find dozens of recipes paired with wine at Colleen’s Kitchen. Colleen always lists her favorite choice for the wine pairing but, in many cases, it was a hard call because a number of wines worked well.
The “lively debate” takes us back to where we started. There isn’t a right or wrong when you’re the one enjoying the food and wine. In discovering great food and wine combinations, it’s certainly true that the pleasure is in the journey as much as the destination.