‘Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life’s most civilized pleasures.’Michael Broadbent
Finding the right wine to complement a meal needn’t be a daunting task. While perfect pairings are much to do with personal taste, it is also true that certain wines often work best with particular dishes.
The basics of successful matches are relatively straightforward, though not always easy to achieve. However, you don’t need to be a professional wine taster. Keep our guide to perfect pairing close to hand and you’ll be sure to impress dinner guests.
1. Flavour vs taste
There is a difference between flavour and taste. Flavour is the combination of compounds and aromas, usually from natural ingredients. There are two flavour pairing ideologies; complementary or congruent. Congruent pairings, such as beef and mushroom have many shared compounds. While complementary pairings, like coconut and chocolate have few shared compounds; but go together well.
Taste is made up of distinct characteristics. Though there are more than 20 tastes in foods, by focusing on the main six, you can easily identify pairing potentials.
The top six food tastes include:
2. Wine impressions
In general, wine is not strong in the fat, spice or salt departments, but does involve acidity, bitterness and sweetness at varying levels.
For more on tasting, read our beginner’s guide to wine tasting or our more detailed, downloadable guide to wine tasting.
As a rule, follow these guidelines:
- Red wines tend to be more bitter.
- White, rose and sparkling wines have more noticeable acidity.
- Sweet wines are, unsurprisingly, sweeter in taste.
To determine the perfect wine for your meal, start by identifying the main tastes of your dish.
3. Food for thought
For example, a green salad is acidic and bitter. If you dress it in balsamic vinaigrette, it’s likely the acid will be the dominant taste.
It’s also important to consider whether the meal is light or rich? Our salad would be described as light and fresh. Rich foods tend to contain butter, cream or other ingredients that create a ‘heavy’ consistency.
4. Wine weigh-ins
Now, consider your wine’s body. Is it light or bold? In wine terms, ‘body’ is an analysis of the way a wine feels inside the mouth. Wines fall into three main categories: light, medium and full-bodied. This is based on a variety of factors, but alcohol is the primary contributor. The alcohol level will determine its viscosity, which affects how heavy the wine is, and how it feels on the palate.
- Wines under 12.5% alcohol are considered light-bodied.
- Between 12.5% – 13.5% are medium-bodied.
- Any wine over 13.5% is said to be full-bodied.
5. Making a match
Finding a match means returning to the complementary vs congruent ideologies. Another way to think of this is mirroring and contrasting.
Complementary: A highly acidic white wine will complement a fatty meal. For instance, a creamy béchamel sauce is well matched with a zesty Sauvignon-Blanc. This is contrasting at its best.
Congruent: A white wine with a creamy essence will mirror the creaminess of the dish. Therefore, a full-bodied Chardonnay would create a congruent combination with the béchamel sauce.
Be careful though, it is important to ensure that a combination of ingredients doesn’t result in a flavour imbalance. Foods that are hard to pair with wine include:
- Brussel sprouts – the earthy, sulphuric flavours mimic the taste of a wine fault. Choose a wine with enough punch to balance bitter and sulphur tones.
- Sushi – the combination of raw fish, seaweed and sesame are tricky to match. Look for a bone dry white wine grown in cool climate regions, such as a dry Riesling.
- Chocolate – its tannin and fattiness, combined with sweetness and earthy texture, makes chocolate a complicated partner. Although, we would usually say beware of sweet on sweet, dark chocolate needs a sweet red wine to balance the tannins. (We chose Recioto in part because it pairs really well with chocolate.)
If we take three popular wines and assess them in line with the above suggestions, we find:
- Riesling is light-bodied with citrus and exotic fruity flavours and a refreshing acidity.
- Pinot Grigio is medium-bodied with a citrus flavour and a medium acidity.
- Cabernet Sauvignon is medium to full-bodied with red and black fruit aromas and high acidity
Due to this German wine’s freshness and acidity, it is a perfect accompaniment to spicy food. Riesling’s zest balances the flavour of cayenne pepper, ginger, madras curry or soy sauce. Riesling is an incredibly versatile wine: try it with Chinese food, Tex-Mex or roast duck.
A great wine for light, summery food, as well as richer Italian staples, Pinot Grigio is a flexible medium-bodied wine. Pair it with light seafood salad, light vegetable risotto or fried fish and spring vegetables.
Classically, Cabernet Sauvignon is matched with beefy steaks to balance the wine’s richness. However, it is also surprisingly good with pork, chicken and even vegetarian food. Try a red fruit Cabernet with vegetarian stuffed peppers.
Let’s wine it up
To create the perfect food and wine pairing, remember the following:
- Differentiate the meal’s flavour and taste.
- Determine which of the six main taste profiles it matches.
- Consider the intensity of the food.
- Decide whether your wine will be paired on a complementary or congruent basis.
- Refer to our three wine suggestions to hit the spot.
While opinions will always waiver on the clear dos and don’ts of food and wine pairing, this guide is a good rule of thumb, helping you create beautiful flavours and easing your pairing dilemmas. Of course, personal taste will dictate a lot, so eat, drink, be merry and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new combinations.