It’s not hard to imagine why a lot of people think worrying about pairing the right wine with the right food is something best reserved for five-star restaurants and snooty sommeliers.
The truth, however, is that there’s a lot of science behind the snobbery. And a lot of pleasure in getting it right.
Wine and food work together to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts, with each component affecting the others for better or worse.
And that science works just as well with inexpensive food you can pick up at your neighbourhood grocery as it does with food that appears on the menus of fancy restaurants.
Next time you’re deciding which wine to buy, consider one of these combinations:
1. Ramen noodles with Pinot Gris
No list of cheap food would be complete without a cameo appearance by the ubiquitous ramen noodles. But the affordability of the noodles just leaves you more money to spend on wine. While the best pairing varies with the characteristics of the noodle dishes, a good overall choice is an off-dry Pinot Gris. A versatile Pinot Gris can complement spiciness, balance out saltiness, and tone down heat all at the same time.
2. Fried chicken with Champagne
While beer might seem like a more natural accompaniment for fried chicken, all that fat and salt just cries out for Champagne, with its light-bodied bubbliness and refreshing taste. Champagne is perfect for balancing the fattiness of a dish like fried chicken.
Or, if bubbles aren’t your thing, an off-dry Riesling would work well, too. Bubbledogs in London specialises in the equally unlikely pairing of hot dogs and Champagne. We love it.
3. Popcorn with Cabernet Sauvignon
Like wine, popcorn conjures up images of relaxation — especially the kind you enjoy on a lazy weekend or a cozy evening at home. (Or, if you’re a college student or young professional, you may associate popcorn more strongly with dinner. In that case, pairing it with wine makes a lot of sense.)
A fruity, full-bodied cabernet sauvignon has the personality to hold its own with the salty butteriness of a big bowl of popcorn.
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4. Pizza with Valpolicella
Cats and dogs, peanut butter and jelly, pizza and beer….yeah, we know. But wine works, too, and it’s not as filling as beer, which is an important consideration when you’re facing down a large pizza with extra pepperoni.
That pepperoni contributes a lot of spices — like paprika, red pepper, and garlic — and the gooey cheese helps distribute those flavours throughout each slice.
Counterbalancing the strong flavours of pepperoni isn’t a task for a light, refreshing wine. Instead, go for something bolder, like a velvety Valpolicella.
5. Peanut butter and jelly with Lambrusco
The humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich makes most people reach for a carton of milk — but they’re missing out. The sugar and bubbles of a great Lambrusco combine with the sweetness of the jelly to create something magical. And that magic is only enhanced by the salty creaminess of the peanut butter.
6. Macaroni and cheese with Riesling
Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. The fact that many of us associate it with childhood, though, doesn’t mean you can’t pair it with a grown-up glass of wine. A dry, acidic Riesling with plenty of minerality is perfect for cutting through the heaviness of a dish like mac and cheese.
7. Ice cream with Moscato
Ice cream is known for being a miracle cure for everything from sore throats to bruised egos. Pairing it with just the right wine gives it superpowers. While a rich, full-bodied red might seem like the perfect match for the richness of ice cream, tannins don’t always play nicely with sugary desserts. Neither does acidity. When it comes to sugar, you want a wine that’s sweeter than the ice cream, which makes Moscato a perfect choice. And you don’t necessarily need both a bowl and a glass. Why not combine the two for a Moscato float?
8. Chocolate and Recioto
You love chocolate? You love wine? Sounds like the perfect combination. But actually, finding the right match for chocolate can be challenging. You’d want to match chocolate’s sweetness so you want something sweet. A Port, Pedro Ximinez or perhaps a Rutherglen Muscat might work. (We tried a lot of Rutherglen for our recent fortified exam at the WSET – it sort of grows on you.) However, good chocolate, especially dark chcoloate, also has a bitterness which is hard to balance. This is why we love to pair with it with Recioto della Valpolicella, which is a rare sweet red wine from the Valpolicella region in Northwest Italy.
The art of food and wine pairing
Pairing food and wine is more science than art, and it’s not some secret knowledge that is never to be shared outside sommelier school. Wine doesn’t care if you’re eating hamburger or beef tenderloin — it’s all about interplay between salt, fat, acidity, sugar, and other ingredients. The various combinations of those factors can cause wine and food can enhance each other, complement each other, or combine to make something entirely new. The one thing that doesn’t matter is the price of the food.