Something magical happens when you pair the right wine with the right dish. The wine enhances and elevates your meal just as the food on your plate elevates the wine in your glass. Your dining experience goes from good to nothing short of incredible.
Creating incredible food and wine pairings at home can feel a little daunting at first. The good news is that it’s not really all that complicated. With a few simple tips, you can successfully match a great wine with a specific dish (or a delicious meal with an ideal wine), creating pairings that you and your guests will enjoy.
Identify the Main Components
When it comes to food and wine pairings, you’ll want to consider the main components of both. Is your wine full-bodied or light-bodied? Fruity or earthy? Is it high in tannins? What about acidity? What’s its sweetness or alcohol level?
As for your dish, is it light or heavy? Is it sweet or salty? Does it have a bit of spicy heat or sourness to it?
One of the most common food and wine pairing tips is red wines go with red meats, and white wines go with white meat. However, there’s usually more to a dish than the protein you’re serving. If your meal involves a sauce, that sauce becomes the main component. As such, it can have a significant impact on your wine selection. Chicken with a buttery, rich cream sauce would call for a different wine than chicken with a sharp, acidic tomato-based sauce.
When creating any food and wine pairing, you want to find balance. Your wine shouldn’t overpower the dish. At the same time, your meal shouldn’t overwhelm the wine.
Generally, heavy dishes need heavy wines, and light dishes need light wines. A New York strip steak goes beautifully with a robust, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. A light-bodied, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc is a perfect match for a light yet flavorful grilled chicken Caesar salad. However, these rules aren’t always hard and fast. There’s more than one way to create a wonderfully well-balanced pairing.
Food and Wine Pairing Methods
Food and wine pairings generally fall into one of two categories: congruent and complementary:
With congruent pairings, the wine and the food share several similar compounds or flavors. They balance one another by amplifying those shared compounds. That could mean serving pasta tossed in a cream sauce with a creamy Chardonnay or pan-roasted chicken breast with rosemary and thyme with an herbaceous Grüner Veltliner.
Complementary pairings involve a dish and wine that share no similar compounds. Instead, they balance each other with contrasting elements. For example, you could serve Pinot Grigio with homemade macaroni and cheese made with a traditional béchamel sauce. While the wine is acidic, the dish is creamy and fatty so they complement one another beautifully.
Tannins are compounds in wine that attach to proteins in your saliva, drying your mouth in the process. That natural reaction makes more tannic wines (think Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, and Petit Sirah) the perfect partner for proteins like steak. In binding with the meat instead of your saliva, the wine tastes smoother, and the steak seems tenderer.
Be Mindful with Spicy Dishes
However, you’ll want to be mindful of tannins if you want to serve a spicy dish. Both high tannin and high alcohol wines intensify the heat of spices, throwing off the balance of your pairing. Sweeter wines can tame spicy foods, such as many Indian dishes. A light-bodied, fruity rosé with a bit of sweetness goes wonderfully with a high-heat vindaloo. A Pinot Noir would work nicely, too.
Drink What You Like
No food and wine pairing, no matter how perfectly matched, will please you if you don’t like the dish or the wine. Let’s take a classic pairing — lobster and Chardonnay. What if you don’t like Chardonnay? Not a problem. If you aren’t a fan, the pairing is never going to work for you. A Sauvignon Blanc or Reisling may provide a better result.
If you don’t like white wines in general, that’s okay too. Rosé is a suitable substitute that won’t overpower lobster’s delicate flavors. A lighter-bodied Chianti makes a good partner for lobster in a tomato-based sauce.
Think About Other People
While you should drink what you like, there may be times when you have other people joining you for a meal. For small gatherings, you could always ask your guests about their preferences well ahead of the event. That way, you can put together an experience they’ll enjoy. If you’re hosting a larger gathering, it may be more practical to consider offering at least a couple of wine options to go with the meal you’re planning to serve, leaving the choice open to the individual.
Champagne Goes with Pretty Much Everything
If you’re ever in doubt, go for bubbles. The bright acidity and freshness of Champagne — and other sparkling wines — work well with almost any dish, whether the pairing is complementary or congruent. From caviar to burgers, you can’t go wrong with Champagne.
Feel Free to Experiment
Here’s the best part about pairing food and wine — there’s plenty of room to experiment. Don’t be afraid to take risks and try something different. At worst, your food and beverage choices don’t play well together. At best, you find an incredible pairing that you’ve never read about or seen anywhere else.
Summing Up: Your Quick Guide to Pairing Wine with Food
There may be “rules” regarding the art of pairing food and wine, but that doesn’t mean you need to follow them to a T. In reality, those rules are more guidelines than anything else. They can help point you in the right direction, and the rest is all up to you.
Are you ready to start your wine and food pairing journey? Visit JJ Buckley Fine Wines to browse our extensive collection.