The Logic Behind a Food and Wine Pairing Chart

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Roast pork loin being carved on a table with glasses of red wine.

For wine aficionados around the world, pairing is an essential way to enjoy wine at its full potential. Pairing wine with the perfect food elevates the best of both, by balancing and harmonizing flavors. To aid and organize the art of wine pairing, many people utilize a wine pairing chart — which offers a visual guide to pairing food with wine.

What Is Wine Pairing?

Wine pairing is not a new activity — evidence of winemaking dates back to roughly 8,000 years ago, giving humans thousands of years to discover the best and boldest ways to enjoy their wine. As such, wine and food have enjoyed a long-term relationship, which has resulted in classic food and wine pairings. 

One example is the pairing between Sangiovese wines and classic Italian dishes of Tuscany — which embodies the vintner’s truism, “What grows together, goes together.” The pairing between local dishes with local wines has created divine partnerships between the two for centuries.

While modern wine-food pairing remains an art, there is science and logic behind the finely tuned dance between great food and wine. Basic principles of wine pairing include contrasting pairing, in which balance is reached through vibrant contrasting flavors. Another basic principle is congruent pairing, in which similar flavors elevate one another with their shared characteristics. 

The main wine pairing principals are as follows:

  • Wine should possess a higher acid content than its food counterpart
  • Wine should possess more sugar than its food partner
  • Wine and food should be well matched in their intensity
  • Red wine pairs well with red meat
  • White wine pairs well with light meats like fish or chicken
  • Bitter wines can be balanced by high-fat dishes
  • Wine can be matched with the sauces in your food
  • Sparkling, rosé, and white wines create effective contrasting pairings
  • Red wines create effective congruent pairings

The Science of Wine Pairing

The science of wine pairing can be boiled down to the molecular level. French sommelier François Chartier argues that the aromatic molecules found in your food and wine behave as sensory bridges. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon and raspberries pair well together because both possess beta-ionone, which you can perceive because of their aromatic qualities. 

Others argue that, though there are natural pairings created by factors like region and culture — such as a California crab with a buttery Chardonnay — there is no such thing as a perfect universal pairing. This argument is based on the idea that every individual has unique preferences and experiences favors differently, making a universal pairing impossible. 

While the scientific side of wine pairing is deep and complex, you don’t have to be a professional chemist to choose a great pairing. Basically, the science of wine pairing lies in the different tastes that humans can perceive. These include:

  • Sweet
  • Sour
  • Salty
  • Bitter
  • Pungent
  • Astringent
  • Umami

Effective food and wine pairing creates combinations of these tastes that enhance positive qualities and develop a more complex, beautiful taste. This is enhanced by your sense of smell. Notes that can uplift the pairing experience include:

  • Fruity
  • Earthy
  • Mineral
  • Woodsy
  • Herbal

Beyond taste and smell, important qualities that contribute to positive wine pairings are:

  • Acidity. Acidity is the quality of a wine that gives it a tart taste. The level of tartness is dependent upon the level of acidity — which can be described by terms such as “bright” or “fresh.” 
  • Tannin. Tannins create an astringent flavor and are primarily present in red wine. Tannins are prevalent within the stems, skins, and seeds of grapes. Wines with plenty of tannins pair well with fatty foods like red meat.
  • Sweetness. A wine’s sweetness is often described as dry. Sweet wines are often dessert wines that pair beautifully with desserts or chocolate. 
  • Alcohol level. Alcohol level can have a dramatic impact on taste, with older grapes providing higher alcohol levels and bolder flavors.

Understanding food and wine pairing is as important for creating brilliant meals as it is for avoiding dining disasters. For example, a good wine pairing chart will help you avoid pairings like fish with red wine, which can augment the fishy taste of a seafood dish to an unpleasant level. 

How to Read a Wine Pairing Chart

Wine pairing charts exist in a variety of forms, from elaborate guides to simple infographics. While there are many methods to pairing wine with food, you can use a wine pairing chart to create the perfect meal. You can choose a wine pairing chart by:

  • Meal type. If you’re looking for the perfect pairing for a special occasion, look for wine pairing charts by occasion. For example, a Christmas wine pairing chart will give you plenty of options for your next festive gathering, from smoked salmon and champagne to duck and Pinot Gris
  • Ingredient. If you have a primary star ingredient in mind and want to plan your meal and wine pairing around it, look for a wine chart by ingredient. For example, a cheese wine pairing chart might recommend a dry white wine with Gruyère cheese or a classic sherry with manchego.  
  • Cuisine. Another way to search for the perfect wine pairing chart is by cuisine. If you’re looking for the perfect wine to have with your classic French dish, a French food and wine pairing guide might recommend a Muscadet with oysters. 
  • Type of wine.  If you know which wine you’d like to enjoy, but want to find the perfect dish, search for a chart by varietal of wine. For example, a champagne pairing chart would pair Brut with steak, and a Rosé with crab cakes.  

Where to Find the Perfect Wine

Now that you understand the basics behind wine and food pairing charts, it’s time to find the perfect wine to pair. Whether you’re diving deep into the science of wine pairing or looking for a new way to enjoy your favorite vintages, visit JJ Buckley’s Fine Wines to find the best bottle of wine to top off your next family meal, festive gathering, or a night in of fine dining.

Want to learn more? The knowledgeable consultants at JJ Buckley’s make it easy to track down the wine you have in mind, no matter where you are in the wine pairing process.