The cliché is true: red with red, white with white. That’s the simplest way of clearing up confusion about wine pairing. While this basic advice covers virtually any meal and wine pairing, there is certainly more to the equation.
For most people, good wine pairings literally go unnoticed, while bad wine pairings can be awful. Remember the last time you drank orange juice right after brushing your teeth? Yikes! When a pairing is that bad, the wine always gets the blame. The reality is, it’s not the wine; it’s the wine and food combo that tastes like battery acid.
A successful wine pairing should compliment the meal, not overpower it. There are several Commandments of Food Pairing that are taught at the Court of Master Sommeliers. It’s always best to begin your pairing with the most dominant flavor in the chosen dish and match the wine to that flavor. Here are the most important Commandments for pairing:
First, pair weight with weight. That is, the weight of the food should match the weight of the wine. For example, a hearty stew or roast alongside a cabernet sauvignon or an Amarone from the Veneto of Italy. Sure, other reds will work, but for the wine to stand up to a dish with a good amount of richness and gravy, a big, hearty wine is needed. Conversely, a delicate and lean filet mignon would be overpowered by either of the aforementioned wines. This is where a pinot noir from Oregon or Burgundy, France, would suit best. A delicate meat requires a delicate wine.Acidity needs acidity. Spaghetti with marinara and meatballs: Tomato sauces are rather acidic and typically not very rich, but neither are they light. The classic pairing is Chianti. This works because the grape sangiovese is acidic and results in wines that are acidic and typically medium-body. In this instance, the marinara and wine cancel out each other’s acidities, and the result is delightful. Salad dressings with citrus and/or balsamic-based dressings require a crisp, dry white or rosé for the formula to work.Perhaps the most important Commandment is that fish oils love acidity and hate tannins. Essentially, fish need white wine or dry rosé. Tannins in red wines have a drying affect on your palate. Remember the earlier example of orange juice and toothpaste? This is it!Tannins love fat. This why the classic pairing of cabernet sauvignon and a rib eye is so sublime. The fatty cut smooths out the harsh tannins from long barrel aging and macerations. Sweet needs sweet. This is perhaps the biggest anomaly in wine pairing – it’s counterintuitive. Dessert wines on their own are intensely sweet and not very enjoyable. However, pair them with the right dessert and voilla! The sweet of both dessert and wine disappear. Food and wine pairing can seem intimidating, but if you follow the “white with white and red with red’ rule, ultimately everything will work out. Once you’ve established some confidence, branch out while following the Commandments and experiment.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.