Wine Pairing Made Easy
Wine Pairing Made Easy
Pairing wine with food can be simple, so long as you don’t overthink it. Which is very easy to do. Articles and even wine professionals can seem to espouse a kind of lock-and-key approach, as if for each dish there is a single specific wine that will catapult your meal to unimaginable heights. While I confess to having enjoyed a few truly precise (and sublime) pairings over the years, they have generally been in multi-starred restaurants where the sommelier had a well-worn familiarity with the dish and a deep cellar to pull from. In the home, it is better to work in generalities, unless you plan to audition each pairing ahead of time!
I employ a fairly basic approach which has rarely steered me wrong. It distills down to a handful of “rules” that you should keep in mind while selecting a wine. Hopefully these will help reduce any anxiety you might feel when endeavoring to create the perfect pairing.
Rule 1: Focus on the primary element of your meal.Are you serving a fatty, dry-aged steak? A flaky trout? A pasta with a spicy red sauce? Pair to this. Don’t worry about the side dishes unless they are extreme (very spicy, lots of lemon, etc), you will only drive yourself insane.
Rule 2: Match flavor intensity, but contrast structure.Pairings are all about harmony. You don’t want to pair a subtle dish with a bombastic wine, or vice versa. Try to match the intensity of your wine to the intensity of the dish. For example, a pasta in puttanesca sauce with an expressive Sangiovese or a lighter squab preparation with an elegant Pinot Noir. Next, consider the texture of your dish. Is it rich in fat? Bitter like arugula? Bright like lemon juice? The best way to compliment this is to select a wine with the opposite characteristic. Texture in wine essentially boils down to tannin (bitter and drying), acid, and flesh (fatness in wine often comes from either high alcohol or residual sugar). A tannic wine like Bordeaux is a great match for a fatty steak; a bright, acidic salad pairs well with a soft and neutral white like a Pinot Grigio; and spicy food is widely known to work well with sweeter Rieslings or Gewürztraminers.
Rule 3: Have fun!Seriously – play around a little. Once you are familiar with the “rules”, push at their boundaries. I personally love a brightblanc de blancsChampagne with buttery popcorn!
Rule 4: Stockpile versatile wines for last-minute pairing emergencies! Ok, so this one is more of a hack, but it has saved many dinners at my house wherein a specially selected wine ended up being corked or was consumed too rapidly. A versatile wine, i.e. one that works with a wide range of food, tends to not be too oaky, tannic, or high in alcohol. A refreshing but not overbearing level of acid is ideal, as it will help the flavors in your meal to pop, not unlike salt. Some examples to gravitate toward include Chenin Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Vermentino, and lightly oaked Chardonnays for whites; Pinot Noir, Barbera, Beaujolais, and Sangiovese for reds. And Champagne. Lots and lots of Champagne.