Wine Pairing

From time to time when you are in a restaurant with friends and everyone has ordered food, there is an awkward moment when it comes to ordering wine. Usually everyone turns to “the-one-that-knows” telling the waiter: “He knows”, with this expression of mixed relief and apprehension, as if “to know” which wine to pair with which food must involve some extensive knowledge, or it is part of a secret cult or it is like doing a complicated ritual dance. 

Au contraire, pairing wine and food can be summarized in two simple rules:

The first is logical: the wine should match the weight and power of the food. The lighter the food, the lighter the wine and vice versa. With light appetizers, you should serve a sparkling or light still white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc/Gris, young Riesling. With heavier appetizers or a light main course (grilled fish or white meat), pair a heavy white such as oaked Chardonnay, a blend of white grapes or a light red: Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc. With your heavier main courses, featuring red meat or stew, you should serve powerful and tannic wines like Bordeaux, Rhône Valley, Rioja, Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon from the New World.

The second rule is that wine from one region will usually pair well with food from the same region. This of course applies to Old World wines, as they come from traditions which are not built overnight. For French and Italian cuisine particularly, food and wine are intrinsically mixed.

Rules aside, remember that one’s taste is always personal and we are (still) in a free country. So as long as you enjoy both the wine and the food, the pairing decision is all yours. 

With this in mind, there are still a few things to avoid as some chemical components might clash with each other. For example, fish oil will conflict with tannins. On the other hand, tannins will be tremendously softened by fats and proteins (e.g. red meat). If a dish has high acidity, the wine should have as much or more acidity. The same goes for sweetness. Very salty dishes will be softened by high acidity wines, and also pair well with fruity and soft tannin wines. 

Most Asian food contains sugar and goes well with off-dry white wines such as Riesling or Gewurtztraminer from Germany or Alsace. The sugar content of the wine will also take the edge off the spices. 

The perfect pairing is when a wine heightens a dish but also has some similarities with the food. For example with a classic dish like steak and mushroom sauce, we saw that a highly tannic wine will pair well; the power of the food will match the weight of this heavy red wine, and the proteins will neutralize the astringency of the tannins. So you will mostly experience the fruitiness of the wine which brings a new element to the dish. But also the wine could have some undergrowth, mushroom flavors, pepper and herb flavors which will create a link to the food as well. If you know your wine well, and if you are the cook, you can really create a unique experience. 

Most of the time wine will be paired with the food but if you open a special/high-end bottle, the food must pair with the wine. 

Quinta da Alorna Vinho Regional Tejo Branco 2016

A blend of Fernão Pires, Arinto and Sauvignon Blanc, this white wine combines freshness and complexity. With notes of passionfruit, pineapple and lime peel, the palate starts with the minerality of crushed shells and the freshness of ripe lemon juice. This wine has a clean acidity with a long finish on lime zest and crushed rocks. Light to medium body, this wine will pair nicely with sushi, seafood or yum cha. Its complexity responds well to grilled fish or grilled chicken or even with Chinese fondue or Thai fish curry. We could push the pairing further with some music. I recommend the Handel opera “Ariodante” which has a lot in common with this wine: light and fresh, easy listening, yet with many different layers when paying close attention. David Rouault

David Rouault is a professional classical musician, part time wine consultant and full time wine lover, holding WSET Level 3,
Certified Specialist of Wine and Introductory Sommelier diplomas.

Categories World of Bacchus