A modern guide to pairing food and wine
It may take up to three years to train as a professional sommelier, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a glancing knowledge of which wine is best served with which type of food. Some food and drink experts are less thrilled by finding a good match; award-winning writer Nina Caplan recently wrote in New Statesman that the main thing to strive for is combining the right meal with the right people. Meanwhile, Stephen Brook, claims that pairing food and wine is “plain common sense,” but adds that “in a restaurant context…you can hardly order a different wine for each person.”
Despite this, food and wine pairing remains a source of fascination to many. In an age where Burgers And Wine is a lucrative pop-up restaurant concept, pairing fancy wine with trashy food (champagne and chips, anyone?) is becoming big business, as people try and break out of traditional wine/food match-ups, such as white wine and fish.
Fine wine buyers are keen to point out that each type of fine wine comes from specific regions, which means that the variety of soil and grape type will give each bottle its own taste, colour and mouthfeel. Consequently, there is a near-endless number of combinations of food and wine for the discerning gastronomer; so where does one begin when it comes to pairing wine and food, and what is it about each which complements the other?
Colour-matching wine and food
Experts are now claiming that pairing wine and food is as simple as following your instincts, with Wine Spectator magazine noting in an FAQ that the notion of colour-matching wine and food is advised because it’s an “easy to remember” system. Yet, the system works, and for good (and scientific) reasons.
In the case of red wine with red meat, they match due to the high levels of tannins in red wine; tannins are a naturally-occuring chemical which helps the wine age well. The side effect on taste is that tannins are what makes a wine taste bold and dry, the after-effect of which is that they dry out the drinker’s mouth. The richness of red meat and tomatoey pasta dishes make them ideal for counteract the drying effects of tannins.
By contrast, the fatty oils and acids in most fish (most famously, omega-3) pair well with acidic white wines which cut through the fat, and delicate seafood matches better with a more delicate-tasting wine. Yet, there are some fish which allegedly pair better with red wines, with one Huffington Post piece noting that the texture of how your fish is cooked will determine which colour of wine will pair best with it. The established rules aren’t as hard and fast as some may think, and being completely counterintuitive with your food and wine pairings may even be the key to dinner party success…
Sometimes opposites attract
The ongoing trend of mixing sweet and salty in foods—think of the rise of chocolate covered pretzels, say, or salted caramel—has now expanded into the world of wine pairings. As Vinfolio puts it, “you need to find the missing piece to the flavor puzzle.” So spicy or salty food often matches well with a sweeter wine to contrast and offset the extremes in flavour of both. Likewise, a creamy or cheesy meal is often best complemented with a bright-tasting white wine.
When it comes to sparkling wine, Moët Hennessy’s director of education told the Wall Street Journal that “champagne loves two things in food: salt and fat,” going on to say that he personally enjoys sparkling wine matched with fried chicken. Unlikely as it may seem, this does make sense; the grease and salt of something like chips or peanuts will be well-offset by the sweet fizz of a prosecco or other sparkling wine.
Think about where your food and wine come from
Pairing your wine and food by region is a suggestion is born out of common sense and a little bit of history; food and wine which originates from the same part of the world will likely also be consumed together there. As Angie’s List puts it, “what grows together goes together.”
This is down to the fact that the climate and soil which creates wine-friendly grapes will also grow complementary ingredients, especially from what are called Old World countries in Europe. A good example where this is particularly important is pairing with pasta dishes; rustic tomato-based sauces often include (and are therefore often paired with) red wines from the same region.
Ultimately, a good food and wine pairing boils down to the personal taste of the people at the table, but these three hints should give you some idea of how to pair your food and wine perfectly.