Wine and Food pairing: the basics

One of the greatest challenges of planning a meal, let alone a series of gatherings with family and friends, is making sure the wines pair perfectly with the menu of choice and that all personal likes and dislikes are considered.

To avert disaster and make sure that everyone is satisfied and happy here is your 101 guide to wine & food pairing. These basic principles will allow you to get creative and find your own combinations, challenging any assumptions or misleading rules.

Basic elements in food and wine

The first important thing to consider is the different variables and components that shape the taste experience of both wine and food.

In wine, you’ll have to consider:

  • Acidity
  • Sweetness
  • Bitterness
  • Tannins
  • Alcohol

During a meal, these will be interacting with the food’s

  • Fat
  • Saltiness
  • Sweetness
  • Spiciness
  • Acidity
  • Sourness

The fundamental principles of pairing

Pairing is basically a balancing act, in which opposing forces between wine and food can either complement or cancel each other. Let’s look at some basic rules.

  • The wine should have higher acidity than the food

High-acid food will affect the perception of acidity in the wine you are drinking. So a low-acid wine will feel extremely flabby if drunk with an acidic dish.

  • Sweetness asks for sweetness (but not always)

Just like acidity, sweetness in food with lower the perception of sweetness in wine. A sweet wine can therefore help enjoy the flavours of a sweet recipe, by underpinning the complexity beyond the sugar content. But sweet food can also benefit from being pairing with a refreshing dry wine to offset its richness. And a sweet wine can also be a perfect match for an overtly savoury dish.

  • Food and wine should have the same intensity

Intensity can be balanced in different ways though. It could be a matter of matching the food’s flavour intensity with the wine’s tannic structure; or offsetting a dish’s fatness with a high-acid pour. Just make sure that you are not using a wine that is powerful in either one or multiple aspects, with an extremely subtle, subdued recipe.

  • Fat needs structure – not necessarily tannins or alcohol

Forget about the assumption that a heavy piece of fat-dripping meat or a rich cheese need to be eaten with a powerful red. This can is a basic mistake; a powerful red will only make the fat even more prominent on the palate and more difficult to enjoy and digest. A glass of a refreshing but rich sparkling on the other hand (such as an aged Champagne) can really cut through the flavour complexity and richness of a fat dish, lifting the flavours and cleansing the mouth. So do consider acid and complex wines (traditional method fizz, orange wines, high acid reds, such as Nebbiolos or Sangioveses) as the best matches, rather than simply looking at powerful, overly tannic reds.

  • Think of the sauce, not the protein

A frequent mistake is to pair the same wine with say chicken, regardless of how it is being cooked. The fact is that a herb-roasted bird requires a very different pairing companion than a chicken in mustard sauce. It is far more important to consider the spices used in the seasoning and the flavour and texture of the sauces than the base protein itself.

  • Spiciness is tricky – a game of trial & error

Spices have very different intensities and characteristics; it’s not enough to classify a dish as ‘spicy’ to decide the best wine to serve with it. Some spices are hotter, other sweeter, and each will react differently when used in a given recipe. Instead of following rules, finding a wine for a spicy dish is often a matter of trial and error and each pairing a specific exercise.

  • Find contrasting or congruent pairings

You can play around with pairings by following one of two different approaches: you can either find contrasting or congruent matches:

  • In a congruent pairing the wine and food will have similar levels of the same component (for example a creamy, buttery rich white wine with a creamy pasta dish)
  • In a complementary pairing opposing components balance e each other at the same level (e.g. a high-acid wine balancing the richness of a fat-rich recipe)
  • The ultimate rule: trust what you like

The science behind these basic principles should simply let you be free to play around, experiment and discover your own preferences. Tasting is a highly subjective experience so at the end of the day only you can decide what is the wine you want to drink with your favourite dish. If there is such a thing as comfort food, there certainly are comfort wines as well.

Next in our expert advice series: Pairing Wine and Cheese