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Matchmaking 101

Pairing Wine with Food

There are some basic rules that our mothers taught us about pairing wines with food, starting with: white wine with fish, red wine with beef. But those rules came from a time when most people simply drank either red table wine or white table wine. Today, there are approximately 70,000 different labels for sale in the United States, so we obviously need a more nuanced approach to pairing wine with food.

First, though, what is pairing really all about? Why does one wine go really nicely with a particular meal while another one does not? It turns out that it has to do with food chemistry. Food, whether it be a greasy burger from a local lunch counter or a Lobster Thermidor at that restaurant that won’t seat you if you’re wearing jeans, has some basic elements: proteins, saltiness, fat, carbs, acids, and spiciness (or lack thereof). 

Wine, meanwhile, can be broken down into sugars, acids, alcohol and tannins (or lack thereof). When the elements of the wine clash with the elements of the food, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. When they complement one another, each elevates and enhances the other.

The food and wine rules that we use today are intended to provide the consumer with helpful guidelines to give them a head start on making a successful pairing, but they aren’t an exact formula. There’s no machine or app into which you can enter your meal, say, Spaghetti Bolognese, and have it spit out “Selvapiana Chianti Rufina 2017.” Why? For one thing, everyone tastes wine differently and what one person thinks is the most magical pairing ever, someone else may not find palatable. 

For another, not all wines are intended to pair with food. For example, some California wines, even high-end ones, are made to suit our American lifestyle of sipping wine on the deck with cheeses or hors d’oeuvres and aren’t really intended to pair with specific types of food. Conversely, you may find that a wine you don’t enjoy at all on its own is suddenly wonderful when paired with the right meal. 

It is also important to realize that not all food was made to pair with wine. Take, for example, the rule: “What grows together, goes together.” The idea is that cultures that have been making wine for millennia have developed cuisines to go with their local wines. That’s why Burgundy wines, with all their big, rich heaviness, go very well with rich, fatty beef dishes, like Beef Bourgogne, while lighter Italian reds go very well with spicy Italian foods and tomato-based sauces. 

Meanwhile, cultures that are only just starting to experiment with wine, such as India and other Asian cultures, have diets that were never intended to be eaten with European style wines, despite what your know-it-all wine snob friend tried to tell you.

What are some other rules?  The rule that says: the heavier the dish, the darker the wine, is a good one. The concept there is that wines that have deeper colors tend to be richer and more full-bodied, and therefore pair better with richer meals. That's a rule that works equally well for both whites and reds. 

Imagine, for example, that you are serving halibut – nice and light and flaky.  For the same reason that you might squeeze a lemon wedge over it, you’d want a wine that was bright and crisp and highly acidic. Now imagine that you are serving duck. You’re going to want a much richer white wine to serve alongside.

These guidelines are helpful, but they can only take you so far. Top chefs and sommeliers spend years perfecting the art of pairing wines and food. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are some easy cheats to advance our amateur skills. You may notice, for instance, that the menus at nicer restaurants have a suggested wine pairing for each entree. Study them. That’s a chef giving you all those years of education and training for free. Or, you can just ask! 

The folks who run wine shops don’t do it to make money (ha!); they do it because they love wine and they absolutely love to share their knowledge with their customers.  Often, they will even ask you to come back after your event and tell them about your experience to help them perfect their own skills.

Finally, there is no better way to learn than to just try things for yourself. Despite all of the rules and suggestions and guidelines, you are unique. No one tastes wine and food exactly the same way that you do and that means that no one is going to be able to make a more perfect pairing for you than you. 

So, experiment. Try out the rules and then try breaking them. See what you get.  Keep notes that you can take with you when you go to the shop. I like to keep leftovers from our meals on hand and then open a bottle of something I haven’t tried before and taste it against all of them. 

At the end of the day, if the worst you get is that you enjoyed some good wine and some good food, who’s going to complain?