Most wines are produced as an accompaniment to food, and there are many established guidelines for matching wine with food successfully. Originally wine styles evolved to complement the cuisine of a region, so this is often a good starting point for finding a good wine and food combination. There is no single choice of wine that must be drunk with a certain dish, but some are definitely a better match than others.
The Basic Considerations
To achieve the best match it is necessary to analyze the basic components in both the wine and the food. The principle is to try to balance these, so that neither the food nor the wine overpowers the other. The main elements to consider are:
Match the weight/richness of the food and the body of the wine.
Match the flavor intensity of both the wine and food.
Match acidic foods with high-acid wines.
Match sweet foods with sweet wines.
Avoid combining oily or very salty foods with high-tannin red wines
These guidelines will help avoid wine and food clashes, or one overpowering the other.
Other consideration can help us find wine and food combinations where the wine and food really enhance each other.
Pair ‘chewy’ meat with tannic wines.
Pair salty foods with sweet or high-acid wines
Pair fatty and oily food with high-acid wines
Match or contrast the flavour characteristics of the food and the wine.
Weight/Richness of the Food and the Wine
The first and most important element to consider should be to match the weight of the food with that of the wine. Rich heavyweight foods, like game, roast meats and red meat casseroles, need a full-bodied wine. Powerful red wines are often the favoured choice, although it is the body of the wine which is the most important consideration rather than the colour or flavour. For many meat dishes a rich full- bodied white wine is a better match than a lighter red wine. Lighter food, such as plain white meat or fish, is a complemented by a more delicate wine. Although white wines are the normal choice, light-bodied, low tannin red wines can also be successful. Always, remember the contribution of the sauce. A rich creamy sauce will need a wine of sufficient body to match the food and flavours that will complement the smooth creamy, buttery taste.
Flavour Intensity of the Food and the Wine
After weight, the next most important element to consider is flavour and how intense that flavour is. Flavour intensity, although similar to weight is not the same. Think of a food that has a lot of weight but is low in flavour, say a plate of plain boiled potatoes or plain boiled rice: both are heavy in weight but light in flavour. At the other end of the scale think of a plate of raw, thinly sliced red or green peppers: these are high in flavour but light in weight. Wines can be the same. Riesling, for example, makes a lightweight wine that is intensely flavoured, while Chardonnay makes full bodied , heavyweight wines that can be low in flavour. Delicate wines and strong-flavoured foods do not match.
It is worth considering the way food has been cooked. If a food is cooked by a moist gentle method such as steaming, it will require a lighter-flavoured wine than a food that is roasted, which will require a wine that is fuller-bodied and more robust in flavour because the method of cooking adds intensity of flavours to the food. A slow cooked dish that has been braised or stewed will be weightier and need intensely flavoured wines because the food’s flavours are intensified by the method of cooking.
Acidity in the Food and the Wine
Sour flavours in food make wines taste less acidic, and therefore less vibrant and refreshing. For this reason, any acidity found in the food should be matched by acidity in the accompanying wines. Acidity is something we rarely think about in food. Tomatoes, lemons, pineapples, apples and vinegar are all high in acidity. One of the characteristics of Italian red wines is their noticeable acidity. This is because much Italian cuisine is dominated by two ingredients – tomatoes and olive oil, and other acidic ingredients such as lemons, vinegar (balsamic) and wine are often used - hence wines that go with Italian food need high acidity. Vinaigrette is an example of acidity being added to a dish. The oil needs to be cut by the sharpness of acidity, so when making a vinaigrette you blend olive oil and vinegar together. Dishes dominated by tart acidic flavours, like lemon, lime or vinegar, can be difficult and require care when matching as they will overpower many wines.
Sweetness in the Food and the Wine
Dry wines can seem tart and over-acidic when consumed with any food with a degree of sweetness. Sweet food is best with wine which has a similar or greater degree of sweetness: the sweeter the food, the sweeter the wine needs to be. Late-harvest wines, especially botrytis-affected wines, and sweet Muscat-based wines are the ideal choice for puddings.
Oil, Salt and Tannins
Tannin in combination with oily fish can result in an unpleasant metallic taste, so the general recommendation is to avoid red wines with fish. However, low tannin reds are fine with meaty fish. Wines with a high tannin content can also taste bitter with salty foods.
‘Chewy’ Meat and Tannins
Tannin in red wine reacts with protein. Foods with a high protein content, particularly rare red meat, will soften the effects of the tannin on the palate. This is why wines from high-tannin grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah (Shiraz), go well with roast meats, stews and steaks. Light, fruity red wines with low levels of tannin, like Beaujolais and Valpolicella, will complement white meats because these are low in proteins and lighter than meats such as lamb and beef.
Salty Foods and Sweet or High-Acid Wines
Salty foods are enhanced by a touch of sweetness. Think of classic combinations like prosciutto and figs. The same works with wine. Roquefort cheese and Sauternes, or Port and Stilton are famous matches. Salty foods also benefit from a little acidity. Salty foods such as olives , oysters and other shellfish go best with crisp, dry, light-bodied white wines. Although neither sweet nor high in acid, Fino Sherry is a classic accompaniment for olives or salted nuts.
Fatty/Oily Foods and High-Acid Wines
Wines with a good level of acidity can be superb with rich, oily foods, such as pâté. For example, Sauternes works well with foie gras. Here the weight of both the wine and the food are similar, and the acidity in the wine helps it cut through the fattiness of the food. This is also and example of matching a sweet wine to a savoury food. Crisp wines such as Rieslings and unoaked Barberas can make a good match with fatty meats such as duck and goose. Foods that have been cooked by frying will need wines with high acidity, because will need wines with high acidity, because the method of cooking increases the fat content.
Key Flavours in the Food and the Wine
The flavour character of a food can sometimes complement or contrast with flavours in the wine. Often the dominant flavour of the food is in the sauce. Smoked foods need wines with enough character to cope with the strength of the smoking. Lightly smoked salmon is a classic partner for Brut Champagne: smoked meats like pork can benefit from some light sweetness in the wine like that found in some German Rieslings: smoky barbecued flavours suit powerful oaked wines like Australian Shiraz. The stronger the smoke, the greater the oak can be. Spicy foods are best matched by wines that are made from really ripe, juicy fruit, either unoaked or very lightly oaked (many spices accentuate the flavours of oak). Wines such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can work well with highly spiced foods, as can ripe Chilean Merlot. Spicy wines, such as Gewurztraminer can also complement spicy dishes. (When describing a wine the term ‘spice’ can mean a number of different aromas and flavours such as white pepper, black pepper, cloves cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.) Hot spices like chili reduce the sweetness in wine and can make dry red wines seem more astringent. Fruity flavours in food can be matched with fruity/floral wines. For example, a Muscat might be paired with a fruit salad.
These guidelines and recommendations should avoid disastrous combinations, however, individual taste is the final consideration. Experimentation can yield surprising results.