Beginner's Guide to Food and Wine Pairing

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Disclaimer: I am not a sommelier. I am a poet with something of a specialization in the poetics of wine. Your mileage may vary.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks about this intimidating thing we know as “food and wine pairing.” Here’s the deal. Some flavors harmonize better than others to most people. Some people have more sensitive palates and exacting tastes than others. There are exceptions to everything. Once I went to a swanky prix fixe 11-course marathon menu kind of place (okay, more than once) that had an 11-course wine pairing with it and that sommelier blew my mind. The wine actually had a conversation with the food. There were flashbacks. There was foreshadowing. It was unreal. But in the end, the appropriateness of a food-wine pairing is determined by one thing and one thing only: “Do I like this?” If yes, then you’re done, because food and wine pairing gets remarkably personal.

That said, unlike, say, bourbon, which I think lends itself to being drunk alone (meaning not accompanying a meal, though it can definitely be a drink for solitude as well) – wine is built for food. While it certainly can be enjoyed alone, it’s just a more complete experience when it has a food buddy. And getting tuned into who’s best friends with whom can be very rewarding. Here’s a cheat sheet.

Rule #1 – There are no rules.

Rule #2 – When in doubt, sparkling wine goes with everything.

It really does. Some of its traditional besties are caviar and soft cheeses like brie. Frankly, I’d pair it with popcorn, fish tacos, Thai curries, roast chicken, and anything salty. Sparkling wine comes in many forms; Spanish Cava, like these varieties from Segura Viudas, is made from Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada grapes. Floral, citrus (lemon especially) and hints of almond are common in Cava. Personal opinion: Cava is a go-to for seafood dishes. But also a friend to fruits, nuts, most meats, and it’s actually one of your best bets for the most pissy-pants-difficult foods to pair: sulphur-containing veggies like asparagus and broccoli. There’s not a lot that Cava can’t do.

French champagne is always made from either Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes (or some combination of all of those grapes), and will have some of the characteristic sub-flavors common to those grapes. You might taste pears. If you do, why not slice a few into a green salad with a mild dressing and some black pepper? They can have a yeasty, bread-like aroma, which you can augment by serving it with bread, or create a high contrast by pairing it with salty olives… The options are limitless.

While Cava and Champagne get their effervescence from secondary fermentation in the bottle (Methode Champenoise), Prosecco uses Charmat or secondary fermentation in bulk tanks. Italian Prosecco is also made from a different grape, called Glera, a high-acid green-skinned grape that tends to express a prominent peach note. Anything you’d find harmonious with peaches, you’ll like with Prosecco.

Sparkling wine is absolutely my desert island beverage. It’s a vastly complex and enormous category of wines, and whole books can be (and have been) written about them. Best way to find out what you like is to dive in and experiment. Meanwhile, trust the bubbly. It won’t be wrong with anything.

Rule #3 – Acidic foods are great with light-bodied tart whites.

Salad dressings, tomatoes, citrusy sauces – these things can overwhelm or dull a lot of wines. Light, tangy whites handle it best. Sauv blanc is a good bet, but Verdejo and Vermentino are also your friend here.

Rule #4 – Yes, you can pair red wine with white meat and vice versa.

But some combinations tend to be more drag and drop than others. Pinot noir is great with roast turkey, salmon and other fatty fish. White wine with red meat is less of a “drag and drop,” but Riesling (and sparkling wines) hold their own with a steak or a leg of lamb. Seriously. Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer can probably handle this assignment as well. Aged whites – which by the way are hard to find – are also a good idea with red meat. If you can get your hands on a Sauvignon blanc that’s had five years to think about things you will have a revelation. These are examples; you’ll find your own. But basically – yes, the rule of thumb is “red meat, red wine; white meat, white wine.” And that rule can be defied any old time you like.

Rule #5 – With spicy foods, residual sugar is your friend.

People love to dump on off-dry wines. Even I do it. A hint of sugar and I’m likely to send it back and ask for something else, or sit sullenly being disappointed. Don’t be like me. The cuisines of India, Thailand, Szechuan and Mexico, for example, are pepper-loving affairs. Chili peppers can range from very mild to so scorching hot you need to wear gloves when you cut them. Capsaicin, the phytonutrient responsible for the burn, will take over your mouth, sometimes to the point where you cannot taste anything else for a while. A Cabernet Sauvignon is NOT going to help you here. Aromatic and sweet-tending whites (and pinks!) will balance highly-spiced food best. Talking Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier, Lambrusco (a sweet sparkling red from Italy), Dulce Cava or any of one million off-dry rosés. If you’re a red-only person, try a Beaujolais.

Rule #6 – Think like a locavore.

In a given region, the wine grapes that grow and the methods by which they are turned into vino coexist with other regional agricultural products, livestock, veggies, etc. Spanish food will probably pair happily with a Spanish wine (this is an oversimplification; please, no one swear at me in Catalan). Tuscan foods (think salumi and olives) enjoy spending time with Chianti. Dishes inspired by Provence will usually respond positively to a dry pink Grenache. Bacalao? Meet Vinho Verde! Fatty stick to your ribs German fare? Kerner. Sylvaner. Riesling. This rule can break down in highly multicultural upstart wine regions like, say, Willamette Valley or Sonora, Mexico. But not even as much as you’d think.

Rule #7 – There. Are. No. Rules.

Your eccentric, quirky personal preferences rule the rules. And… when in doubt, go for the bubbles. Seriously. Sparkling wine, particularly Cava, will never let you down. It just won’t. It is a world unto itself and a life’s work to explore. But you don’t need a PhD. You just need to be able to remove corks from bottles. The rest pretty much sorts itself out.