How to Pair Wine With Food

Learn about the subtle art of pairing wine and food

Pairing Wine with Food

Wine on its own can be a delight. The textures and flavors in a good bottle of wine can enhance an evening or an afternoon aperitif. Wine alone is good, but when it is well paired it can become transcendent. Certain foods open up your palate to interact with textures in a new way. Simply put, a great wine pairing can show you an entirely new side of your favorite foods. 

Pairing is difficult, and the best way to learn is by trial and error. Finding wines you love and trying them with different types of food will teach you more than any guide could. Every bottle is different, but once you stumble on a favorite pairing you'll want to share it with everyone. 

In a restaurant, a sommelier is in charge of pairing the food and serving the wine correctly. They are the experts, and they know what wines go with your order. At home, it's a little more difficult. 

Pairing advice is a dime a dozen, so we are going to examine different pairing "rules," why certain pairings work, and some more tips so you can start your own pairing journey. There are many wines that can make a meal even better, but when in doubt, drink what you like with the food you like.

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How Reliable is General Wine Pairing Advice?

There are a few rules that most wine drinkers stumble on in the early days of exploring wine. These maxims are all well and good, but are they true? One of the wonderful things about wine is that it is variable, for almost every rule there is an exception. So, do the rules hold up?

Red Wine Goes With Red Meat and White Wine Goes With Fish

This rule is not always completely accurate.

This is probably the first "rule" that people learn when it comes to pairing food and wine, but there are so many exceptions that we think following this rule will make your wine experience worse. 

Texture and preparation are the most important thing when pairing with fish. Light fish, grilled with a squeeze of lemon is perfect for a zippy white wine, but a rich white Burgundy or oaky California Chardonnay would be a bad pairing. What about reds? 

Reds can add a lot to a fish course. Fattier fish can be better complemented with a light red wine like Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir than with a light white like Albariño or Pinot Grigio. Smoked fish is the same, the smokiness in some red wines can be delightful with smoked salmon.

So while white wine with fish is usually good, there are many fish and many preparations that thrive with a nice red wine. With so many asterisks and buts we think this is a general rule that isn't trustworthy.

Sparkling Wine Goes With Almost Everything

This rule is generally true​​​

Sparkling wine is the sommelier's back pocket choice. It can't pair with everything, but the mix of bubbles, high-acidity, and varying amounts of sugar make it easy to pair with an incredible variety of dishes as long as you know the difference in styles of sparkling wine. 

It can be paired easily with cheeses, shellfish, sushi, spicy food, and (if sweet) fruity desserts. Sparkling rosé can complement charcuterie or other light meat dishes. Learn the difference between styles of sparkling wine and you will unlock a new tool when you are looking for pairings.

When in doubt order sparkling. 

The Best Way to Find a Pairing is to Examine Where the Wine Came From

This rule is true.

Some of the best food and wine pairings have grown together over the centuries. French cuisine, in particular, is focused on the "mariage," or perfect balance, of flavors. 

French wines do well with place-specific food pairings. Burgundy (Pinot Noir) is fantastic with Coq au Vin, a traditional Burgundian dish. Champagne can go with many things like creamy cheeses, charcuterie, mushrooms, and nuts (all enjoyed in the Champagne region of France). Bordeaux is fantastic with duck breast or other rich red meats featured in cooking from Gascony. Wine from the South of France can be tried with Ratatouille, Bouillabaisse, or even grilled seafood with a rich aioli. 

Italian wine like Chianti is classic with a giant Florentine steak, Barolo goes incredibly well with slow-braised meats, and Montepulciano and porchetta are beautiful partners. 

Fun Fact

Calabria in the south of Italy is one of the few European locations that has a cuisine rich in spice. In Calabria, they make mostly full-bodied red wines from the Gaggliopo grape that magically pairs with southern Italian spice. This is a good example of rule-bending with pairings. Red wine is not the first choice for spicy food, but in this case, the rich red wine works with the Calabrian chilies when many would suggest a light white wine.

The rich red wines of Spain, particularly those of Rioja, are perfect for spicy charcuterie and cheeses. 

Refreshing, savory white wines from Greece pair with fresh fish, lightly grilled with a touch of lemon juice, just like they are on the Mediterranean coast. 

And while it has not been developing for a thousand years, flavors from the new world can be paired easily when thinking about place as well. 

Pinot Noir from Washington tends to find its way on the plate with duck or creamy cheeses. Argentine Malbec is often served with rich red meats in the restaurants of Buenos Aires. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can pair beautifully with the rich shellfish that come from the cold water around the island. 

Not all local pairing is perfect, but as you are just starting to pair food and wine look into what is eaten where the grapes were grown and it might give you a glimpse.

Wine Pairing Basics

What makes a pairing work? There are two major philosophies that can determine a pairing:

1. Complement the food

2. Contrast the food

Knowing when to compare and when to contrast is a skill that takes a lifetime to master. It's an art unto itself. 

But as you get started think about spice and sweetness, a spicy dish can be made more flavorful by being tempered with a sweet wine. These two contrasting flavors add complexity to the dining experience. Conversely, think about a buttery Chardonnay with a rich cream sauce. The flavors complement one another and blend harmoniously.

The Building Blocks of Wine Pairing

No matter what you are pairing the best results are about balance. To truly do this it takes a practiced hand and experience with a particular wine. 

It should be noted that even the most steadfast pairing "rules" are generalizations. 

The best parings understand the elements that food and wine have in common even if it is used to contrast the flavors or textures.  

The style of wine is one of the most important factors. A Pinot Grigio is light and pairs well with grilled fishes and salads, whereas Pinot Gris is richer in body and pairs with roasted chicken and alpine cheeses.

Thinking about how wine interacts with food will act as a shortcut to great pairings. Below are some major components that will affect how your wine tastes. Learning about these interactions will give you a shortcut to successfully pairing wine.

Acidity and Wine

Acidity plays with our perceptions of sweetness and sourness. It makes wine taste rich and well-integrated. If you have an acidic vinaigrette dressing or fresh citrus in a dish it can make wine feel full-bodied and rich, but also very sweet. 

Sweetness and Wine

Sweetness is almost the opposite of acidity. Sweetness in food makes wine taste bitter, sour, and astringent. The general rule is to always make sure wine is sweeter than a dish. Classically in French and Italian cuisine sweet wines accompany dessert, but the sweetness is present in other courses, so be aware of what ingredients add sweetness when you are cooking. 

Rich Meats and Wine

Rich meats pair fantastically with young red wines. Tannins can bind with the proteins in red meats reducing your perception of the tannin and amplifying the red fruit flavors. Serving a rich Cabernet Sauvignon or Chianti with a delicate fish dish would only make the tannins seem more bitter and astringent, but charcuterie or steak will blend harmoniously with the tannin. 

Salt and Wine

Salt's effects are large, so be careful when pairing with very salty foods. Salt amplifies sweetness, so adding salt to a dessert dish can boost the flavor of your dessert wine. It also makes wines taste less astringent and less bitter, but can easily overwhelm a wine.

Spice and Wine

Spicy food is not traditional in much European cuisine, so the rules that have been handed down are a bit more flexible for spice. Sommeliers have been working out pairings for spicy Southeast Asian cuisine and are tending to veer toward high acid, floral white wines, with a touch of residual sugar, full-bodied rosé, light fruity reds that can be chilled, or sparkling wine. 

Different cuisines utilize different types of spices, and what pairs well with Thai curry will be different than the tingling Szechuan peppercorn and cinnamon of Southern China. Some forms of spicy barbecue can work with reds like Grenache or Gamay from Beaujolais.

Does Wine Quality Matter for Pairings?

The short answer is yes. Many pairings work despite the quality level, but there are certain pairings where it really matters. 

A classic pairing is Chablis and fresh oysters. The minerality and rich acidity of Chablis will perfectly balance the briny texture of an oyster. They can bring out nuance and flavor in one another, but sometimes Chablis can make an oyster taste too fishy. Why? 

More expensive Chablis often features larger amounts of oak, which will only emphasize the fishy flavors of a raw oyster. So if you are tasting oysters, drink a lower-end Chablis. 

The same can be said for cooking with fancy wine. Some chefs are uncompromising, but heat destroys flavor in wine, so while you shouldn't cook with a damaged wine, you can use cheaper wine when cooking your next coq au vin.

​Sommelier Tips for Pairing​​​

So now you know some basic rules, but here are a few tips that could help you impress: 

Riesling Can Do Anything

Rieslings are incredibly diverse. There are so many styles and the high-acidity, minerality, rich flavor, and occasional sweetness make it possibly the most versatile wine you don't drink regularly. 

It can stem the slow-building spice that comes from Southeast Asian cuisine as easily as it can go with fondue. It can pair with sushi or a rich dessert. If you see it on a menu or at a wine shop ask about the style and use our rules above before you determine a pairing.

Beat The Heat Sparkling wine is always a delight, but when pairing with spicy food you can get a little creative.

Try the floral Gewürztraminer or Viognier with your next Thai dinner. Other good choices include Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Dry Riesling is nice but lightly sweet Riesling can temper the heat from slow-building spice.

Sauternes (or any sweet wine) and Blue Cheese

This is one of the all-time classic pairings. Sweet wine and funky blue cheese play off of one another: sweet, creamy, funky, mineral, fruity, and herbaceous all at once. Yum. 

Beef and Blue Cheese With Reds

Another unexpected pairing, but rich red meats and a bit of blue cheese go incredibly well with red wine. Try this pairing with Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, or even a Sangiovese. The blending of the tannins and fat with the fruit and creaminess of the cheese is divine.

The Subjectivity of Wine Pairings

Remember that at the end of the day you are eating and drinking because it's enjoyable. These "rules" are meant to be helpful and not prohibitive. There are so many combinations of flavors and textures that it's impossible to set out totally foolproof rules. We are sure there are many pairings that counter what we said, and that's okay. Pairing food and wine is a joy because it constantly challenges you to return to things you thought you already knew.

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Join Firstleaf to taste delicious wines from all over the world and learn more about these grapes. The club has featured amazing examples, take the quiz to get the pairings for your individual palate.

Take The Quiz Today