When it comes to pairing wine with food, it can seem like an intricate choreography, where each flavor component has a precise accompaniment. In other words, it’s overwhelming. Anytime something becomes that intricate, the immediate effect is that it becomes stressful, rather than enjoyable.
A good pairing is meant to be pleasurable, so it’s time to remove the stressful aspects. Pairing is an art, it’s true, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.
In fact, pairing isn’t necessarily about rules at all. There’s a kind of intuitive sense, which comes from understanding how flavors marry and support each other, that can help you pair wine with foods. You might even find that breaking the so-called “rules” can produce an excellent pairing. A light red wine with fish, for example, can be an excellent combination.
We asked some of the most passionate and knowledgeable sommeliers, winemakers, and chefs to weigh in on their approach to pairing, and they shared their secrets, hacks, and tips.
Think about weight.
In the summer, we eat lighter foods; in the winter, the dishes get heavier. The same philosophy can apply to pairing wines with those foods. Certain grapes and styles of wine will be weightier, and others will be lighter.
Oregon winemaker John Grochau says, “thinking about and comparing weights of wines and foods can be a shortcut to a great pairing, even if you’re unfamiliar with a given wine’s flavor profile.”
“A high acid and lighter-bodied white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc can cut through foods like fresh cheeses and oysters like a knife,” but these wines might not do so well when paired with “a piece of grilled chicken or a mushroom ragout,” adds Grochau, “whereas a heavier white, like Viognier, could completely cover those foods like honey.”
Say you have a couple of bottles that you want to open over the course of a dinner party; you can use weight as a guideline for deciding the order. “If there is one point worth noting about wine pairing, it’s start light, and if need be, work heavier,” says Grant Wheeler, Beverage Director at dinnertable, a new Sicilian restaurant hidden behind a curtain in the back of an East Village bar in Manhattan.
Adds Wheeler, “Give your palate time to rest and collect itself before jumping from more delicate, nuanced wines to bigger and bolder wines with notorious finishes.”
Get to know the cool-climate, high-acid styles of Riesling and Chardonnay.
Tara Herrick, wine director at one of San Francisco’s hottest new restaurants, Dirty Water, emphasizes the potential of these varietal wines. “Not all Riesling is sweet! Some of my favorite wine to drink is dry Riesling from Austria, Germany and the Alsace region in France,” says Herrick. Thanks to older vines and elegant winemaking styles, “These wines are bright, aromatic and thirst quenching. They can easily be paired with food – especially spicy dishes,” adds Herrick.
And cooler climate Chardonnay is one of Herrick’s favorite wine pairings, for various kinds of dishes. “Yes, there are many Chardonnays produced with too much oak, but not all are that way,” she says. To find a high-acid, mineral Chardonnay that will be a stunner with your meal, she suggests procuring an “unoaked Chardonnay from Chablis, France,” as well as bottlings from certain California winemakers who “produce a lean, dry, mineral driven wine.”
Don’t be afraid to have a little sweetness in your wine!
The secret that many wine professionals know well is that off-dry wines can be incredibly good with food, especially rich or spicy dishes. At Sokol Blosser Winery in Oregon’s Willammette Valley, chef Henry Kibit experiments with pairings at the winery’s new restaurant. Of course, he’s inclined to use local varieties, including the full-bodied, white wine Pinot Gris (known as Pinot Grigio, in Italy).
Pinot Gris’s floral nature may lend it some sweet notes, says chef Kibit, which prompts him to pair it with “something with high salt, fat and rich notes.” Examples of the dishes he likes to serve with a glass of Pinot Gris include Salt Cod Brandade, consisting of salted fish, garlic, milk and potato. Another star combo is Butter Poached Egg with asparagus and nettles.
“The minerality of the nettles and the rich, rich buttery yolk with the grassy asparagus” helps to bring out some the wine’s “honey tones and poppy acid,” says the chef.
And if you’ve never tried an off-dry Riesling with spicy Asian food, like Szechuan Chinese, you absolutely must. The sweetness absorbs all the hotness.
Preparation influences a dish just as much as ingredients.
“Don’t just think about what is on the dish—the way it is prepared and cooked can often make a bigger difference than the accompaniments,” says Brahm Callahan, a Master Sommelier who oversees several top restaurants within the Himmel Hospitality Group in Boston. “Think about chicken,” he says. “The overall flavor is going to be completely different if you roast, grill, smoke, or pan sear it and the resulting pairings will change.”
One very classic pairing for a roast chicken, says Callahan, would be Pinot Noir from Burgundy. The earthy, light style of wine “plays off the herbs and vegetables that often accompany roast chicken,” he says. New World Pinot Noir tends to be too fruity, he cautions.
But with BBQ chicken, Callahan opts for a richer, spicier wine like Zinfandel or Grenache. “The sweet, tangy, spicy notes found in BBQ sauce as well as from the smoke it’s prepared with, play really well with both the fruitiness and spiciness of Zinfandel and Grenache,” he says. He recommends Sonoma County Zinfandel, and Australian Grenache, for their lushness and juiciness.
Instead of starting with the food menu, why not start with the wine?
It’s a typical routine: you plan a menu, or think of a dish you want to make, and the wine is basically an afterthought, grabbed on the way home from the grocery store. Break from this mundane approach, and craft a menu around the wines you want to drink. Instead of starting out with the food, begin your planning by considering which wines you’ve been curious about. Perhaps you’ve been eyeing the White Burgundy section at your local retailer, or you’ve heard a lot about Central European reds, and want to give them a try.
Grant Wheeler of dinnertable is all about this approach. “First and foremost, drink what you want, like, or are interested in trying,” he says. If you start from this, you have more freedom. “Wine pairing can truly be just as much about discord as it can be about synergy,” he adds. For example, a French wine might be the best pairing for Chinese food. Have fun with it.
Of course, considering seasonality doesn’t hurt. If it’s warm and sunny out, you’re probably going to make a lighter meal, right? So, go back to the weight of the wine (point #1) and think to yourself, what light, bright, crispy wine am I in the mood for? I know—Muscadet! And then, from there, you’ll be inspired to make a seafood dish.
If you really want a basic rule, it’s about acidity.
When wine professionals speak about a bottle’s “food-friendliness,” generally that’s related to one important factor: a wine’s acidity. Jason Soloway, owner and beverage director of Manhattan restaurants The Eddy and The Wallflower, breaks it down: “The basic rule is that the wine should have more acid than the food. Once you’ve satisfied that, I don’t get too fussed about pairing with food.”
Acidity in wine comes from a confluence of climate, winemaking style, and grape variety. It is perceived on the palate as a sour taste, but it also makes wine more refreshing and light. White wine is generally higher in acidity than red, although some reds are full of lovely acidity (see below). Wines from cooler climates (the further north, or the higher in elevation, the cooler) will be higher in acidity, most of the time. Acidity is good in wine because it cuts through the fat and richness of any food.
In the words of Victoria James, wine director at Manhattan restaurant Piora: “To learn what acidity feels like, drink lemon juice and concentrate on what happens to your palate during the experience.” Get ready to pucker up!
Learn to love light reds.
Sarah Blau, the beverage manager at Michelin-starred Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit, in Manhattan, often chooses a light red wine to pair with the seafood-focused menu. Many diners at Aquavit prefer red wine, and Blau does not hesitate to make it work with fish.
“It is possible to make a red wine work with fish, most of the time,” Blau says. “The red wines I look for will be higher in acidity, as opposed to a drier style which is what makes fish and shellfish taste more metallic.” Blau likes to offer red wine drinkers a light, high-acid style of Pinot Noir. She particularly likes the red wines from Burgundy appellations Marsannay and Morey-Saint-Denis. Other red wines that Blau loves pairing with light food include Etna Rosso blends from Sicily, and Mencia from the northwest of Spain.
“The world is full of thousands of grape varietals and so many of them work with fish and shellfish,” Blau advises. “If unsure, find a trusted wine shop and ask for a lighter body high acid red wine.”
Also check out super light French red varieties like Pineau d’Aunis and Gamay, for a refreshing and high-acid wine that pairs wonderfully with food.
Alikeness can be likeable, but opposites also attract.
Scott Carney, a Master Sommelier and the Dean of Wine Studies at the International Culinary Center, proposes a simple recipe for pairing wine and food.
A wine can “mirror or echo the flavors of the food,” he says, as is the case with “a crisp salad with a crisp wine.” Or, you might pose contrasting flavors, “as when a crisp white wine may be used as a freshening counterpoint to a rich sauce,” such as “a lemony Chablis with a fish in a tarragon beurre blanc.”
And lastly, you want to match power with power, whether the impact comes from the depth of flavor in a dish or its cooking method,” he says. This means saving your most tannic, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre wines for dishes like grilled meats and game birds. The idea is not to have the wine overpower the food, or vice-versa. “You don’t want a one-man show,” says Carney, but rather “a good relationship, in which the food and the wine complement one another.”