By Lily McCann
Food and drink articles and programs often stress the importance of combining food with the right type of wines. There can sometimes be an element of snobbery attached to this subject. At the end of the day, enjoying food and wine is a subjective experience and people can try and enjoy any combination that suits them. That said, understanding the basic principles of matching food and wine may help you find some combinations you really enjoy.
Traditional advice is to combine regional wines with authentic local dishes and this is a wisdom that rarely fails. Claret or Rioja with roasted lamb, or Muscadet with fresh shell-fish are classic combinations and their success outlines some of the principles that can guide the best pairings of food and wine.
Balancing food and wine
Ensuring that food and wine have a similar weight or presence is often advised. Delicate dishes go better with lighter wines while rich foods fare better with something bigger. This is where the age-old ideas of matching fish with white wine and red meats with red wines come from. Chicken and pork will usually work with both, depending on the sauce they are cooked in. Of course these rules are there to be broken – fish can be enjoyed with red wine but ideally a wine low in tannin and high in acid such as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese or Bardolino, and even then, the pairing is best when the fish is rich in oil and flavor. Cooking the fish with tomato and olive also strengthens the flavor bridge to these red wines.
Crisp, unoaked white wines are generally seen as a good accompaniment to shellfish and fish dishes. This is even truer with fish served with a wedge of lemon because the citric acid in the lemon increases the acidity in the dish. And a good rule of thumb with wine and food parings is to match acidic dishes with acidic wines. Wines with marked acidity include dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or other white wines from oceanic growing regions. Oh, and preferably unoaked wines – oak flavors fight with the briny flavors of these fish and seafoods.
One other thing to keep in mind, two of the most overlooked and food-friendly wines on the market are dry Rosès and Sparkling wines. Both contain enough acidity to refresh your palate between bites, and enough body to complement your food.
Red wine and meat
Many red wines are loaded with tannins that leave the palate dry and almost gritty. They also overpower the flavor of many foods. Choosing foods that provide a protein or cream barrier are ways to compliment this trait. Tannin wants to latch onto the nearest available protein and if nothing else is available, gums and teeth will do! Occupying the tannin with the fat molecules from a good steak or rare cooked lamb will mop up the tannin in a young Claret or Cabernet, giving a softer and sweeter edge to the wine.
Soft, creamy cheeses can perform a similar task, providing a coat of fat and protein on the palate. Conversely, hard cheeses are less efficient at doing this, and tend not to pair as well with tannic red wines. A diet of red meat, red wine and soft cheese may not be the healthiest way to eat every day, but there are plenty of healthy living blogs such as those highlighted by KwikMed that will provide a range of lower fat recipes using these foods that can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.
For other meats such as chicken and pork which are well cooked in roasts or casseroles, try rich white wines or livelier, fruitier red wines with softer tannins.
Fusion foods are arguably responsible for the breakdown in the traditional food and wine partnerships. The inventive combinations of flavors and ingredients from different parts of the world can leave wine drinkers wondering where to start. The only way to work out the best wine for a fusion dish is to look at what it contains in the way of acidity, sweetness, protein and heat and go from there. Spicier dishes are best combined with off-dry and unoaked white wines and sometimes pair well with softer red wines. If a dish has a lot of sweetness to it, try and find a wine with even greater sweetness. It’s a difficult task and even the best food and wine experts can struggle to match complex fusion dishes with a suitable wine.
As stated above, the most important thing is always to enjoy your food and wine however you choose to combine them. Even if you make a particular effort to match food and wine you will still probably get it wrong on occasions. Try and keep a note of combinations that have worked well for you and understand why the worked. If you can build up a good repertoire of food and drink combinations that you enjoy, you can return to them whenever you like. Or you can choose to branch out and be a bit more adventurous. Who knows? as Dave the Wine Merchant says in his tagline, you might just “Discover your next favorite!”