One of the most common wine-related questions concerns what wine goes with what food. Many people mistakenly believe that they will ruin the whole meal if they make the "wrong" wine choice. The good news is that it's impossible to ruin a good meal if you select a wine that you enjoy regardless of what the "wine experts" say. Remember, the wine experts are not eating your dinner.
If you want to talk "rules" of wine and food pairing, the oldest one in the book is red with meat, white with fish or fowl. But rules are meant to be broken. In recent years, we've gotten bold and have said it's okay to have Pinot Noir, which is a light red wine, or even Merlot with salmon. And I personally know some white wine drinkers who will enjoy their Chardonnay even when liver pâté or a juicy grilled steak is on the menu.
Having said that, there are some general guidelines you may find helpful when selecting a wine to enhance your meal.
1. Select light-bodied wines to pair with lighter food, and fuller-bodied wines to go with heartier, more flavorful dishes. Using the salmon example above, the Pinot Noir works beautifully with the fish because you are matching light to light. Otherwise a full-bodied, heavier wine will overpower a light, delicate dish, and similarly, a lighter style wine will not even register on your personal flavor meter if you sip it with a hearty roast. You may as well drink water.
2. Consider how the food is prepared. Is it grilled, roasted or fried, for instance, and what type of sauce or spice is used? For example, chicken with a lemon butter sauce will call for a different more delicate wine to play off the sauce than chicken cacciatore with all of the tomato and Italian spices, or a grilled chicken breast.
3. For every food action, there is a wine reaction. When you drink wine by itself it tastes one way, but when you take a bite of food, the wine tastes different. This is because wine is like a spice. Elements in the wine interact with the food to provide a different taste sensation like these basic reactions:
- Sweet Foods like Italian tomato sauce, Japanese teriyaki, and honey-mustard glazes make your wine seem drier than it really is so try an off-dry (slightly sweet) wine to balance the flavor (Chenin Blanc, White Zinfandel, Riesling).
- High Acid Foods like salads with balsamic vinaigrette dressing, soy sauce, or fish served with a squeeze of lemon go well with wines higher in acid (Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir). White Zinfandel, although not as high in acid, can provide a nice contrast to high acid foods.
- Bitter and Astringent (Tannic) Foods like a mixed green salad of bitter greens, Greek kalamata olives and charbroiled meats accentuate a wine's bitterness so complement it with a full-flavored forward fruity wine (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot). Big tannic red wines (like many red Zinfandels, and Shiraz or Syrah wines) will go best with your classic grilled steak or lamb chops, as the fat in the meat will tone down the tannin (bitterness) in the wine.
Felicia M. Sherbert is the award-winning author of The Unofficial Guide to Selecting Wine (Hungry Minds) and former senior editor at M. Shanken Communications, publisher of Wine Spectator, Food Arts, and Market Watch. When she is not writing, Felicia conducts private and corporate wine seminars.
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