Wine is meant to be with food – that’s the point of it.
~ Julia Child
Wine is to food what bees are to a garden, and according to Julia, is a necessity. Yet the science of pairing food and wine can be something of a dry read for most of us. With comfort foods, acids and fats and salt can get tangled up in your taste buds and mess with your flavor compass. While the best adventures are often found in exploration, there are some easy-to-follow basics to help you achieve good results.
If you go back to the Greeks and Romans, they talk about all three – wine, food, and art – as a way of enhancing life. ~ Robert Mondavi
When wine was more sanitary than water it was a regular part of our diets, although with less focus on molecular matching. Food and wine were regional, making for fewer unpleasant pairings. Sangiovese was drunk with cured local meats and that Côtes-du-Rhône went well with rabbit stew. Simple, right? Add today’s global village to the equation, layer on an international cellar at most liquor retailers and top it off with our expanding culinary options in grocers or at restaurants, and flavor matching can quickly become a recipe for confusion.
Food and wine. Decide which is the soloist, which is the accompanist. ~ Michael Broadbent
Food and Wine Pairing Basics
The chemistry gets complicated but there are simple guidelines to consider when wine and food pairing – comfort or otherwise. And it’s important to decide which of the two will take center stage on your table. Is it a special bottle and you’re looking for food to showcase the wine’s best attributes? Or maybe that comfort food fix comes first. Choose who will lead this culinary foxtrot and get familiar with some of the pairing basics.
Acid: whatever level of acidity is in your food, the wine should always have more – watch for hidden acids like vinegar / vinaigrettes, citrus in dressings, and fruits.
Sweetness: forget what you might have heard about ‘red wine and chocolate’ and remember that the wine should be sweeter than what you’re eating – think late harvest or icewines with desserts, or fortified wines.
Flavor & Intensity: if wine and food is an orchestra, all the instruments need to be heard – a quiet violin Pinot Noir can be easily overwhelmed by a robust roast, so find a wine with more persistence (or a bolder Pinot).
- Big reds love bold (or gamey) meats: there’s a reason lamb and Shiraz like to spend quality time together.
- White wines adore subtlety: there are no tannins to cut through that big flavor profile, so white wines like to play on their more subtle nuances.
Bitter is better with fat: tannins in red wines can at times translate to bitterness and a nice helping of fat can smooth harsher edges – this is part of why bigger reds do well with those juicy steaks.
Get saucy: focus on the flavors in the sauce to guide your wine selection – a buttery sauce on that salmon might benefit from a rich Chardonnay, and the spicy zip of a curry will welcome a lower alcohol off-dry Gewürztraminer.
Opposites attract: if you’re not sure just how buttery that sauce is, try something to cut through the fat – like a higher acid white, rosé, or sparkling wine.
Remember the alcohol: part of the weight and intensity equation, alcohol can be sneaky in a well-balanced wine; that boozy warmer climate Viognier might not fit your filet of sole, but could fare well with a hefty risotto.
When I pair food and wine, I start with the food.
If I have a beautiful roasted bird, I might choose a Cabernet or Pinot Noir, or maybe a Syrah, depending on the sauce and what is in my cellar. ~ Jacques Pepin
Comfort Food Favorites: Wines To Pair with Various Dishes
Macaroni and cheese
A cool weather comfort classic, and not the out-of-the-box kind but that bubbling melted gruyère and nostrala/fontina dish. Choose a higher acid, off-dry Riesling or Grüner Veltliner from Austria, Germany, or British Columbia (Canada); rosé (Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir) from a cool climate like the Pacific Northwest (Washington) or Eastern Canada/US (Ontario/Finger Lakes); try a traditional method sparkling wine because you can.
Classic: Austrian Grüner
Adventurous: Crémant de Bourgogne
Earthy with mushrooms and creamy from cheeses, homemade risotto is like getting a warm hug on a cold day. Depending on what you choose (or don’t choose) to add, you have some flexibility. Bring on the lighter-bodied red wines, like a Pinot Noir or Gamay; if white wine is in the house choose a Chardonnay or Chablis (because everyone should have a chard on hand), or that weightier Viognier.
Adventurous: something orange (wine, that is)
Pork Loin Roasts
This classic loves the classics, and that means Burgundy is its best friend. Red or white. The fat can handle the acidity of Chenin Blanc or Riesling. And go back to that food intensity principle – the richer the dish (or sauce), the bolder the wine you can choose, like an herbaceous and earthy Cabernet Franc.
Classic: Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc
Adventurous: New World Chenin Blanc (bonus points if it’s sparkling)
Meats and cheeses and that acidity from tomatoes, oh my. Treat lasagna like a meaty pasta and go Italy: Sangiovese, Chianti, Nebbiolo, Barbera. Head into the new world with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Remember the fresh mozzarella.
Because the protein in stews can vary wildly, think old school local flavor matching. If your stew has a French flair, grab a bottle from a similar region. Spanish flavors call for Rioja. Or match the protein intensity with the wine intensity. Richer meats can handle a robust red from Argentina and lamb calls for Syrah/Shiraz.
Adventurous: British Columbia Syrah
Like the theater, offering food and hospitality to people is a matter of showmanship, and no matter how simple the performance, unless you do it well, with love and originality, you have a flop on your hands. ~ James Beard