It is a truth universally acknowledged that discovering the perfect glass of wine to match your meal is one of life’s greatest dining pleasures.
When you get it right, a successful food and wine pairing can greatly enhance the flavours and enjoyment of both the food and the wine on the table.
Whether you’re dining out with a loved one, hosting a dinner party, or finalising the menu for upcoming events or wedding receptions, a little bit of food and wine know-how can go a long way.
Food and wine pairing is as much about personal taste and experimentation as anything else, and it is important to remember that there are no clear right and wrongs when it comes to matching food and wine. There are, however, certain qualities and flavours that do bring out the best in each other.
Start with the food:
First of all, consider the primary characteristics of the food you are eating.
- Think about the weight of the food – is it a rich, heavyweight beef casserole or is it a lighter, more delicate poultry or fish dish?
- Consider the intensity and character of the flavour – fresh oysters, for example, have a mild, delicate flavour, whereas Peking Duck is a far more intense and flavoursome dish. Consider the dressings and sauces here too – are they spicy, citrusy, peppery, buttery or creamy? These are all important things to consider.
- Next, think about the acidity (tomatoes, citrus and green apples, for example, are high-acid foods), saltiness, bitterness and sweetness of the food on your plate.
Now for the wine:
Once you have an understanding of the flavours, textures and characteristics of your chosen dish, it is time to do exactly the same thing with the wine. Think of the wine as an added ingredient to your dish, one whose characteristics marry up as closely as possible to the food on the plate.
A classic example is a rich, hearty steak with peppercorn sauce paired with an equally robust, spicy Shiraz. With this pairing, the full-flavoured steak will perfectly balance the weight and texture of a big, full-bodied wine.
Alternatively, a more lightweight grilled salmon dish could be paired with a fresh Sauvignon Blanc, or even a young, light-bodied Pinot Noir.
Here are some extra tips to help you find a winning combination:
- Acidic food needs acidic wine
A tart and zesty dish (and anything served with a vinegary or citrusy dressing) needs to be matched with a sharp, high-acid wine. A low-acid wine will only taste dull and flabby when paired with more acidic foods.Examples include pairing a tomato and balsamic bruschetta with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc or Reisling. Or a tomato-based ragu with a cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.Fish and seafood do well with an acidic wine too. Think of squeezing fresh lemon juice onto a piece of seared barramundi – here a Sauvignon Blanc will hold its ground on the acidic front and also help to bring out the citrus notes in the dish.
- Acidic wines also complement oily foods
Acidic wines can also help to cleanse the palate when eating oily food. Smoked salmon, for example, will do well with an acidic wine that cuts through the natural oiliness of the fish.Rich, tomato-based Italian dishes that use lots of olive oil also work well with more acidic red wines. A high-acid wine will match the acidic characteristics of the tomato sauce whilst cutting through the olive oil in the dish.
- High tannin wines love a bit of fat
The tannins in wine are what cause that bitter, puckery, drying sensation in the mouth. High-tannin wines need fat and protein to help balance, soften and bring a smoother feel to the wine. Tannins also work to cut through fatty food and cleanse the palate. Think of a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon served with braised lamb shanks or a nice juicy, fatty prime-rib steak.
- Spicy or salty foods need a sweet wine
A sweeter wine can help take away some of the heat in a spicy dish. Try matching a Thai green curry with a young Riesling. A sweet, low-alcohol sparkling wine can also be a good match for spicy foods. At the other end of the spectrum, a high alcohol, tannin-heavy wine will work to intensify the heat of a dish and make it seem spicier.Salty foods are also enhanced and balanced by a touch of sweetness. An example would be salty nibbles served with a sweet, sparkling wine before a meal. Or the classic pairing of a robust, blue-veined cheese with a Vintage Port.
- Sweets need an even sweeter wine
When it comes to desserts and wine, the wine needs to be sweeter than the food on the plate. A wine that is not sweet enough to match the dessert will end up tasting tart and overly acidic.It is also a good idea to pair desserts with wines that contain complimentary flavours. For example, Moscato goes well with fruity desserts, whereas a Tawny Port has a sweet, nutty flavour that will compliment a sweet, nutty dessert.
If you’re ever in doubt – or find yourself staring indecisively at a restaurant wine list – you can always ask your waiter for recommendations. Or even better – take a risk and experiment! Part of the fun is trying out different combinations and discovering what makes a perfect pairing for you.