Pairing food & wine is not a science. It has a lot to do with personal preference and tastes, so there are no cut and dry rules. Occasionally you’ll get a pairing that makes you say “WOW!” By the same token, you will occasionally find a pairing that makes your taste buds recoil in anguish. But most pairings fall somewhere in the middle. In fact, most wines work with most foods, but knowing a few basic rules can enhance your enjoyment.
Complementing flavors means you are matching the structure of the wine with the structure of the food. Some examples are:
Match creamy with creamy – Creamy wines, such as Chardonnay or Viognier, matched with cream-based sauces (pasta or poultry) or a creamy cheese.
Match acid with acid – Bright, crisp Sauvignon Blanc is a lovely match for that fish with a lemon sauce. A good rule of thumb – if the recipe or food has lemon or other citrus in it, you’re going to need some acid to match. Great high-acid wines includ Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Albarino, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Chablis.
Match sweet with sweet – Chocolate cake? Lemon custard? Match a similar wine with the similar food. Rich and dense chocolate cake is a great match to Port or other dark, sweet wines. A light lemon custard looks for sweet and acid, so a Moscato or Muscat-based dessert wine is not too heavy and a perfect match.
Contrasting flavor means you are trying to offset a taste or structural element in the wine and food. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
DO match spicy with sweet – A big tannic red with spicy chow mien? Not so much. Take that dish and pair an off-dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, and it’s a party in your mouth. The sweetness of the wine is offset by the spice in the food and instead of tasting sweet, you taste the delicious fruit in the wine instead. Pair Riesling, Pinot Gris (Alsace style) or Gewurztraminer with spicy Thai or Indian food. It’s a great combo.
DO match creamy with crisp – Another fun match is to pair a bright acidic wine to cut through a cream-based food. Take creamy cheese. Sparkling wine or Sauvignon Blanc can cut through that cream and bring out the best flavors in both the dish and the wine.
DON’T match tannin with sweet – oh boy, a sweet food will zap all the fruit out of a tannic red and all you’re left with is… tannin. Now tannin is a good thing, but we want to taste it in the BACK of the wine
DON’T match tannin and acid – Go ahead, take a lemon based sauce on pasta or fish and pair it with a big tannic red. You may feel like someone put braces in your mouth because metallic is the flavor that will be most prominent.
Not sure what to have with a certain food? If you’re having a regional dish, such as pasta bolognese, try pairing it with a regional wine, like Chianti or another Tuscan red. Chances are it will be a good match. Something about the food and wine coming from the same soil and area make a perfect pairing!
For more pairing tips, check out our Wine & Dine pairing tool on the site. Should help guide you towards some good wine matches with your meal!