Ten Golden Rules for Matching Food with Wine
There is no mystique behind matching food and wine, but it can only be achieved if there is some basic compatibility between the two.
Salty dishes need wines with naturally high acidity
It is no coincidence that tangy Fino sherry goes so well with tapas – salted almonds, salted fish, and spicy, salty chorizo sausages, for example – because this combination of appetiser and aperitif evolved together in the same part of the world. Salt in food has the effect of neutralising acidity in the wine and allowing the underlying fruit flavours to come to the fore – just as salt brings out the flavours in food. It is, therefore, best to choose wines that are naturally high in acidity to match salty dishes. With a salty cheese, such as Roquefort, always choose dessert wines with really zingy acidity.
Meaty fish dishes can take a light red
Whoever had it laid down on tablets of stone that white wines are for fish and red wines are for meat should be put on bread and water rations forever and a day! While it is true that tannins in red wine can create a nasty metallic taste when drunk with fish, there is fish and there is fish! Light, fruity reds with low tannins can match very well with fish with a dense, “meaty” texture, such as fresh tuna, salmon, and swordfish, especially if the wine is served slightly chilled. Whitefish, by contrast, tend to be light in texture and served with light sauces. These do need to be partnered with delicate white wines or if the flavours are more intense, more juicy, aromatic whites.
Oily foods need acidity or tannin
Some food-and-wine rules are about pairing like for like – sweet wines with puddings, for example – but others are about matching opposites, and this is certainly the case when choosing wines to complement oily foods. If dishes are oily, they are likely also to be fairly rich, sometimes creamy, but certainly with a degree of cloying opulence that needs to be tempered by the wine you choose to drink with them. If you are selecting a white wine, make sure it has a high degree of acidity, to cut through the fattiness or oiliness of the dish and leave a clean feeling on your palate. Tannin can do the same job; if you are choosing a red wine to match an oily dish – cheese fondue, for example – it will need to be fairly tannic to avoid tasting flabby.
Smoky dishes clash with oaky wines
Oak and smoke, in my opinion, is just too much of a good thing to make a good match. If you try to pair an oaked wine with a smoked meat or fish dish you are in danger of overpowering your taste buds with too many very similar smoky, oaky flavours, so that they will not be able to recognise anything else. Also, smoky dishes, by definition, have a strong flavour, and strong flavours in food need to be matched with a crisply fruity wine that refreshes the palate. Oaked wines have an oiliness and opulence that do not help to do so. White grapes to look out for that should guarantee an oak-fee zone include Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and the Pinots Blanc and Gris (Pinot Grigio in Italy).
Match rich, dense flavours with similar wines
If your chosen dish is rich because it is creamy, try a crisp white wine to cut through the richness and refresh the palate. But rich dishes with greater weight and intensity of flavour normally require wines whose flavours and bodypack a similar punch. If the wine is too light it can be overpowered by the flavours and textures in the food. Thee are some classic extravagant pairings of food with white wine in this vein – foie gras and Sauternes and, less often served these days, lobster Thermidor with a Corton Charlemagne white Burgundy. But in the main, we are talking rich, dense reds to partner hearty meat dishes here, especially those based on game or offal, where you need a wine with good complexity of flavour to compete on equal terms.
Spicy dishes need refreshing wines
Some people find that spicy dishes can overwhelm lighter styles of wine and prefer to match them with richer or even sweeter wines. I find that Chinese dishes generally work well with aromatic whites, such as German Riesling or Alsace Gewürztraminer, while more spicy Eastern cuisine benefits from being partnered with quite simple, crisp, dry whites, such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or – the best choices in my view – a Pinot Grigio or a Chablis. These wines help to refresh the palate. Curry is not easy to match with wine. There are some good white partners for the lighter, more fragrant curries, but beware of ordering reds; most curries tend to knock back the fruit in red wine, so the tannins become dominant. If the food is extremely spicy it may be better to- just this once – forget the wine and stick to water or beer.
Match white meats with full whites or light reds
The flavours in white meats are, on the whole, much more subtle than those in red meats and so chicken, pork and turkey dishes in which the meat is roasted, poached, or grilled in quite a simple style, rather than heavily flavoured or richly sauced, work really well with more subtle wines, such as light reds. However, over the last few years, there has certainly been a trend for whites to become fuller and more opulent, especially the big, oaky-fruity New World wines, and these heavier whites have also proved good partners for white meat dishes, probably because of their complex aromas and oily opulence balances and harmonise with the mellow flavours in the meat.
Red meats can take on strong tannins
For lamb cutlets or shepherd’s pie. I’d choose a fruity Merlot-based wine, but heavier fare gives bigger-bodied reds a chance to shine. Protein-rich food softens the tannin in red wine so that the fruit flavours are able to come to the fore more easily. Red meats can, therefore, be successfully matched with big, strong reds with firm tannins without you having to worry that the fruit in the wine will be overpowered. Cheese also has a similar effect on wine; the tannins are absorbed and the wine tastes more mellow and easy to enjoy. The more austere tannic wines can be made much more food-friendly by decanting; temperature helps too – serve them slightly warmer than usual.
Match wine to sauces, not what’s underneath
The maxim “red wine with dark meat, white wine with light” is a little misleading; most wines can, in fact, be served with most meats. When trying to make the perfect wine and food match, it is much more likely to be the sauce served with the meat, be it chicken or beef, that takes precedence. Lemon chicken, for example, goes well with a Chablis from Burgundy, but the same wine would ever be a good match for coq au vin, which needs a fruity, unoaked, lightly tannic red. Similarly, a steak au poivre needs a medium-bodied, low-tannin red, but a beef goulash can be matched with a ripe, full-bodied, fruity white. With wine-based sauces, it’s often true that the wine you cook the dish with makes the perfect accompaniment to the meal, which makes life a little easier.
Match desserts with their weight in wine
The weight and sweetness of a dessert wine need to match the weight and sweetness of the dessert. It’s obvious really – would you want to drink the same wine with a raspberry fool as you do with sticky toffee pudding? It may sound unlikely but it’s true that the intensity of sweetness in a sticky toffee pudding can be enhanced by a really rich, sweet dessert wine; if you tried to drink a light flowery wine with it, you can easily imagine that the flavours in one would destroy the flavours in the other. Don’t forget, however, that sparkling wines can also be perfect matches for fruity summer desserts, particularly the semi-dry and sweeter styles. And strawberries have an affinity with red and rose wine, particularly if the wine also has strawberry flavours.
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