FOOD & WINE PAIRING 101
Food gives context and meaning to wine, and can truly enhance our enjoyment of it. Pairing food with wine is a bit of an obsession with us, and it is truly one of the most enjoyable aspects of our business.
Here we outline some of the basic concepts and principles behind the art. Hopefully this will inspire you to experiment on your own and have some fun!
1. Match acidity
The pH of a wine has a significant impact on how it pairs with food. Our general rule of thumb is that your wine should be higher in acidity than the food you are pairing it with. For example, wine varieties of Mediterranean origin such as barbera, sangiovese and zinfandel are typically high in acidity, which is why they pair so well with tomato-based sauces and dishes that are also high in acidity. Fruits and some vegetables typically work better with brighter wines. Meats, being relatively low in acidity, are more forgiving with softer wines. Wineries are not required to list pH or TA (titratable acidity) on wine labels, so it helps to know a bit about the varietal, region, or winery’s style to know whether it is higher or lower in acidity. Cooler climate wines are naturally higher in acidity, as are wines made in the classic style—such as ours. Wine that has not undergone malolactic fermentation retains much of the natural acidity of the grape.
2. Match sweetness
A similar principle applies to residual sugar—sweeter wines pair better with sweeter foods. The obvious case is with dessert: you’ll generally want to pair a port or late harvest wine with anything on the desert menu. The sweeter the dessert, the sweeter the dessert wine should be. But the same holds true for your main course. In general, savory foods go best with dry wines. However, a savory dish that makes use of caramelization, fruit, or even sweet vegetables, can be complemented by a table wine with some degree of residual sugar. Many Asian (particularly Chinese) dishes have some sweetness to them, which can lead to an off-dry white as a pairing choice. Off-dry wines can also lend some relief to the palate if you are eating a lot of spice. We propose, though, that residual sugar is not the only answer to sweet or spicy savory dishes; in fact, dry wines with higher acidity and pronounced fruit characteristics can potentially balance spice even better—such as many of your classic-style food wines!
3. Consider body and flavor intensity
Richer foods generally require a full-bodied wine. An example can be made with seafood. Rich seafoods—lobster, crab or salmon—are fantastic with a full-bodied chardonnay, while lighter white fish or mild shellfish pair better with a crisper, lighter white such as semillon or sauvignon blanc. The same can be applied to other meats. Beef and lamb pair well with full-bodied syrah, shiraz or cabernet, while pork and duck pair better with a lighter, fruitier reds such as zinfandel or pinot noir. Keep in mind, also, that acidity is an important factor in pairing wine with rich, fatty foods. Duck, lobster, and the like benefit from pairing with a wine possessing a cleansing acidity.
4. Red with red meat, white with white...but not always!
Perhaps the best known pairing rule, this one generally holds true. Our “go to” wines for fish and seafood are whites—semillon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, etc. However, when you get into the realm of chicken or pork, the wine choice depends on the preparation. An apricot-glazed pork tenderloin is wonderful with chardonnay, but glaze it in plum or introduce BBQ sauce and you shift into zinfandel’s domain. Let us propose this addition to the rule: White sauce with white, red sauce with red! On the flip side, Asian beef dishes are often successfully paired with a white, and even lamb—depending on the preparation—can pair with a full-bodied white. (Of course, we’d have a hard time having lamb with anything but a shiraz!)
5. Think regionally
We find it fascinating that so many wines native to a region pair so naturally with that region’s cuisine. Does a region’s wine influence the development of the cuisine? Or do the same factors that shape the character of a wine also shape the region’s other food products? One example that has always fascinated us is the way Monterey chardonnay pairs with artichokes—also abundant in Monterey. Artichokes contain a phytonutrient called cynarin that typically makes any accompanying wine taste bitter. The exception is Monterey chardonnay! Furthermore, it must be more than coincidence that barbera and sangiovese suit so many Italian dishes perfectly, and that garnacha and tempranillo are heavenly with paella and other Spanish dishes. Riesling and bratwurst, anyone?
Now it’s your turn!
We invite you to try to apply these rules of thumb, and have some fun in your own kitchen. Let us know if you come up with something exciting...and feel free to e-mail us for advice!
Check out some classic Cantiga wine pairing recipes!