Throughout history wine has been an integral part of the dining experience. For many, it was viewed as just another part of a staple diet. There wasn’t much focus on which wine would match with a particular dish. Whatever wine was available likely is what was used. However, as time progressed and culinary and wine-making practices developed alongside one another, wine and food pairing became a traditional practice and an intrinsic part of the wine industry. Today, knowledge of matching wines with different foods is essential for any good sommelier or food and wine industry professional.

Wine and food make the perfect couple as they naturally complement each other. As the saying goes, “wine makes a symphony of a good meal.” Drinking wine on its own certainly is enjoyable, but the true beauty of wine emerges when it is paired with food. If you’ve never had grilled salmon with a Pinot Noir or a Vintage Port with dark chocolate or blue cheese then I highly recommend you try it. Of course, you should eat and drink what YOU like. By using the following guidelines and your own taste buds you can be on your way to creating perfect combinations.

Weighing Your Options

Consider the body weight of the food and wine. Heavier foods should be paired with heavier wines and lighter foods with lighter wines. For example, a robust dish like rack of lamb would pair nicely with a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. However, the lamb would overpower lighter wines such as a Riesling or Pinot Grigio. Likewise, the weighty Cabernet and Syrah would overpower a lighter dish like sea bass.

A good way to determine the weight of a wine is by its alcohol content. A higher alcohol content typically indicates a fuller body. As a general rule, wines with 7-11% alcohol are considered light-bodied, 11-13% are medium-bodied, and 13% or above are full-bodied. Another helpful way to determine the body of a wine is by its color. Fuller-bodied wines tend to be darker or more opaque while lighter-bodied wines are more translucent.

Cut Through Fat

Acid and tannin both neutralize fat. Lighter-bodied, high acid wines such as Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc complement lighter, fatty dishes like salmon or chicken. As stated previously, heavier dishes require fuller-bodied wines, which tend to be less acidic. However, full-bodied wines are higher in tannins. A hearty dish high in fat pairs well with wines high in tannins such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Acid and More Acid

Foods high in acid pair well with high acid wines. Each works together to balance and compensate for the other’s acidity. Sauvignon Blanc and ceviche go well together. However, the acidity in a ceviche can make a less acidic wine such as Chardonnay taste bland.

Sweet & Salty

Salty foods pair well with sweet wines. An unlikely match, yet it somehow works. Think of salted caramels or chocolate covered pretzels. Saltiness is noticeably reduced by sweetness, while sweetness is slightly accentuated by saltiness. This may explain why blue cheese and a sweet Riesling make a delectable combination. Though, if you’re not into sweet wines then consider wines with more acidity as an alternative. Saltiness can overwhelm the taste buds that sense acidity (sourness). A higher acid wine will balance out this effect. Sparkling wines also make a great match for salty foods.

Sweet with Heat

Serving spicy foods with a high alcohol, heavy tannin wine like Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo can be a recipe for disaster. This combination will make the food hotter and the wine more tannic. It’s better to pair a spicy dish with a slightly sweet wine such as a Gewürztraminer or Riesling. The sweetness of the wine will curb the heat of the food and highlight more of its flavor.

Sweeter than Sweet

There’s always room for dessert (and dessert wine). When pairing wine with sweets, the wine should be sweeter than the sweets. Otherwise, the sweetness of the wine will be lost. Think of how orange juice tastes immediately after brushing your teeth. It definitely is not pleasing to the palate. You don’t want this to happen with your wine. Something else to consider are the flavors of the dessert and wine, as they should complement each other. For instance, aged Tawny Ports have a sweet and rich, nutty flavor that pairs well with sweet and rich, nutty desserts like pecan pie. A Sauternes wine may have flavors of vanilla, apricot and honey, making it a perfect match for a dessert dish like vanilla crème brûlée.

Regional Pairing

Wine and foods of the same region pair well together. A common phrase is, “what grows together goes together.” Grapevines share the same terroir as other agricultural products, resulting in a unique flavor compatibility. Additionally, winemakers generally make wine with food pairing in mind. Naturally, the foods they have in mind are foods particular to their specific region. In other words, if you’re having a Spanish dish, pair it with a Spanish wine. If you’re having an Italian dish, pair it with an Italian wine.

A Holistic View

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to wine and food pairing. It’s fairly common to hear suggestions like, “pair lamb with Syrah or chicken with Chardonnay.” While these generally may be good suggestions, they don’t take into account other factors such as how the overall meal was seasoned and prepared or the sides and sauces in the dish. Be sure to look at the bigger picture when pairing wine and food.

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Wine and food pairing is more art than science. Don’t get bogged down in following “rules”. It helps to have a basic understanding of flavor characteristics, but at the end of the day you eat and drink what you like. Experiment a little.