Matching Wine with Food

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Big Giant Disclaimer

I am vegetarian, so anything I say about meat should be regarded as hearsay. I have only a vague notion of what meat and fish taste like from my pre-vegetarian days, so my advice on matching wine and meat dishes is based on what other people tell me and good old fashioned wild guessing. I am frequently asked for wine advice from friends, and they tell me it's mostly good, despite the fact that I can never verify for myself whether that Shiraz even remotely matched well with that Peppercorn Bourbon Steak.

Fear Not

People are easily intimidated by restaurant wine lists. How should I determine what is the "right" wine to go with a certain dish? Will people think I'm stupid if I choose the "wrong" wine? This fear of being wrong stops most people cold.

Fear not. The most important rule is that there is no "right" answer. There are usually a whole range of right answers. Equally importantly, there are a few answers that are dead wrong, but as long as you avoid them, you'll do just fine. Picking a good "right" answer doesn't matter nearly as much as some would have you believe.

Having said that, remember that while all right answers are equal, some right answers are more equal than others. After all, people drink Coca-Cola with lots of food and nobody seems to question whether it is a valid matching. So even though Coke might be considered a "valid" match for Chicken Cacciatore, there certainly exist far better matches, such as Chianti. This document hopes to give the wine beginner some insights to picking a good match, in addition to avoiding truly bad matches.

Things Not to Do

To understand what a horrible matching can do to your food, engage in the following little experiment:

Buy a pint of Vanilla ice cream, the sweeter the better. Get a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, preferably a very dry, full, strong one (I recommend Fortant de France). Eat a lot of ice cream, until your mouth is nice and cold and accustomed to the sweet taste. Now take a big sip of the wine.

Bonus points for you if you do not immediately gag and spit out the wine. Tastes disgusting, no?

So what went wrong? You drank a very dry, high alcohol, intense wine with something sweet. That's bad. Sweet food will do this to any wine that is not of similar sweetness. Not that you could find a wine that can stand up to ice cream, nor should you really try.

Admittedly this case is somewhat exaggerated. However, you should take care that the base flavors do not collide too badly, and that neither the food nor the wine overwhelms the other.

Rules of Thumb

In general, wines should be paired with foods that have similar taste characteristics. Like foods pair well with like wines. Consider the dish, and choose a wine that exhibits the same basic taste characteristics.

Remember that taste is a funny thing, and the wine that is best alone is not necessarily the best with food! For example, a white wine that seems too acidic on its own is often fabulous with creamy or salty foods, as the acid reduces the oiliness of the cream and the cream tempers the acid, resulting in significantly enhanced flavors for both.

First, the "strength" of the wine and the food should be similar. Steak is considered a very strong food, so an extremely light wine such as White Zinfandel would be utterly overwhelmed by the food. Similarly, Pasta with Butter and Garlic is fairly light, and would be overwhelmed by a strong wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon. While mismatched strengths is not subjectively disgusting (it does not make you want to spit out the wine or food), it is highly undesirable. When you have wine with food, it is because you want to enjoy both, and hope that each one enhances the flavors of the other. A mismatch in strengths results in one utterly dominating the other. You may as well eat/drink the stronger one alone, because you can't taste the weaker partner of the pair.

Sour and salty foods go well with a highly acid wine. The acid in the wine melds with the acid in the food and generally matches well. Good high acid wines include German-style Riesling, some Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, and Chablis. They go well with salty food for the same reason people use lemon on seafood - the acid negates the less desirable taste elements of high salt.

Sweet foods are difficult to match with wine, because most wine is not sweet and flavorful enough to hold their own. For these pairings, the wine must be at least as sweet as the dish, or you'll get the nasty effect of Vanilla Ice Cream with Cabernet Sauvignon. Slightly sweet dishes can be paired with a slightly sweet Riesling or Gewurztraminer. Sweeter dishes can be paired with the extremely sweet and rich Sauternes dessert wine. However, nothing will pair with ice cream.

Foods with a slight touch of bitterness (such as the bitterness from a grill) match well with tannic wines, which are slightly bitter. Cabernet Sauvignon is great for this, although you should take care that it doesn't utterly overwhelm the food.

Peppery foods can match well with wines that have a spicy quality to their taste. This includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz (in the Australian style), and Chianti.

Rich cream sauces match well with Chardonnay, which has a natural buttery texture. Creamy sauces are often quite salty as well, so also consider any extremely crisp wine. In general, high fat foods prefer acidic or tannic wines to mitigate the fat.

Richer, heartier dark foods go well with stronger red wines. Steak with Cabernet Sauvignon is a canonical matching. Merlot and Shiraz are well worth considering for Portabella Mushroom dishes.

Chinese, Thai, and other Asian foods are traditionally paired with Gewurztraminer or Riesling. The exotic sauces and flavorings make them match poorly with most Western wines. Or you could be even more traditional and just have tea.

Learn By Example

Here are a few examples to get you thinking.

Prime Rib with Bordelaise Sauce
This is supposedly rich, hearty red meat. Bourdelaise sauce contains peppercorns, thyme, and shallots. We're looking for a flavorful red wine with spicy characteristics. Cabernet Sauvignon or Left Bank Bordeaux would be ideal, as it is full and powerful with spicy flavors.
Grilled Lobster in Butter
Hmm, shellfish usually calls for a crisp white wine. There isn't anything in this dish that would make us reach for a red. The butter would match well with the naturally buttery taste of Chardonnay. A good Chablis would be perfect, or any other Chardonnay that's low on oak.
Pasta with Basil and Cream Pesto
This is a light dish featuring lively herbs as the central flavor. It is also cream based, so we'll want something sharp and crisp. A Sauvignon Blanc would be the ideal choice as it is light, crisp, and grassy.
Mushroom Quiche
It's light, so we want to stay away from bold domineering reds. The mushroom has a nice earthy quality that would lend itself well to something with an herbal or earthy taste. You might want to try a Sauvignon Blanc if the quiche is made light, or a Beaujolais if the quiche is a bit livelier.
Grilled Salmon
Salmon is a bit richer than most fish, so only a stronger white wine will do if you intend to go with white wine. A good Chablis or Chardonnay is customary. If you're in an adventurous mood, and the salmon is cooked with livelier flavors (from pepper or otherwise), you might want to try a Beaujolais instead.
Chicken Cacciatore
This is chicken loaded with all sorts of spices, peppers, mushrooms, and other things. The abundance of mushrooms, spice, and peppers leads us to choose a red wine instead of a white, but since everything tastes like chicken, you can choose any wine that won't overpower it. Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel come to mind, as well as the obvious Chianti.
Portabella Mushroom Pasta in Gorgonzola Artichoke Sauce
Portabella Mushrooms are rich and earthy, and are more meat-like than any other mushroom variety. Gorgonzola is a rich creamy cheese with a nice sharp tang. This dish would be overwhelmed by a strong Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiaz, but can hold its own against a full red like Merlot or Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir would match the earthiness of the mushroom while still being soft enough to complement the gorgonzola artickoke sauce.
Eggplant Parmegiana
Eggplant is naturally slightly bitter, but this dish is dominated by the bold and somewhat peppery marinara sauce. You want a somewhat tannic red wine to mitigate the heavy oils; you can try Merlot to match the peppery flavor, or stick with a Chianti to blend with the eggplant in red sauce.
Really Spicy Indian Food
Actually, I'd avoid wine for extremely spicy foods. Get a nice ice cold lager instead. The higher alcohol, acid, and tannins in wine don't help with extremely spicy foods. If you really want to have a wine, pick something on the softer side and extremely fruity. Sweeter Riesling comes to mind.

If You Really Don't Know What To Get

If I am unfamiliar with the food or wine in question, I usually stick to a few basic types that tend to match acceptably with most of the food I eat.

For somewhat lively and flavorful, but still fairly light dishes (including most vegetarian fare), I'm a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc. The grassy and herbal character of the wine matches well with the limited herbs and spices in such dishes, while the wine is just crisp enough to balance any richness in the food that may come with a light glaze or olive oil. For light dishes that are a bit richer, a Chardonnay also works well.

Chablis matches fabulously with buttery or creamy dishes, even more so than ordinary Chardonnay. The prominent oak in most Chardonnay actually detracts from its ability to cut down butter and cream in food. I'm also told it works great with seafood, but I can't verify that, as seafood smells strange to me.

For foods containing tomato, bell pepper, cloves, onions, portabella mushrooms, and the like, a medium red wine matches well. Chianti is one of the canonical matchings for Italian red sauce dishes. Beaujolais is excellent in circumstances where the food is strong enough to justify a fruity red, but would be overwhelmed by a dry, tannic red. I imagine pork, some chicken, some salmon, and the like fall into this category, but I don't really know what those things taste like anymore.

I don't eat beef, but I'm told that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and sometimes Shiraz matches well with beef.

Wine and Cheese

One of the most common settings involving wine and food is the wine and cheese party. A long time ago, somebody figured out that since both wine and cheese taste good on their own, they should taste good together. This, as it turns out, was an excellent idea.

The same rules for pairing wine and food also apply to wine and cheese (cheese is food, after all). However, the sheer variety of imported cheeses that are available can be quite daunting.

We can divide the commonly found cheeses into several broad categories:

Really Creamy Cheeses
This category includes Brie and Camembert. These cheeses have a light, creamy, delicate taste. They go especially well with Chardonnay (which has a buttery texture) and light, fruity wines like Beaujolais. Champagne is also a commonly cited pairing.
Mildish Cheeses
These cheeses have some flavor to them, but are not particularly pungent or biting. We're looking at Mozzarella, Monterey Jack, Harvati, and some milder Cheddar. These will go well with a dry white wine such as Chardonnay or a fruity but somewhat more complex red wine such as Pinot Noir.
Medium Cheeses
Your typical cheeses of moderate flavor intensity. This category includes the likes of Cheddar, Colby, Gouda, and so on. A dry white may be a good match, as well as light and moderate red wines such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, and possibly Shiraz.
Pungent Cheeses
These cheeses are extremely strong in flavor, and include such cheeses as blue cheese, aged cheddar, and cheeses with extraneous herbs stuck into them. This demands either a very herbal and pungent wine like Sauvignon Blanc, or a full, tannic red, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, red Zinfandel, or Shiraz. Port also matches well.