Before we dive into some basic rules, first, know this: essentially, there are two ways to pair food and wine.
a) You can select a wine that will complement a dish (complementary pairing), or;
b) You can drink a wine that will enhance a dish (congruent pairing).
A complementary pairing to a rich, gooey cheese dish, for example, would be a wine with high acidity, such as pinot gris or sauvignon blanc. But a congruent pairing would be a wine that enhances that richness in your cheese.
Food and wine pairing need not be rocket science. Use these simple guidelines to pair with confidence!
1. Keep food and wine at a similar weight
When we talk about weight, we don’t mean pounds or kilos. In terms of matching food weight to wine, we’re talking pairing lighter food (typically lower in fat) to lighter style wine, and heavier, richer food to heavier weight wine.
Lightweight food like poultry and fish are complemented by more delicate wines. While a white wine is an instinctive choice, light, low-tannin reds also work a treat.
Prawns and chardonnay are both medium-weight and rich so they complement each other.
Rich, heavier foods such as red meat casseroles need full-bodied wines, such as shiraz.
2. Match flavour intensity and character
Similar food and wine flavours complement each other. For example, fish with lemon sauce and pinot gris both have citrus flavours and work well together.
Match mild foods with mild wines. Match big, flavourful foods with big, flavourful wines. For example, pair pepper steak with a spicy, bold shiraz.
Similarly, you generally want to match the richness of food with a rich wine. For example, pair a rich chicken in cream sauce with a rich chardonnay.
3. Think about acidity
High-acid wines, such as young riesling, are often used to cleanse the palate when eating oily food such as Indian curry or rich, buttery sauces.
If you’re eating a dish with a strong acidic content – like a salad with vinegar-based dressing- pair it with a crisp dry pinot grigio.
Wines from cool climates (like the Mornington Peninsula) will have more acidity than those from hot climates.
Remember, rich creamy sauces will usually clash with an acidic wine like a sparkling. Think about it this way… if you squeezed lemon juice into a cup of milk, would you drink it?
4. Beware mixing salt and tannin
Crisp, acidic wines help balance salty flavours. For example, our friend sauvignon blanc balances salty olives and feta cheese.
But salty foods are also enhanced and balanced by a hint of sweetness. Think about when you eat parma ham and melon – delicious!
The same thing can be achieved with wine: Sauternes, a lusciously sweet wine from the Bordeaux region, is a famous match with salty, Roquefort cheese, but any slightly sweet wine such as cool-climate pinot gris can work.
Beware, though – salt can clash with tannin as it makes tannin seem more bitey, so avoid big, grippy reds such as cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.
For a dry wine to work with salty food look for something with low tannins and noticeable acidity. Look for savoury as opposed to fruity wines such as a French Chablis.
Good chardonnay with some age often has nice nutty complexity and works beautifully with semi-hard and hard cheese.
5. Soften bitter tannins with richer, heavier food
First of all – what the heck is tannin? Well, tannins come from many places, most notably the skins of the grapes used in winemaking, but also the wood barrels that wine is aged in. Tannin tastes similar to the flavour you would get if you sucked on a teabag – mouth-puckering!
This astringent flavour is what helps cleanse the palate of a rich meal, which is why cabernet sauvignon and shiraz work so well with steak.
6. Serve a wine at least as sweet as the food being served
The general rule of thumb is to serve a wine at least as sweet or sweeter than the food being served. Sweet foods make dry wines seem over-acidic and tart.
Sweet wines with a good level of acidity, such as Sauternes, are a perfect match for rich foods like pâté. The acidity will cut through the fat in the pâté and the wine’s sweetness will complement the richness of this food.
Sweetness also balances salt which is why sweet wines are classic companions of blue cheeses. remember this factoid next time you drink a port with Stilton!
7. Spicy foods need spicy wine
Sweeter wines offer relief from spicy foods.
Strong spices, such as hot chilli peppers in Thai or Indian food, can clash and destroy the flavours in a wine. In most cases, wine is not the ideal thing to drink.
However, if wine is your thing, consider something spicy and sweet itself such as an off-dry Gewürztraminer or Riesling.
8. Pair with the sauce
Try pairing the wine to the sauce served using your congruent and complementary pairing techniques. For example, match delicate citrus sauces with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, try cream and mushroom sauces with chardonnay, and pair red and meat sauces with shiraz.
No sauce? No problem! Just match your wine to meat, fish or poultry when serving without a sauce.
The best thing to remember that food and wine pairing is subjective. Yes, there are some simple guidelines to matching food and wine but these are not hard and fast rules; match to what you love, and you won’t go wrong.