Pairing the right wine with good food can elevate a meal and turn it into a memorable dining experience. Flavours can be heightened, textures improved, and subtle qualities in a dish are better enjoyed with a suitable glass of wine by your side. But given the aura of sophistication around wine, restaurant patrons may feel intimidated when faced with choosing wines on their own.
The many rules that circulate around wine pairing only serves to confuse diners even further. While perfect pairings may take years to master, you can still feel confident in your choices if you follow these basic steps and understand the fundamentals behind selecting a wine for your meal.
1. Understanding Flavour Profiles
To understand why certain foods go together so well, it’s important to break them down into their constituent flavours. Knowing flavour profiles can also help beginners answer the question, what does a good wine taste like?
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Red wines, for example, have bolder flavours and tend to be on the bitter side. White wines and rosés are lighter and more acidic while sweet wines have higher sugar content, and hence tend to be sweeter.
The variations from this general flavour profile is what makes wine tasting and pairing such a complex yet fulfilling experience. With the wide variety of wine styles from vineyards all over the world, you might come across red wines like Pinot Noir and Italian Merlots which have a lighter body. Similarly oaked Chardonnay and Muscat are examples of heavier white wines.
2. Red Wine And Meat
Now that we’ve covered flavour profiles, we can move on to some of the basic rules of wine pairing and understand why they exist. In general, it’s better to match the weight of the food to the body of the wine to prevent either one overpowering the other.
For example, pasta bolognese is a thick meat-based sauce that’s heavy and rich with flavour. It is best paired with full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Opting for a lighter white wine might result in the pasta dominating taste and mouthfeel, while the subtler notes of the wine are lost.
This is the reasoning behind the time-testing wine pairing of red meat with red wine. The tannins in red wines make them more bitter and flavourful which can stand up to the rich, fatty taste of a red meat like a ribeye steak. As a rule of thumb, the meatier and richer the meal is, the more full-bodied the wine should be.
3. White Wines For Fish
Similar to how a flavourful dish can overpower a lighter wine, heavier wines do the same to milder dishes. Pairing a Merlot with a mild white fish like halibut or cod can result in the sweetness and flakiness of the fish being overwhelmed by the tannins in the wine.
Additionally, the high iron content in red wines can react with compounds in seafood to create an unpleasant fishy aftertaste. There are exceptions to this rule, and dense, oily, fatty fish like salmon or tuna can sometimes be paired with lighter-bodied reds.
4. Complementary & Congruent Pairings
Once you’ve understood the fundamentals of flavour you can begin to experiment with pairing flavours together. The two main ideologies behind wine pairings are complementary and congruent pairings.
Complementary pairings refer to foods that do not have shared compounds and don’t taste similar, but still go well together. An example would be pairing a fatty and salty dish like macaroni and cheese with a wine like a Sauvignon Blanc with high acidity to cut through the richness. A congruent pairing with a creamy mac and cheese dish would be a full-bodied Chardonnay which adds and enhances the creaminess of the meal.
Understanding these fundamentals is only the first step into the boundless world of wine pairing. Don’t be afraid to break a few rules along the way and experiment to find out what works for you. Wine pairing is very much a subjective art form and what a sommelier recommends might be very different from what you prefer.
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