Do you get stressed out trying to match up wine with food? It’s not surprising since so much has been written about the “rules’ to follow, too many restaurants have fostered wine snob attitudes and there just seems to be way too much to have to know so that you don’t make a “mistake.” There’s been information overload when it comes to wine and food pairing. It’s like too many windows open on the compute. So let’s reboot and then restart and home in on three ways to think about putting wine and food together.
Think C-squared… it stands for complement or contrast. Wine is really like another ingredient added to the recipe or another side dish brought to the table. You can choose the style of wine that will complement the primary flavors of the meal, or one that will add contrasting flavors or taste. Here’s what I mean:
Wines that are big and bold are usually the perfect complement to foods that are too… like the rich taste of lamb with reds like Shiraz, or a Bordeaux; the juicy soft texture of prime rib and soft, melt in your mouth Merlot; that charred on the outside, rare on the inside NY Strip with bold Cabernet from California. And if you put acidic foods together, such as spaghetti sauce with acidic wine, like Chianti, the acids balance out. Wines that have richness like Chardonnay and Viognier are great with richer foods – think lobster or scallops, and can be terrific with turkey or dishes that have a fair amount of butter in the sauce. Pinot Noir is awesome with dishes that feature mushrooms or have fruity sauces such as cranberry or pomegranate since they match the somewhat earthy yet red berry flavors.
The contrast works the same way, only in the reverse! Garlic Shrimp Scampi loves the fruitiness and acidity of a Pinot Grigio to balance things out (by the way my personal favorite with Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris are steamed clams); rotisserie chicken with the fat dripped off and toasty skin and a nicely acidic Pinot Noir taste great together; spicy Mexican food is perfectly contrasted with off-dry Riesling and salty ham loves the way Chenin Blanc cuts through it; and one of my favorites, the yeasty yet crisp and fizzy joy of Champagne with the delicate flavor of sushi!
Keep the wine and food “in-country.” Wine is a product of nature and nurture – and so is food. The wine and foods of a country or region share culture, environment and heritage – the shorthand is the French expression, terroir, which gets close to capturing all the influences that impact a wine. So one of the easiest ways to pair wine and food is simply keep them in the family. It’s not rocket science that the rustic cassoulet of France and the Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre blended wines of the Rhone Valley taste so good together. Or that hunk of Angus beef with a juicy California Cabernet; or the papardelle cianghiale of Tuscany with Chianti Classico and the smoked wurst sausages of Germany with slightly sweet Mosel Riesling. The list can go on and on – get the picture? Just default to the place for both the wine and food.
Drink what you like. Forget the red wine with meat, white wine with fish thing. Yes, some wines won’t pair as well to enhance the meal or fit with the way the sommelier recommends – but so what? It’s really only your taste that matters and if you really like Cabernet and you really like grilled salmon then go ahead and enjoy. If Sauvignon Blanc is your thing then enjoy it with your burger. These may not be my wine preferences with these foods but all of our tastes are uniquely ours – so go for it. Yes, this can make for some strange combinations, but I can’t think of a better way to be stress free about putting wine and food together than to be true to your own tastes and preferences.