The Magic of Food & Wine Pairing

Paige Comrie

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There is something magical that happens when a fresh goat cheese meets a New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s grassy, herbal, citrusy flavor elevates the acidity, creamy and slightly animal qualities of the cheese, or when Champagne’s bright acidity and sparkling texture meets the salty, luxurious richness of caviar or oysters.

Food and wine go hand-in-hand. It’s the truest way to my heart – when you find the right pairing, it can just put your dining experience absolutely over-the-moon. I’ve seriously had some life-altering pairings created by chefs and sommeliers, and there’s nothing else like it.

In my personal opinion, wine belongs on every dinner table. It should be as much a staple in our lives as bread and butter! It’s such an easy way to elevate the everyday and make otherwise ordinary moments special.

When it comes to food and wine pairings, the tendency is to overthink it. People panic, they don’t want to be “blamed” for a pairing gone wrong, and they avoid making the decision.

But just like coke and a burger is a classic pairing, or milk and cookies, there’s some good reliable wines you can keep in your pocket as go-to food solutions. And similar to that… if you decide to have a burger with apple juice or pair your cookies with water, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just maybe not a “halleluiah” moment. But if it’s what you like, pair how you want!

What we’ll learn here are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules, and what matters most for wine enjoyment is your personal preferences.

In this post, we’ll cover the basic ways to approach food and wine pairings. We’ll start with identifying basic tastes in food and wine, determine two pairing methodologies, and cover 9 common pairing tips. From there, we’ll head into a tasting exercise to put these methods into practice. By the end of this post, you should confidently be able to order a bottle of wine with dinner, no matter what your table’s eating, and understand how to create dynamic and awe-worthy food and wine pairings.

Wine Pairing Fundamentals

What makes a great food and wine pairing? Balance between the taste of a wine and the ingredients in the dish. Start by thinking of wine as an ingredient, and consider what things tend to go together.

You can begin by breaking it down like this:

  1. identify the basic tastes in the dish. The 6 primary tastes that affect food & wine pairings are: fat, salt, piquant (spicy), bitter (tannin or herbal), sweet, and acid.
  2. Choose a pairing methodology for the wine to counterbalance the basic tastes in the food. Think about common classic pairings that you see: sweet and salty (coke and French fries), fat and acid (again… Coke and french fries). There’s also salt-sour (salted limes), sweet-sour (grape fruit with sugar on top), acid-acid (strawberries and blueberries), and bitter-fat (dark chocolate on top of icecream).
  3. Choose a wine that matches the pairing methodology. For example, if you’re doing sweet and salty and having French fries, pair it with a dessert Riesling. Or if you’re doing fat and acid and having French fries, pair it with Champagne or a high-acid white.
  4. To take it a step further, identify the nuanced flavors in the food. These nuanced flavors could come from spices, herbs, or minor ingredients (olive, strawberry, bacon, etc).
  5. Then, select a wine that also contains similar nuanced flavors. For example, one of my favorite food and wine pairings is my overloaded chocolatechip oatmeal cookies paired with a tawny port. At a base level it works well because it’s sweet paired with sweet but also bitter (port has tannins) paired with fat (there’s a loooot of butter in those cookies). But then it’s a next-level pairing because the cookies have toffee, dark chocolate, and dried cherries, which are all also flavors and aromas that are present in the wine. Seriously an out-of-this-world combo. (The recipe is on my blog, highly recommend checking it out!)

As a basic rule of thumb as you’re thinking through these common pairings, red wines will be more bitter because of their tannin (remember, red wines have more skin contact!), white and sparkling wines have more acidity. And of course, sweet wines are sweeter.

Pairing Methodologies

Let’s dive into these “classic” pairing methods that I explained in the previous section. Where do these come from? Why do they work? (sweet and salty (coke and French fries), fat and acid (again… Coke and french fries). There’s also salt-sour (salted limes), sweet-sour (grape fruit with sugar on top), acid-acid (strawberries and blueberries), and bitter-fat (dark chocolate on top of icecream).

Each of these could pairing types be described as either a congruent pairing or a contrasting pairing. When done right, both work extraordinarily well.

When it comes to congruent pairings, the pairing works well because it creates balance by amplifying the shared flavor compounds.

For example, Syrah and seasoned steak share many compounds and flavors, such as black pepper. Or the port and cookie example I described above also works.

Other examples are buttered popcorn with oaked chardonnay (my favorite!), bbq pork with zinfandel, and cucumber salad with sauvignon blanc.

Conversely, you can also have a contrasting pairing. A contrasting pairing creates balance by complimenting the tastes and flavors in a way that makes you want to keep digging in. For example, rich, gooey mac and cheese is contrasted with a high-acidity wine, such as Champagne. Other common examples are blue cheese with ruby port, pork chops with Riesling, maple bacon with champagne, and curry with gruner veltliner.

Pairing Rules

You’ll want to keep these things in mind when choosing wine pairings as well, to avoid something that truly doesn’t work.

  1. The wine should be more acidic than the food.
  2. The wine should be sweeter than the food.
  3. The wine should have the same intensity as the food.
  4. Bitter foods tend not to pair well with bitter wines (such as dry reds)
  5. Fats and oils counterbalance high-tannin wines.
  6. Tannin in wine clashes with fish oils. That’s why reds don’t typically go well with seafood (unless it’s a low, low, low tannin red!)
  7. Wines with sweetness help counteract spicy foods.
  8. More often than not, white, sparkling, and rose wines cerate contrasting pairings.
  9. More often than not, red wines create congruent pairings.

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Paige Comrie is a Certified American Wine Expert and holds her WSET3 Advanced Certificate in Wine. She's passionate about helping connect consumers with great bottles of wine, and inspiring people to live the "wine lifestyle". This phrase, to her, means elevating the everyday, enjoying the little moments, and taking time to sip and savor everything life has to offer. In addition to wine and food, Paige also writes on the subject of Social Media and Digital Marketing, specifically focusing on the wine industry. Follow her on Instagram @winewithpaige

Napa, CA
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