I don’t believe in ‘hard and fast’ rules when it comes to many things, wine and food pairing being no exception. I look at wine and food pairing rules as guidelines, so I don’t hesitate to experiment. I have backup bottles ready, and I know that I will rarely have a tasting experience that is absolutely awful. I’m more likely to end up with some fun memories and stories to share.
Just as you’re unlikely to find truly egregious pairings, you are quite likely to find several that carry you to the heavens of sublime taste. When you experience this delight, I encourage you to write down what you were eating and what you paired it with. Although you might never recreate the exact same experience, the more you study your preferences, the more often you can come close — or find similar combinations that really work for your tastes and palate.
With these caveats in mind, here are some simple rules of thumb for wine and food pairing:
- Keep your goal in mind. You probably don’t seek to hit the ball out of the park at every meal. Most of us are quite content to find a wine that complements the food, neither too overpowering, nor too mild. Where it gets dicey is when the food is out of a normal range of flavor, heat, texture or spice.
- Consider the structure and depth of the wine. A medium-bodied, moderately oaky Chardonnay will have a wider range of foods to pair it with than a thicker, more buttery Chardonnay. Likewise, a mid-range red will pair more easily with more dishes than will a powerful Cabernet.
- Avoid extremes. Don’t match a powerful wine with a delicate food or a soft, gentle wine with a robust meal. The more intense flavor of either will kill off the other. Also, avoid highly tannic wines with delicate flavors.
- Use ‘Acidity’ in your favor. Maybe it’s a relic from high school chemistry lab, but when I think of ‘acid,’ I visualize something burning a hole in my clothes. In the wine world, ‘acidity’ is not to be avoided. It isn’t the same acid that gives you indigestion. It’s a beautiful crispness that cuts through high fat or high oil foods, like cheese dishes or fried foods. If you’re tasked with bringing white wine to a potluck, choose an acidic wine such as a Sauvignon Blanc. Acidic wines are food-friendly hits, especially when a wide variety of dishes are being served.
- Let the star of the meal shine! If you are fortunate to have a unique stellar bottle of wine, make sure that the food is sufficiently moderate so as not to detract from the star of the meal. An aged wine will show the beauty of well-blended, subtle, yet rich flavors. Keep the accompanying dish delicious, but mild in structure so as not to overwhelm the wine’s delicacy.
If you have other rules of thumb that I didn’t highlight, please share them with us.