The Importance Of Pairing Wine With Food

Wine with dinner

By definition, a pairing combines in sets of two persons or things that are mutually beneficial. There have been great pairings throughout history: Astaire and Rogers, bacon and eggs, Funk and Wagnalls, gin and tonic, Johnson & Johnson, the Lady and the Tramp, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Wright Brothers, chips and salsa , Abbott and Costello, the twin cities, Abercrombie & Fitch, Currier & Ives, Unitas and Berry, Yin and Yang, Watson and Crick, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and bricks and mortar.

With this in mind, I’d like to talk about wine and food pairing, which is the process of matching great food dishes with great wine. The main concept behind pairings is that certain elements (such as texture and flavor) in both food and wine react differently to each other, and finding the right combination of these elements will make the entire dining experience more enjoyable. However, taste and enjoyment are subjective. What may be a “textbook perfect” pairing for one taster could be less enjoyable for another.

We can create a pairing in a variety of ways. We can select a favorite wine, and then seek out a food that matches well with the wine. Or we can select a recipe and then research to see what wine will complement the meal. Dorothy and I usually do the latter. We will decide what we want to prepare, and then we will go to the basement and select a wine. We know we are certainly not as sophisticated as some, but we have adopted some guidelines to help us in our selection.

Pairing Wine With Fish

Fish are generally divided into categories according to texture and flavor. The lightest fish are mild flavored, lean, flaky, and generally thin. Examples are haddock, perch, tilapia, and certain types of bass. Wine selections would be a crisp sauvignon blanc, an unoaked chardonnay, a white Bordeaux, or a Pinot Grigio.

As we move up the firmness spectrum, we will have a firmer fish (but still flaky) and generally thicker. Examples would be red snapper, monkfish, and Chilean sea bass. Wine selections would include a Pinot Gris, dry Riesling, and a chardonnay with some oak.

Next are the steaklike cuts of fish, which are more flavorful. Examples are salmon, mahi mahi, shark, swordfish, and tuna. Rich whites such as oaked chardonnays, white Cotes du Rhone, white Burgundies, Viognier, and even a dry rosé should complement these selections nicely.

Last are fish that are salty and taste like the sea. Examples are anchovies, sardines, and herring. Anchovies and sardines are often used as components of dishes, but if served separately Champagne, Pinot Noir, or a dry Riesling will work. If herring is on the menu, serve a sherry or a Chablis, and specifically, if a red herring is to be served, pair it with an original premise.

If serving your fish selection with a sauce, this also needs to be taken into consideration. It can be sweet, spicy, zesty, curried or flavored with herbs. When pairing the wine with the sauce, the wine should be slightly sweeter than the sauce. Also, the darker the sauce, the darker the wine.

The preparation can also be very simple. A good, fresh fish will have a lovely taste and texture of its own. A little butter or oil, lemon, herbs, and salt & pepper should be all it needs.

Pairing Wine With Red Meat

Generally speaking, red meat is usually paired with a red wine, and when one is talking about a red wine, it is usually all about the tannins. The tannins in red wine come from two sources: (1) the skins of the grapes which also gives it its color, and (2) the tannins from the oak barrels in which the wine ages.

Tannic wines are meant to be paired with foods that match the weight and richness of the wine, so the main thing to remember is the following: tannic wine loves foods that contain protein and fat. Two examples of wines that are high in tannins are a chewy Bordeaux and a “big” California Cabernet Sauvignon. These would match well with a rib-eye steak or any meat with a high fat content. Also, a Chianti is fairly acidic depending on whether it is a full-bodied wine or not, and that is why it pairs well with tomato sauces in Italian dishes.

As the fat content lessons in the cut of meat, a search for a wine with lesser tannins is a wise approach. Merlots are a bit mellower than a cab and are a good choice for less heavy dishes. A Pinot Noir has more of a fruit emphasis than tannic, and I think the syrah and shiraz varietals are definitely more fruity and worth considering. For spicy food, and especially BBQ, I like a zinfandel.

Pairing Wine With Other Meats

This is where the selecting gets a bit murky. A simple rule to follow is the following:
“For a lighter meat, choose a lighter wine.” For example, in poultry the breast meat will pair well with a lighter wine while the thighs will pair better with a darker varietal. Pork is another meat that sits on the line of choosing either a red or a white; however, a rosé, which ranges from sweet to dry, could be the best choice.

Other determinants in selecting the right wine are the herbs and seasonings used both on the meat and in the sauce should you choose to use one. This can get tricky. Your internet sites can be good sources. There are several that include well-researched and professional suggestions.

I’ve just presented a very simple guide to wine pairings which have worked well for us. I think the pairing of wine and food for a meal where one complements the other is very important to the overall success of the meal. It is well worth your consideration and study beforehand, and your guests will thank you.

It’s also a good idea to decant wines a couple hours before serving. This will lessen the sharpness of the tannins which will allow the wine to “open up” and become more complex.

French Wines Versus American Wines

I’d like to talk briefly about some basic differences between French and American wines. First of all, this caveat: both countries make wonderful wines. My comments are generalizations, so there will be exceptions to most everything I say.

     American wines seem to be primarily about the grape, and they will taste fruitier than their French counterparts. American wines are my choice when I’m in a bar or sitting in our living room and I’m enjoying a glass of wine simply for the taste of a good wine. While I love the taste of our American wines, at times some are almost too much. Many are even touted as being “big and bold,” so if you aren’t careful when pairing an American wine with food, your selection may completely overwhelm your dinner.

     The French seem to approach this differently. Their wines seem to be more about terroir (pronounced ter`war). For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term, it’s about the environmental factors and/or conditions such as soil, climate, weather, altitude, etc. The result is wine with more earthy tastes with the subtle influences of minerals, spices, herbs, and grass. They seem to have a higher degree of complexity and  are generally less full-bodied, lighter and crisper with a more moderate alcohol content. A well-chosen French wine is about enhancing the meal’s flavors, so they are my choice at mealtime.

     The French wines are aged in barrels made of French oak. It seems to impart a more subtle influence on the wine than the American oak, and the taste it imparts is almost nondescript. Compare this with the American vintners who will often use a stronger oak in their barrels as a flavoring agent. That’s what gives many of our wines that buttery taste, and it’s often overdone. As a result, there are several wines, especially white wines, that have the reputation of being “butter bombs.” 

   Generally speaking, most white wines need very little aging as not much is gained in the aging process. Most can be served soon after bottling. 

   Red wines age much better than white wines. This is due to the grape’s stems and skins being part of the aging process. Of the reds there are many who seem to think French reds age better than American reds. 

    How long should a wine age in the bottle? This is highly variable, so it’s a good idea to consult one of many references that can impart information as to how long a particular wine and vintage should age so it can be drunk in its prime. I think you will find that most red wines need at least five years in the bottle before the wine starts to get interesting. It should also be noted that any wine will eventually be “over the hill” and will begin to go flat, so try to drink it before it’s too late. Watch your vintages closely, and store your bottles so the prime time wines are always in sight. 

     But back to French versus American wines – for some interesting reading or viewing, research The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known as the Judgment of Paris. It’s easy to find on You Tube, and there was even a movie made about it called Bottle Shock (2008). I think it’s worth seeing.