Wine Tips for Beginners: Pairing Wine with Food

Anyone that’s ever experienced a perfect pairing between wine and food can tell you that it’s like magic in your mouth.  Good food + good wine = an explosion of flavor.  In my quest to answer more questions for wine beginners, I think a brief article on food pairings is an important topic of discussion! (Memes from someecards.com)

You don’t have to drink white wine with chicken; it’s a myth and it’s been busted.  I love a great Pinot Noir with my chicken.  There used to be so many rules about always pairing white wine with fish, and red wine with red meats, but what if I want to eat fish AND drink red wine at the same meal?  Now I’m forced to choose, and that’s just not going to do.  Forget the rules.  Rules make me cranky sometimes.  White wine with fish doesn’t taste bad, but there are so many more options!

So, you ask, how do I drink wine, and eat food, without it being a complete disaster in my mouth?  Trial and error always works for us!  Take a look at some tips below, and maybe you can save yourself some of the error.

From our WSET course, and years of personal experience, we’ve learned some basic tips.  There’s so much more to be said on this topic, but here’s a start, including some quotes from my husband, Greg:

1. Unlike in people’s personalities, salty and acidic qualities seem to be the easiest to pair.  It’s a lot harder to go wrong with a wine when ordering or serving these types of dishes.  This is because salt and acid in food make wine seem sweeter and less acidic by comparison.

Greg’s food suggestion:  “A well seasoned piece of meat – it could be anything, ribs, steak, whatever, you need to put the seasoning to that meat – and a Montepulciano, Shiraz, or a strong Cabernet Sauvignon.”

2. Fatty foods pair best with acidic wine; this is likely due to how refreshing a crisp wine can be in comparison.

Greg’s food suggestion:  “A great juicy burger and fries, or pork side ribs and a beer!  If you’re drinking wine though, most wines are acidic; try a good Italian wine like a Chianti, or a big bold Chardonnay.  You’re eating a burger and fries.  You’re thirsty.  You want a crisp, cool wine.”

I also love these types of wines with a cheesy pasta dish.  Yum.

3. Sweetness and certain savoury foods can bring out bitterness in wine, making sweeter foods hard to pair.  If you’re as sweet on sweets as I am, and you’ve ordered something with sweetness to it, pile on the sweetness with an even sweeter wine.

Greg’s food suggestion: “If you’re having something with a sweet and savoury sauce, like a candied salmon or reduction-type sauce, get a Gewürztraminer or Riesling for white, or Gamay, Malbec, Shiraz or Zinfandel for red.  That does sound good…let’s have that.” 

4. Try and match intensities of foods with wines.  If you have a really acidic dish, a more acidic wine will pair nicely; just make sure the wine is more acidic than the food, or the wine will fall flat on it’s face.

Greg’s food suggestion:  “Pasta sauces, like tomato sauces need an acidic wine, like Italian ones, because tomatoes are so high in acid.”

Whites generally have more acid than reds, like New Zealand and Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, or German and French whites.  Italian wines are often high in acidity, and some great, easy to find reds are Chianti, Sangiovese or Valpolicella.  Most restaurants should have one of these on their menus.

5. Bitterness leads to more bitterness, just like in a bad relationship.  Keep all those bitter family members away from each other to avoid a brawl.  No heavy reds with mushrooms and asparagus, or anything soya saucy or Asian!  You’ll want a crisp white for those dishes.

Greg’s food suggestion:  “I eat noodle bowls and sushi, and ginger beef.  A crisp white wine would go well with these.” 

Many crisp whites have been listed above!

6. Spicy food will have an extra mean kick if you’re matching it with heavy, high-tannin reds.  That high alcohol level will add to the burn!  Keep the wine on the fruitier, sweeter side, with lower alcohol levels.

Greg’s food suggestion:  “Spicy ribs or chicken wings, with a low alcohol Riesling will go well because of the sweet sauce and the spice.  The low alcohol won’t enhance the spice flavour, and the sweetness should take away from some of the spicy sauce.” 

7. “What grows together, goes together.” – I’m not sure who first said that, but it’s true!  If you’re eating Italian, get Italian wine.  French food, French wine, Asian food, Asian wine?  So it doesn’t ALWAYS apply, but when it does, it works.  Almost like the foods and grapes that grow in the same soils and climates might have something in common…

*Remember this:  the wine must always be sweeter than the food!

Dessert

Red wine and chocolate is a popular pairing misconception.  They’re actually not that good together – try it for yourself and see.  This is a shame, I know.  As red wine and chocolate happen to be two of my most favorite things to consume, I just do it anyways.  So you can be a food pairing rebel, like me, or you can save your chocolate for once you’re done your glass of red, or vice versa.

This all means that for dessert, a dessert wine must be served if you want a successful pairing.  Look in the dessert wine section at your store for Icewines (more expensive), late harvest wines (a bit more affordable) or try something interesting like Tokaji (Hungary) or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (France).  The question about Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is the one we both got wrong on our WSET exam; we won’ t be forgetting that wine ever again!  It’s actually really tasty.

To Sum Up

If you are ordering for multiple people eating different things, good luck.  It’s not an easy task, but the safest choices are neutral, un-oaked whites, or light body, fruitier reds, examples below.

A white wine that pairs well with almost any meal is Italian Pinot Grigio.  Pairing well with most meals are unoaked Chardonnay.  For a more interesting choice, try Chenin Blanc from South Africa or Albarino from Spain.   

Red wines that pair well with almost any meal and are usually a safe bet:  Beaujolais (the “hot dog wine” from the Somm movies), or Pinot Noir.  These reds can stand up to red meats, but also won’t overpower a fish or poultry dish.

You can Google specific food pairings online if you want to be precise.  Some reputable websites for wine information are www.winefolly.com, or www.jancisrobinson.com.  For example, check out Madeline Puckette’s wine and cheese pairing information here:  https://winefolly.com/tutorial/6-tips-on-pairing-wine-and-cheese/.

Wine Folly | Learn about Wine

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Wine Folly is the best place to learn about wine. Browse our visual wine compendium or our playful weekly articles. Start your wine education today.

6 Tips on Pairing Wine and Cheese | Wine Folly

winefolly.com

Armed with the right information you can create amazing wine and cheese pairings on your own. Here are several classic pairings and why they work.

(All of my suggestions for resources are my own opinions.  I have not been paid to recommend these resources.  I truly find them to be written by some of the most knowledgeable and accurate wine professionals out there, and I have invested in purchasing their books for my library.) 

St. Francis Winery, Sonoma Valley – A Visit to Remember

Exactly one year ago today, we visited St. Francis Winery in Sonoma, and it was incredible.  St. Francis Zinfandel was the wine that introduced us to this particular producer, some years ago, when great friends shared it with us.  We loved it, of course, and shelved the information in the back of our minds.  Those same friends invited us to spend a weekend at their cabin the following summer, and we were to bring wine for a meal.  We browsed the isles at the liquor store, and picked out the St. Francis Zin, not remembering its significance.  When we served it, our friends exclaimed in excitement that this was from their favourite winery, and they had been to visit!  We asked them to tell us the story this time, and determined that if we ever went to California, we were going to St. Francis.

Fast forward two years, and we made our way to California for a wine-tasting adventure.  I made sure to book a tasting at St. Francis well before embarking on the trip, and it’s a good thing I did, because they book up fast!  For a standard tasting, guests can walk in with no appointment and approach the bar.  We wanted the full deal, and I booked our lunch tasting months in advance.  Upon booking, I discovered that St. Francis was the highest rated restaurant in all of the USA that year on opentable.com.  I was impressed!  The price was $72 per person, for a five course meal with wine pairings, seating only 16 people at once to facilitate an intimate and personal setting.  For those not interested in a meal, St. Francis offers several other events at which to experience their winery, such as art festivals, concerts, outdoor movie nights, and even an annual Blessing of the Animals.  Information on the wine, winery visits and the event schedule can be found at www.stfranciswinery.com.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards – Sonoma, CA

www.stfranciswinery.com

For more than four decades, St. Francis Winery has consistently produced luscious, elegant, fruit driven wines that best interpret the richness and distinct varietal characteristics of Sonoma County’s unique, diverse terroir.

We arrived at St. Francis early to enjoy the grounds before our tasting began.  We were greeted by a very friendly face, who in realizing we had a while to wait, offered us a complimentary glass of crisp white Sauvignon Blanc to enjoy in the hot weather as we walked the grounds.  It was perfect.

The grounds are big and beautiful, and surrounded by the vineyard.  There are charming benches to sit and relax, a calming fountain, gardens full of flowers in bloom, streams of lights decorating the spaces, and statuesque art acting as centerpiece to a lush lawn area.  The gift shop is full of practical wine tools, artistic home décor pieces, and cute wine themed souvenirs.  The tasting bar is long and grand, with plenty of room for tasters to make their way through their desired flights.

Once it was time for our booking, we were welcomed into the luxurious tasting room.  Our two hosts explained the wine making process, educated us about the grape varietals, and gave tasting notes for each of the 4 wines that went with our dinner courses, and the 5th wine, specially paired with dessert.  In a traditional pairing situation, the food is the star, and the wine is selected to enhance the meal, but at St. Francis, the chef has done the opposite.  He has designed a well thought out menu to showcase the specific taste profiles of each wine, and very successfully so.  He greeted us after the meal to personally answer our questions.

Upon finishing the tasting, my husband and I began to make our selections for purchase.  As participants in the tasting, we were given an additional 15% off of our purchases, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  St. Francis has a large selection of varietals and blends to choose from, and they kindly allowed us to taste some additional wines that hadn’t been a part of our lunch pairing.  We found their prices to be reasonable, and left with a full case of some of our favourites, and a special gift for our friends who introduced us to St. Francis in the first place.

Our visit to St. Francis was a highlight of our trip, and I would recommend the investment of time and money there; it doesn’t disappoint!