Wine and Food Matching
Wine and food matching is the process of pairing a food with complementary flavors, aromas, and textures found in wine. It can be a nuanced art and the life-long study of oenophiles and sommeliers. In very up-scale dining situations, it is not uncommon for each dish in a multi-course meal to be matched with a different wine. While individual taste certainly plays a large role in wine and food pairing, there are traditionally accepted guidelines. However, it is worth noting that a well-selected, non-traditional pairing can bring an unexpected or exciting new dimension to a meal.
Perhaps the most basic guideline, familiar to even wine novices, is, “red with red and white with white”. It says that, as a guiding heuristic, white wine should be served with white-fleshed meats (fish, chicken, etc.) and red wine served with beef, lamb, and other red meats. While “sound” advice, it is an oversimplification. In fact, many dishes, including pork, salmon, duck, and turkey, can be successfully paired with red or white wine.
This advice is only a starting point, as each fish or meat can be prepared in a variety of ways calling for different wines. Fish poached in red wine for example, will be better matched with a light red than with many whites. This leads to a second guideline that if the cuisine has a strong character 'matching to the sauce, not the protein' can be the best approach.
A useful perspective is to match the food of a country or region with wines also from that country or region. Most Italian wines will match well with pizza, pasta or risotto, for example, if the dishes are prepared according to traditional recipes. And the contrary is also relevant: a French wine from Bordeaux, for example, may not sit comfortably alongside dishes incorporating olive oil or spices, ingredients alien to Bordeaux's indigenous cuisine.
Successful matching is an art learned over time and it can be an intimidating topic for a novice to enter into. Building up familiarity with common wine varietals (“types”) and their flavor components is probably the easiest way approach the subject. A particular wine’s composition, be it a varietal or blend, is usually easily identified from the label of a so-called New World wine. The situation can be more complex with an Old World (European) wine; a working knowledge of European wine-growing regions and the wines varieties associated with them is essential.
Matching for Body
Usually the most important aspect of food and wine matching is matching the body, or the overall intensity or “power” of the wine. The body of the wine is ideally matched to the intensity of flavors in the food. For example, a Pinot Noir’s subtlety might very well be lost in a dish of red meat with a rich sauce. Likewise, a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon might overwhelm a light dish.
- Common low-spice white wine varietals, from light to full bodied: Riesling, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
- Common low-spice red wine varietals, from light to full bodied: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon
Matching for Spice
If a dish is highly fragrant or spiced (not to be confused with flavorful), choosing a wine with elements of spice is often advised. Conversely, a high-spice wine is perhaps best avoided should the dish being matched be subtle in its seasoning. Spicy wines are often a good option when matching dishes stemming from historically non-wine growing cultures. Examples include Thai, Mexican, Indian, and Chinese cuisines.
- Common high-spice white varietals: Gewürztraminer (Gewürz being the German word for “spice”), Pinot Grigio.
- Common high-spice red varietals: Tempranillo, Malbec, Shiraz/Syrah, Zinfandel
Wine for Spice puts forward a contrary Yin and Yang perspective for Matching Wine with Spicy Food and suggests contrasting the spiciness of the dish with a refreshing drink - so no red wines and no "spicy" wines.
The view is that appropriate wines can be summed up in one word - refreshing - a refreshing alternative to a cold gas injected lager the usual drink with curry and spicy food.
First, the wines are all naturally semi-sparkling wine or Frizzante through second fermentation. Carbon dioxide enhances taste and adds natural acidity when dissolved thereby adds to the mouth watering feel. But a fully sparkling wine or beer has too much gas and lager has gas injected producing large bubbles leading to bloating with food.
Second, the wines are to be drunk cool to ice-bucket cold – So thirst quenching like a cold lager.
Third, a refreshing wine also should have a good level of mouth-watering acidity. Think lemon juice – the classic Indian “Nimboo Pani”.
Fourth, avoid mouth-drying tannin. Furthermore, tannin in both wine and tea is exaggerated at low temperatures. In the same way tannin in wine can be softened through a vinous equivalent of milk and sugar by the addition of a buttery wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation and a sweet wine.
Fifth, the wines are also free from oak chips, which clashes with spices such as cumin, coriander and ginger giving a bitter, harsh after-taste.
Sixth, moderate alcohol; a good degree of alcohol is required to provide body but excess alcohol over 12.5% can add to the burning sensation of chilies. To test this take a sip of vodka before and after biting into a chili to feel this.
Seventh, aromatics, fruitiness and sweetness of wine in the range rise in relation to the chilli heat of the accompanying dish. This is based on the traditional trick of adding some sugar to an over-hot curry. Suck on a sweet before and after biting into a chilli to feel this. But unlike some wines such as 100% Gewürztraminer or Muscat which can be over-aromatic and too flowery and sickly after a glass, all of these blended wines are designed to be balanced with grapes providing natural acidity.
Matching for Fruit
Many wines contain a pronounced fruit component, be it in aroma (“nose”) or taste. The element of fruit in a wine can often improve a pairing, enhancing or melding with whatever fruit flavors may be found in the food to be matched. Even if the dish contains no fruit, the fruit component in a wine may naturally pair with the dish. In this situation, it is sometime helpful to ask, “Which type of fruit would I serve with this dish?” as a guide.
For white wines, common fruit flavors are familiar to most tasters:
- Tart fruit (pears, apples, …) best grow in cool weather region
- Citrus fruits (lemon, orange, …) best grow in temperate weather region
- Luscious fruits (melon, mango, …) best grow warm weather regions
After answering these question, look to match with a wine from a region with similar weather conditions as the fruit component you want emphasize. For example, if one would like to accent an apple flavor in dish, a wine from relatively cool wine-growing regions (like Alsace, France; Germany; or New York State). Conversely, a dish with a topical mango salsa might pair excellently with a wine from a warmer wine-growing region.
Red wines’ primary fruit components are generally cherry, blackberry, and blackcurrants, flavors often less familiar to tasters. This makes it generally more difficult to make a meaningful “match”. Still, if one wishes to emphasize the “fruitiness” of a dish, a red wine with high fruit aromas and flavors is recommended.
More refined pairings can be realized by consider other elements of wines’ composition:
- Some wines (mostly white) are referred to as grassy or herbaceous, with a pronounced smell of grass or herbs (often tarragon) on the nose. This may add a desired element to a dish to be matched. Sauvignon Blanc wines are often grassy.
- Butter, often associated with Chardonnay, is used to describe a “creaminess” that can be left on the palate, similar in sensation to drinking a dairy product. This can be exploited to enhance the richness of a dish.
- Oak or wood refers to the amount of woody flavors that come across in a wine (consider the taste of sucking on a wooden Popsicle stick), typically the result of aging wine in wooden barrels. The amount of oak in wine can vary greatly from producer to producer and may or may not being an element you wish to accent. Oak tends to be more pronounced in Old World Wines.
Other flavors sometimes associated with wine that can be exploited are mineral, acid, and floral components.
As the consumer market for wines that match with certain ethnic food grows, wineries are seeking to create wines to fill those particular niches. An example is the English Balti wine created to compliment the spicy curry dish served in Anglo-Indian cuisine.