Matching food and wine in harmony can be done in two very different ways. We either create balance by matching a wine that shares similar flavor characteristics with the food (called congruent pairing) or we we achieve balance by choosing a wine that has contrasting flavors or compounds.
But, how do you know which flavor profiles to look out for? What about things like tannin and acidity, how do they factor into wine pairing?
Don’t worry! I explain how you can identify great prospective pairings and how you can start getting creative with your own pairing ideas.
1. Understand Food Flavor Profiles
To keep things relatively straight forward, we can break down food flavor into six distinct categories.
These serve as the base for our wine pairing.
Sweet - sweetness is especially important when pairing desserts. A general rule is the wine needs to be sweeter than the food. Otherwise, the wine wil be overwhelmed by the food.
Sweet food also tends to amplify bitterness in wine so you wan to avoid pairing wines that have medium to high tannins with sweet food.
Salt - acidic wines generally do well with salty foods. Sparkling wines are also a great pairing.
Acid - acidity is a common component in wine so congruent pairings are easy to make. The general rule is that the acidity of the wine should at least match the acidity level of the food or the wine will seem flat.
Fat - contrasting pairings are the only option with fatty foods as fat isn’t something that’s found in wine. Acidity and high alcohol go well with fatty food. Tannin also does well with fat so red wines are your friend here.
Spice - it really depends on the style of cooking with spicy food but generally something slightly sweet and light bodied does well.
Bitter - congruent pairings are off the menu here as we don’t want to amplify bitterness. Therefore, contrasting pairings are what we need. Acidity and sweetness both do well with bitter food.
2. Understand How Food Flavor Profiles Relate to Wine
In order to achieve balance by amplifying or contrasting flavor components in food, we need to know how they relate to wine.
We can discount fat, salt, and spice striaght away as they don’t exist in wine (at least none that I’ve tried!).
However, bitter, acid and sweet are tastes that are common in wine.
Acidity is common across the spectrum of wine but it’s generally more common in white, sparkling, and rosé wine. You’ll also find it in reds.
Bitterness is linked to tannin content which makes it a flavor profile only found in red wine.
The sweetest wines tend to be the lower ABV wines that contain more residual sugar. You’ve also got dessert wines. A good rule of thumb with sweetness is to go by alcohol content. Generally speaking, wines get drier with higher ABV (though this isn’t a full-proof rule!).
3. Get Down to Basics
Now, the problem here is that food can rarely just be simplified down to one flavor category.
For example, my favorite food is Thai and there’s a lot going on in most Thai dishes!
Therefore, we should start by identifying the two dominant flavors and base our pairing on these. Once you become more experienced you can expand your range. You’ll find some foods (like Thai) need to match in 4 or 5 flavor categories and that’s a hard thing to do.
4. Consider the Richness
The richness of food is something that needs to be considered too. Richness is generally linked to fat but not always.
The rule here is to match light food with light-bodied wine and rich food with full-bodied wines.
Lighter foods like fish are great with more delicate wines. Rich red meat just loves full-bodied Shiraz.
5. It’s All About the Sauce
Generally speaking, it’s best to pair with the sauce (this is especially true with rich, heavy sauces). Unless you’re an excellent cook that’s able to make a sauce that lets the meat shine that is.
The sauce is usually the dominant flavor on a dish and it’s the easiest component to pair. Match something like a delicate citrus sauce on fish with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
6. If You’re Stuck, Stick with Colors
If you just can’t settle on a pairing, there are a few basic rules that never fail.
White meat = white wine - the acidity of white wine does really well with delicate, white meats like fish and chicken.
Red meat = red wine - tannin found in red wines has the ability to soften meat and fat found in red meats like steak.
7. Try More Wine
The range of different wine available to buy these days is jawdropping. As more grape varietals become popular and winemkaing techniques evolve, so too do our wine pairing options.
The best thing you can do to improve your wine and food pairing is to expand your wine knowledge by having more flavor profiles in the memory bank.
Two blossoming wine regions in 2022 are China and England. Have you tasted an English Pinot Noir or a Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon?