The truth is, says Josiah Kahiu, that there are not many wine choices that will actually ruin a meal (except all-round bad wine of course). That said, a good wine selection can raise the experience of a meal from enjoyable to memorable. When pairing food and wine, our aim is to achieve a balance between what we eat, and the wine we drink with it.
When choosing which wine to go with your food, remember to keep the mirror and contrast rule in mind. When we talk about mirroring or contrasting, we are talking about complementary or opposing pairings. Mirroring is choosing wines that have the same characteristics as the food and contrasting refers to wines that are diametrically different in taste and or mouthfeel.
To make things easier for you, here is a quick guide on some basic pairing elements that will help make your next dinner party a memorable experience.
When we talk about texture, we are talking about the mouthfeel. This is the tactile sensation that reaches every corner of your mouth. Thus a full-bodied bold wine, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, has more texture compared to a more delicate wine such as a Pinot Noir. A Cabernet Sauvignon will go best with a rich and hearty stew, while a Pinot Noir will combine better with a lighter chicken meal. Simply put, bold to bold, delicate to delicate.
Salt, Bitterness and Bubbles
Effervescence or bubbles in wine are a very important factor. First, they lessen the effects of salty foods and more importantly, they create a cleansing effect on the palate for foods that have a bitter component. The general rule of thumb is to avoid salty foods with red wine as it increases the bitterness in the wine. While of course we would all love to pair caviar with our champagne, pairing popcorn with our prosecco will do just as well.
Aromatics and Spices
Spices come from roots and bark of plants while herbs come from the leaves. The big component of spices is that they drive flavours and aromas rather than texture. When pairing a hot spicy food with white wine, it is good to look for wines that are dry, low in alcohol and acidity such as Riesling. For red wines and spice, the ideal pair is wines with low tannins, low alcohol and which are fruity such as a Dolcetto. Foods with herbs are much more wine friendly than spicy foods.
This may sound like a kindergarten song but it holds some truth. Foods that have fruity components work well with aromatic wine. Aromatic wines pair well with pork and apple sauce for example, because they are able to match the aromas in the food creating a good balance.
Rich and Fatty
Succulent foods with high fat content such as animal fat or butter require an equally strong structured wine. Full bodied flavoured foods require full bodied flavoured wines. The rich and corpulent structure of the wines stands up well to the structure of the food. Wines with a good tannin content, are softened and rounded out by the richness and fat in the food.
When we think of umami, we think of savoury dishes like parmesan, soy sauce or mushrooms. East Asian people consider umami as the “fifth taste” and it is increasingly a sought after flavour profile in dishes. When paired with a suitable wine, it greatly enhances the overall food experience. Wines that can have an earthy component to them pair well as they combine with the umami flavour in the food.
Sweet wines are not the same thing as fruity wines. Think pannacotta and chocolate desserts rather than passion fruits and pineapples. When pairing a sweet food with sweet wine such as desserts, it is important to consider the level of sweetness in the food. If the level of sweetness in the food is higher than the level of sweetness in the wine, the final effect can be to reduce the overall effect of the wine making it taste dull or causing it to loose character. Great pairing with sweet wines are foods that have not so sweet tendencies such as a fruit tart.
Crisp and Salty
Acidity in wine often works as a great palate cleanser with salty foods. This is because they both work in contrast to each other. The high acidity in wines act as a counterbalance to the acidity in the food. Think of Asian dishes with a salty component to them due to soy sauce. These type of dishes would work well with high acid wines such as Riesling.
In the end, these steps are more guidelines than rules. They are there to help you get an idea and understanding of the different elements when it comes to pairing food and wine. The main thing is to find the balance between your personal preferences and the general set of guidelines mentioned above.