Introduction to Pairing Food with Wine

Wine has been a part of Western culture for many thousands of years. In fact, for the majority of that time (until the late-19th century) it was safer to drink than most water, and it frequently tasted better as well. Wine is the result of a natural process – alcoholic fermentation of ripe fruit, typically grapes – and is ultimately an agricultural product, like good food. Though contemporary American culture embraces wine as an alcoholic beverage on par with beer or cocktails, wine’s true historical place is at the table with food (still the norm in most of the “old world”).

Most of us were introduced to wine and food pairing through the rules “red with meat, white with fish and chicken”, which we accepted for their simplicity and ease of application. Problem is, the market for wine was far less complex back then – as was the market for food. Our options have grown, our palates have developed, or world has expanded, so should our thinking about wine and food pairing. So, for starters we recommend you forget the old rules and consider flavors instead. Here are a few starter points to work from…

  1. Some dishes are full-bodied, some are light – what makes the difference? Hint: it’s not the main protein… it’s the flavors – from the sides, the sauces, and the cooking technique (there’s a big flavor difference between barbecuing chicken and poaching it).  Serve “like with like” – find a wine that matches the body of the dish.
  2. Wine, like so many flavorful foods, is full of acidity (tartness) – this carries the flavors and aromas straight to your eager taste buds. When paired with and equally acidic (tart, tangy) food, they will both seem LESS so. Usually, this is a good thing. But, if there’s not enough tartness in one or the other to begin with, flavors lose their balance and fall flat.
  3. Salty foods taste less so with tart wines. Tart wines taste less so with salty foods. Balance.
  4. If you eat something sweet then drink something that is not as sweet, it will taste more sour and bitter. Think: brushing your teeth then drinking orange juice. Better if the amount of sweetness is in balance.
  5. Sweet tames spicy. If you like spicy foods you will probably appreciate a wine with a bit of off-dry sweetness. Sweet makes salty taste good too.

A few helpful vocabulary words:

  • ABV: Alcohol by volume (usually 9% to 17%, from low to high, for table wine).
  • Astringent: Makes your mouth feel dry (like grapefruit juice can).
  • Dry: No residual sugar; not sweet at all; all the sugar has been fermented into alcohol.
  • Off-dry: Some residual sugar.
  • Sweet: Sugary sweetness… dessert wines are often as much as 50-60% sugar.
  • Tannins: Physical substance found in red wine that gives a very distinct mouthfeel; extracted from skins, seeds, etc. during the fermentation process. They can be characterized as “harsh” through “soft” or “round”; they dissipate as a wine ages. They are not found in white wines.
  • Oak: Wines are often fermented and/or aged in oak barrels, or may be exposed to the wood in some way during the production process. The only “ingredient” other than grapes and yeast allowed in the winemaking process. Oak is most common; other types of wood are occasionally used. Oak flavor characteristics include: vanilla, wood, smoke, sweet spices, nuttiness.
  • Old World: Europe.
  • New World: Everywhere else.