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The Basics To Pairing Your Wines

One of the most common questions I get is “how does one pair wine with food”? And then, “do you choose your food and then the wine, or your wine and then food? Many people believe that they’ll ruin their meal if they make the wrong wine choice. The good news is there is no right or wrong, however there are better choices. With a few simple guidelines, you’ll effortlessly be on your way to true wine and food harmony.


Take, for example, one of the former "rules" of wine and food pairing (that being said, there are no rules, only guidelines) …. “Red wine with meat, white wine with fish or fowl.” Bah Humbug! This may have held true back in the day when our food preparations were more black and white, and simple. The meat and potatoes era; good home cooked food, prepared in a simple manner. Now think of all the different methods of cooking today, combined with delicious layers of flavors from dry rubs, fresh herbs, tapenade style toppings, etc. The game has changed. Red wine with fish? Yes, Yes, and YES! I’ll have Pinot Noir, thank you.


The 4 Steps:


WEIGHT - what is the weight of the dish? Light, medium, full and heavy?

DOMINANT FLAVOR - what is the dominant flavor when you think of the dish?

PREPARATION - in what manner was it cooked?

SAUCE - does the sauce play a major role in the flavor of the dish


Walk through these 4-steps in your mind as you think of the food item and how it may work with a wine selection. See below for examples, and note that these 4 pairing points cross paths over, and over again:


weight of the dish

Select light-bodied wines to pair with lighter food, and fuller-bodied wines to go with heartier, more flavorful dishes. A piece of fish poached in a simple broth would be light, however if you dip that same piece of fish into an egg bath, and then into flour and breadcrumbs, followed by a sauteé in olive oil - that same piece of fish is not light anymore. Your method of preparation has changed the weight of the dish.


dominant flavor

A chicken breast that is sautéed in garlic, olive oil, mushrooms and caramelized onions – what is the dominant flavor? Is it the chicken, or is it the sautéed onions and garlic that caramelize and melt seamlessly into the savory mushrooms? Hint; it’s not the chicken …


Preparation

Is it sautéed, grilled, roasted, or fried? For example, sautéed chicken with a zippy lemon butter sauce will call for a more delicate wine to play off the sauce than a hearty chicken cacciatore with slow cooked tomatoes and Italian herbs. (and note, weight comes into play in this example as well).


Spices n’ sauces

Imagine a chicken breast poached in a light lemon herb sauce. That dish would pair up nicely with a light to medium bodied white, such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. Or, if you drizzle a cream sauce over the chicken, you can easily segway into a fuller bodied white, such as Chardonnay. Prepare your chicken roasted on a bed of root vegetables, and suddenly the flavors are such that it can easily match light to medium bodied reds, such as Pinot Noir, Merlot or Sangiovese (the main grape of Chianti). Grill that same chicken and try it with red Zinfandel or Shiraz (Syrah).


Food & Wine Pairing Cheat Sheet

Putting it all to to work


  • High Acid Foods… such as salads with vinaigrette dressing, or fish served with a squeeze of lemon go well with wines higher in acid (Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Pinot Noir).

  • Bitter and Astringent Foods… such as a kale salad, or a mixed green salad with Kalamata olives, tend to accentuate a wine's bitterness. Complement them with a full-flavored or lightly fruity wine (Chardonnay, or a fruity style of Merlot).

  • Classic Grilled Meats… grilled steak or lamb chops like big red wines (Cabernet, Zinfandel, and Shiraz/Syrah). Note in this case that the fat in the meat will tone down the tannin (bitterness) in the wine.

  • Hot/Spicy Foods… try with a lower alcohol wine with a bit of residual sugar, as it calms down the heat in the dish. Alcohol accentuates the oils that make spicy food hot. When pairing with dishes with a good amount of heat, look for wines that are low in alcohol with a touch of sweetness, which helps to counter spiciness too. (Riesling, Moscato d’Asti, Gewurtztraminer).

Food and Wine Pairing … a subject that tends to be intimidating, yet it can be so much fun if you allow it to be. Follow the guidelines, let your palate and taste buds be the judge and jury. And don’t forget to take chances on your pairings. After all, some of the most fun I’ve ever had was coloring outside the box!


Food and Wine Pairing Basics

By Lisa Ribaudo

Certified Sommelier, CSW, CSS


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