Great Food & Wine Pairings
Planning a formal dinner party or casual get-together isn’t nearly as hard as you may think. Don’t worry about obeying any hard and fast laws of food and wine compatibility: just learn a little something about the nature of each wine variety and keep one simple guideline in mind: Match the wine with the sauce, or with the dominant flavor of the dish.
Don’t forget about serving your wine of choice in correct wine glasses.
Here’s a simple example: If your chicken recipe uses a lemony/buttery/creamy sauce, serve white wine. If it’s a cacciatore or parmesan with robust tomato sauce, serve red wine, because in either case, what you taste most is the sauce and not the chicken.
Ditto the whole “white wine with fish” thing. If the fish is a delicate stuffed sole or scallop, white wine would be great. But if you’re doing salmon with a hoisin glaze, pinot noir will be a big hit. You can skip all the educational stuff and use the links below to jump right to the food items you plan to serve.
But you may want a little information about what makes certain wines the best match for certain foods.
Ever wondered why everyone says, “Red wine with meat, white wine with fish?” Red wines have a substance in their skins and seeds called tannins, which give a wine age-ability but also impart that drying, “bitter” component to reds.
Tannin also clashes terribly with fish and seafood: it brings out that nasty metallic, “fishy” taste. Fish is also traditionally prepared with lemony/buttery/creamy sauces whose relatively delicate flavors are overpowered by most red wines. So white wine was considered the safe choice until recently.
A hot new trend is to serve salmon with pinot noir, and it works beautifully. The salmon has a more robust flavor than other fish, and it’s often prepared with ingredients such as soy sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, or pesto. Now enter pinot noir: it has almost no tannic structure, and a soft, velvety style that’s a perfect foil to the fish. So don’t be afraid to experiment and risk breaking a few “rules.”
Wine on the Hoof
That tannin we just mentioned may wreck havoc with fish, but with red meat it’s the match made in heaven. The fat in red meat tones down the dry sensation, while the tannin gives enough structure to stand up to the this heavy protein. Of all the red grapes, cabernet sauvignon contains the most tannin, so that makes a big grilled steak and glass of California cab a food/wine pairing to die for.
Sweets for the Sweet
Dessert is no time to stop the wine service. In fact, you can win your guests’ undying admiration by serving the simplest dessert ever: red wine and chocolate. The guideline here is very simple: keep your wine just a little sweeter than your dessert. Even “dry” wines can work, like chunks of bittersweet chocolate (or dark chocolate/raspberry) served with a glass of cabernet.
If you want to serve a true dessert wine, ice wine or late-harvest Riesling is luscious with tiramisu or cheesecake, and any kind of chocolate cake is decadent with reserve or late-bottled vintage port. For tawny port, something like crème brûlée or caramel anything will be a huge hit. Are you hungry yet?
On the Lighter Side – Appetizers, Salads, and Brunches
The right wine can start your evening off with a bang. Aperitif wines should perk up your palate to prepare you for the goodies to follow, so crisp, snappy whites such as pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc are best, or if you want to be more exotic, French sancerre, Alsatian gewürztraminer, or Italian gavi. They all work well with most finger foods or can even be sipped solo.
If you want to go way out on a limb with American guests, try our favorite aperitif wine – a crisp sparkling wine from California or New Mexico (really!). A cold glass of bubbly is the absolute best accompaniment to smoked salmon or soft cheeses.
As for salads, they can be notoriously difficult to pair with wine because the vinegar used in most dressings makes almost any wine taste sour. Try a white with lots of acid (to match the acid in the dressing), such as sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio or pinot blanc.
Speaking of Cheeses…
Here’s a simple guideline, and its even color-coded! Orange cheeses are usually full-flavored and tangy, and match best with red wines. Soft white cheeses are creamy and go best with white wines. Easy, right? For advanced cheese pairing, think of the “moldy” ones such as bleu or stilton – you can go all the way to port to find a wine bold enough for their pungent flavor.