Wine and Food Pairing

What Goes with What and Does it Matter?

Pairing wine with food, or putting it more plainly, choosing the “right” wine for your dinner table is a fearsome dilemma for some people and completely ignored by others. Who is correct? Well, you are. Whether you are on one side of the fence or the other, or not anywhere near a fence but merely sitting down to dinner with a favorite wine, it really is all about you, and what you want to eat and drink.

Why do people get so bent out of shape worrying about what wine to serve? Could it be the intimidating salespeople at the wine shop? Or perhaps the snobbism of many a sommelier? Or could there be something to the concept of wine being an ingredient in your dinner, a spice that can enhance the flavors of your food? Perhaps you already know something about cooking. You know that basil can enhance a dish made with tomatoes. And lemon does wonders for some fish courses. Wine acts in the same way.

You already know not to add garlic to a batch of chocolate cookies, or strawberry jam and marshmallows to your grilled steak. But you may not have the experience with the various flavors and styles of wine to automatically make the same kinds of choices in selecting a wine. Why do people say “You must have a big red wine with a steak” or “Always have a white wine with fish.” You don’t cook that way, by always making the same dish the same way. You don’t need to follow those wine “rules” either.

There are a few guidelines that can help you make your choice of wine though. What you are looking for is a wine that will match textures and tastes with your food, especially the sauce that may dominate the flavors.

You know what happens if you put lots of hot peppers on a delicate dish. All you would taste is the hot peppers. Same with wine. If you had a big red wine with a delicately lemon-scented fish course, you wouldn’t taste the fish. And if you chose a deliciously light white wine with a steak grilled over mesquite, you might as well drink water, since that’s what the wine would taste like. So your wine shouldn’t overwhelm the food, but neither should the food overwhelm the wine.

Let’s take a typical menu from a fine dining restaurant and go over it and try to find a wine that would work with each dish. With each wine selected, we’ll discuss why we think it’s a good choice. Keep in mind that there can be many good choices for each dish, and your taste should guide you more than what is written here.

Appetizers:

Crab cakes

Fresh Asparagus in Lemon Butter Sauce.

Foie gras with raspberry sauce

 

 

Salads:

 

Baby salad greens with grape tomatoes and herb vinaigrette

Arugula salad with pears and blue cheese

Beet salad with brie

 

Entrees:

 

Duck breast in port wine with mushroom polenta

Salmon with citrus cream and spinach

Scallops and Pasta with Pistachio Pesto

Three-Cheese Chicken Enchiladas

Braised short ribs with figs and carrots

Prime Rib with Roasted Garlic Horseradish Crust

Roasted Leg of Lamb with black truffle sauce

Traditional Italian Lasagna

 

 

Crab Cakes

To those people who refuse to drink Chardonnay, we frequently say don’t order the crab cakes. Because Chardonnay, especially those that are rich, buttery, creamy with an underlying refreshing crisp acidity, is the perfect wine for the richness and aromatics of well made crab cakes. But go easy on the oak that can sometimes be overpowering and make you crabbier than the cakes. And, well, if you really don’t like Chardonnay, yes, you can have the crab cakes after all. Try it with a full-bodied Pinot Gris, or if you can find a well made Chenin Blanc (now there’s a grape that needs more respect), such as a Vouvray or Savennieres from France or one from South Africa, you will really enjoy the match. Now if you were to have a nice red pepper coulis added to your dish of crab cakes, who would complain if you served a light Pinot Noir or Sangiovese (the main grape of Chianti)?

Fresh Asparagus in Lemon Butter Sauce.

Everyone says that no wines can hold up to the pungent aroma and taste of asparagus. Everyone is right, except those people who have tried to pair it. We love asparagus, and we love wine. And we love Riesling, that aromatic, crisp, flavorful wine that thrives in cooler climates like Germany, Alsace, New York’s Finger Lakes, and parts of California. Most people assume that Rieslings are sweet. Some are, perhaps most are. But like any wine, the winemaker can choose to make the wine sweet or dry or anywhere in between. And a dry or off-dry (very slightly sweet) Riesling, with its aromas of apples, flowers and spice, has the pungency to match the asparagus and the crispness to stand up to the lemoniness of the sauce.

Foie gras with raspberry sauce

In this case, the raspberry sauce is most likely made with a raspberry vinegar, which would cut the richness of the foie gras. And as unlikely as it sounds, a sweet wine with underlying acidity is a great pairing. In fact, traditionally, a good French Sauternes is served with this dish, and it works with or without the raspberry sauce.

Baby salad greens with grape tomatoes and herb vinaigrette

Vinegar is not a friend to wine, though some salads can be wine-friendly. Try an off-dry Riesling or an herbal Sauvignon Blanc to match the herbs in the dressing. Or a typical Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that appears to already have a splash of lime. If you make a salad at home, use Balsamic Vinegar for a softer and sweeter dressing. Better yet, use lemon juice instead of vinegar and if you can find it, Verjus, which is the juice of unripe wine grapes can add a touch of crispness, elegance and wine-friendliness that adds great flavor to your salads.

Arugula salad with pears and blue cheese

Here’s where an off-dry Viognier shines. Viognier is highly aromatic, redolent of honeysuckle, apricots, and peaches, and can be both crisp and creamy. Just what that blue cheese cries out for. While both pears and blue cheese are frequently perfect with Port, not right here in the salad–save the port for later. Oh, and an off-dry Riesling would work too. But then, it usually does.

Beet salad with brie

Beets have a nice acidity to them, makes it crave a Sauvignon Blanc, or for those who are way ahead of me on wine pairings, a Gruner Veltliner from Austria. But what about the brie? A nice creaminess might call for a Chardonnay, but not with the beets. What would be creamy, crisp, flavorful, rich, and all the things in a nice beet and brie salad. Why, Roussanne, of course. Roussanne is a white variety from the Rhone Valley that is exotic and rich, earthy and citrusy, floral and waxy. Can’t find a Roussanne? Try a white wine from the Rhone Valley in France. Chances are it has Roussanne in it, and even if not, it should work just fine.  And on the subject of Roussanne, try it also with pork and goat cheese.

Duck breast in port wine with mushroom polenta

This dish works very well with a wine that is both earthy and fruity. The earthiness matches the mushroom polenta, and the fruitiness would work extremely well with the port wine reduction sauce. A port itself would be too sweet, but a Pinot Noir from California, preferably Santa Maria or Carneros, is ideal. A Burgundy from the Cotes de Nuits, such as a Chambertin or Nuits St. Georges is another great choice if you wish to splurge on the wine.

Salmon with citrus cream and spinach

Salmon is a full bodied and slightly oily fish. Pinot Noir is usually an excellent match for salmon, but in this case, the citrus cream might fight this lighter style red. A full-bodied chardonnay might possibly work, but only if there was little or no oak and it retained a crispness, not always found in American or Australian Chardonnay. A Sauvignon Blanc is rarely oaked, and has the crisp acidity needed, but perhaps might be a bit light for the full flavor of the salmon.  Pinot Gris can have floral and mineral characteristics as well as flavors of citrus, butter and nuts. It can be slightly tangy with a honeyed finish. As it is usually full-bodied and rich, it seems ideal for this particular dish.

Scallops and Pasta with Pistachio Pesto

Here a light aromatic white would work since scallops are delicate, and pistachios are aromatic. Greco di Tufo, a light Italian white with graceful fruit aromas, such as pear and apricot. It has a refreshing crispness to it and a nutlike finish. But it is not as easy to find as a Viognier, a wine with similar characteristics and grown in many areas of California as well as France and South America.

Three-Cheese Chicken Enchiladas

Now everyone knows that you don’t drink wine with Mexican food. Even the Tex-Mex style. Well, everyone never had a Petite Sirah, a hearty brawny red that can even stand up to a bowl of chili. And if the enchiladas aren’t all that spicy, yet still have the zest you associate with Mexican food, try a Tempranillo from the Rioja region of Spain. Its fruity quality will work with the cheese, the chicken, and the sauce.

Braised short ribs with figs and carrots

Don’t bother with a gentle and elegant European style wine. Go for the gold with a big jammy Syrah that has gobs of lush fruit like the wine you find in Paso Robles, California. The aromatics of blackberry, blueberry, cocoa and cherry work so well with the intensity of the figs and carrots. There is a meatiness to a big Syrah that makes it almost taste braised in itself. A rich plumy Merlot will work well too here, especially one from the Napa Valley. And for all you Zinfandel lovers, nearly any of them will do, as a ripe Zinfandel can offer aromas of red and black fruits, chocolate, raspberries, and pepper. Paso Robles, Sierra Foothills, and Lodi are three of the great Zinfandel areas of California. These wines have so much fruit and flavor packed in them, that they may seem to taste sweet, even though they are dry.

Prime Rib with Roasted Garlic Horseradish Crust

Can you think of a wine that is big, intense, full of the stuff it takes to hold up to a great Prime Rib especially one with garlic and horseradish? If you said “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” you get extra dessert (provided you eat all your vegetables). A French Bordeaux from Pauillac is also great with this dish, though watch out for the tannins in a very young version. Look for a few years of age in the wine where the tannins have softened. Or perhaps go for a Sonoma Cabernet that has some Merlot which is frequently blended to provide added “softness” to the wine.

Roasted Leg of Lamb with black truffle sauce

Syrah again, though this one might be a bit less in the fruity jammy style you find it hot climates like Paso Robles, and go for a cooler climate Syrah, such as those found in Santa Barbara County, California or the Northern Rhone, where an Hermitage or Cote Rotie got its reputation as being the ideal choice with lamb. The wines from the Rhone are smoky, earthy, with aromas of mushrooms and, yes, truffles.

Traditional Italian Lasagna

Tomatoes and tomato sauce are high in acidity with a great fruity quality to them. Is it any wonder that Southern Italian cuisine, the “red sauce” Italian is a perfect match with Chianti? And the great grape of Tuscany, of which Chianti is a part, is Sangiovese. High acidity (but not puckeringly high) and the sweet fruit of this grape are why it works so well. Some California Sangiovese can work too, but if you have a good Italian marketplace, check out some of the better Chianti (avoid the bottles covered in straw), and its high-toned brother, Chianti Classico. For a special treat go with a Brunello di Montalcino.

Desserts

By the time dessert is served, people may have had enough wine. Maybe all they want is coffee, or perhaps just the dessert.

But perhaps not. And dessert wines (i.e., sweeter wines) can work brilliantly either with a dessert or all by itself.

What foods with what wines? Again, these are suggestions. Experiment. Trust your palate. And explain to customers having dinner why you think these might work. Keep in mind that while what the customer wants is ultimately more important (he is paying the bill), offering suggestions is usually appreciated. For the below suggestions, these are general suggestions, not every wine of a particular type will pair with all the foods shown to work. Much depends on the region and winemaker. And your palate. Don’t assume that “experts” know what you or your customers should drink. Everyone is an “expert” in their own palate. But the key is to keep trying new wines and learn more about what a wine has to offer when paired with a dish.

  1. Sauvignon Blanc. (White) Herbal, grassy, sometimes citrusy, depending on the style of the wine. Goes well with foods with some zip to it, e.g., a lemony dish or even a salad without too much vinegar. Additional wines that could fit into this category are Verdejo, Albarino (Spanish varieties, also grown in Califronia), and Gruner Veltliner, popular in Austria.
  2. Pinot Grigio (White) A delicate white that works well with delicate sauces for chicken and fish. This wine is also called Pinot Gris, but the style for these wines are less delicate. They work with the same foods, though.
  3. Riesling (White) People assume Rieslings are sweet. They can be and frequently are, but like any grape, it can be made in a sweet, dry or in-between style. The fermentation process where the sugars in the grape become alcohol can be stopped resulting in more sweetness and less alcohol. Rieslings that are slightly sweet work very well with spicy Asian dishes. Another grape that works well here is called Gewurztraminer. This has a far more aromatic quality than Riesling, but again, if not too dry works well with spicy Asian and Indian food.
  4. Chardonnay (White) The most popular white of all. Many styles, from a lean almost Sauvignon Blanc style to a rich, fat, buttery and oaky style. So you would need to know exactly what the Chardonnay tastes like in order to pair it well. If lean, go with what works with Sauvignon Blanc. If fat and buttery, pair with fish and chicken that are in cream sauces. It works very well with Salmon.
  5. Sparkling Wine or Champagne (Usually White but can be Rose or (rarely) red.) There are lean styles and richer styles. And sweeter styles too. The bubbles make the wine more festive and fun and this is why people say they pair with all foods. And they may. But you can also do a great pairing if the style of the sparkling wine matches the foods that a similar style white wine would pair with.
  6. Rose wines (Pink) These are closer to white wines in style and taste, yet can offer more aromatics than whites (though not all do). The more aromatic and lush texture that a Rose wine might have, the more deeply flavored a dish can have to pair well with it.
  7. Pinot Noir (Red) A lighter style red (though this can vary), soft and luxurious on the palate. Pairs with lighter foods, though not very delicate ones. Salmon is ideal for many Pinots, and pork does well with fuller-bodied styles. Many people who say they do not like red wines may very well like a good light and aromatic Pinot Noir. A wine similar in texture is Beaujolais where the grape variety is Gamay.
  8. Cabernet Sauvignon (Red) The king of wines. The most famous red grape and some of the world’s best wines. Can be harsh when young, though (not all are). There can be roughness to the mouthfeel of this wine (tannins) but they can be modified by having a grilled steak. The fat in the steak coats the tongue and lessens the impact of the tannins. And older Cabernet can lose the tannin and become complex with many flavors and aromas appearing. Another Cabernet variety is called Cabernet Franc.
  9. Zinfandel (Red). Zinfandel is a red grape. Yes, there is a White Zinfandel wine, but the grape itself is red. A winemaker can make a white wine from almost any red grape, because the flesh of most grapes is white (including Cabernet Sauvignon). The color comes from the skins. So a White Zinfandel is not allowed to ferment with the skins. Some skin color may appear in the juice which is why many look pink. Zinfandels are big, bold wines, that can be peppery and spicy. Perhaps a touch sweet too. A perfect wine for barbecues. Zinfandel can also be called Primitivo, though you might only see this name on Italian wines from this grape.
  10. Syrah (Red). Also called Shiraz, and these can have similar textures to both Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Grown in a cool climate they become spicy and peppery. In a warm climate, they can be jammy and slightly sweet. Works well with steaks, pork, lamb, and are much less expensive than Cabernet Sauvignons for similar quality.

 

There are many, many more grape varieties (many hundreds), but these are the most popular. There are thousands of grape varieties. Not all make great wine, but many lesser known grapes produce really good wines that are not expensive. If you or your customers are adventurous, you can greatly enjoy the ride.

So you can be creative and experiment. If you understand what types of wines work with what types of dishes, and also understand that just as no two cooks will make the same dish in the same way, no two wines are alike. The difference between two similar wines may be just the thing that will make your wine and food pairing a perfect match.