Everyone always talks about which wine goes best with a particular dish they’re serving at home or ordering at a restaurant. But how do they know? Well, you could memorize a long list of which wines go with which foods. But if you understand why the wines pair well with some things and not others, then you’ll be able to make your own determinations along the way, without consulting any lists.
Keep in mind that some wines are meant to be enjoyed by themselves. There is a wide selection of bottles out there, though, that are intended to be consumed with food. The aromas, acidity, flavors, and tannins in a wine will either complement, accentuate, or contrast pleasantly with the tastes, smells, and textures of certain foods. There are no hard and fast rules, and you’re welcome to experiment to see what works for you. Some old adages, like only white wine with fish, are helpful guidelines for the uninitiated, but you can find some excellent red wine pairings with fish if you know what you’re doing (hint: try a rose with salmon).
So in lieu of hard and fast rules, here are some helpful tips and guidelines:
Region to Region: Wine traditionally made in a certain region is meant to be paired with food from that region. Chianti is a wine from the Tuscany region of Italy. It pairs best with food from the Tuscany region of Italy (e.g. minestrone, steak Florentine, pappardelle, etc.). Rioja wine from Spain pairs well with northern Spanish cuisine, such as tapas, roasted vegetables, and lamb. This also applies to Texas: Texas winemakers produce bottles that go great with chicken fried steak, smoked brisket, chili, tamales, and Tex-Mex.
Sweet, fruity, and acidic to spicy: Wines that are sweet or fruity will pair well with spicy foods. This is particularly true if the wine has a pleasant acid component. Wines in this category include Viognier, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Vinho Verde, Pinot Noir, Albarino, Blanc du Bois, or Moscato. You may be surprised how well these choices stand up to Chinese, Thai, Indian, or Southwestern cuisine. Another option with spicy food is a sparkling wine; too often, people think of sparkling wine only in conjunction with a special celebration. Well, drinking wine is always a celebration, so don’t hesitate to break out a cava, prosecco, or Messina Hof Sparkling Moscato next time you have Asian food.
Soft and smooth to salty: Wines that are soft and fruity, with low tannins, will balance any particularly salty foods. We’re talking about wines like Beaujolais, Cinsault, Carignan, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, or Rousanne. This will complement some salty oysters, pomme frites, bacon, pretzels, or sushi.
Medium body and alcohol to acid and texture: Wines that are in the middle of the spectrum, with medium alcohol levels and medium tannins, are perfect for complementing foods that have acid and texture. These would be foods like tomato sauce, citrus glazes, espresso rubs, or tangy barbecue. Some good choices here would be Sangiovese, Barbera, Grenache, Mourvedre, Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Malbec, and Merlot. A good Burgundy blend would be excellent here as well.
Tannins to fat: When you have foods with a prominent fat component, then you’ll want to pair them with wines that have a lot of bold, full tannins. The classic example is Cabernet Sauvignon, and other popular choices are Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Bordeaux blends, and aged Rioja wines. A few of the oakiest, fullest-bodied Chardonnays may work here as well, depending on the food (think cheese instead of steak). An important point to remember is that these tannic wines should not be paired with any foods that are particularly acidic or spicy. This is a bad combination that will wreak havoc with your gustatory experience.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. I recently discovered the joys of pairing a Portuguese Vinho Verde with a sauerkraut-topped hot dog, because I was willing to take the leap of faith that the acidity and effervescence of the wine would balance the tanginess of the kraut and relish. You might consider keeping a journal of your wine & food combinations so you can track your success.