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Pairing Food and Wine

Once a month, I join a group of friends at a restaurant for a night of catching up and looking forward. After the small talk, the group typically leaves the wine ordering up to me. I peruse the restaurant’s list after we have placed our entrée orders. The most recent group outing took us to a seafood restaurant that is known for its fresh fish and shellfish. Despite that almost everyone at the table ordered the catch of the day, I went against conventional wisdom and asked the server to bring two different red wine varietals to pair with our meals. I did not receive any dirty looks or a rebuke from our server for pairing red wine with seafood. In fact, our server said, “Excellent choice, sir.”

The days of snooty waiters raising their brows and friends making dumfounded expressions over wine selections are long gone. No longer does the traditional pairing of wine and food apply. White wines no longer pair exclusively with seafood and red wines no longer pair exclusively with red meats. The reasons for the fallen wine and food pairing barriers involve two factors. First, winemakers have introduced myriad ways to alter wine production. From malolactic fermentation to sur lie aging, winemakers change the acid, sugar, and flavor profiles of fermented grapes. Second, winemakers have changed the way they age certain varietals. For instance, many chardonnays are now aged in stainless steel vats.

This brings us back to my recent wine and food pairing. I ordered the wines not by varietal, but by the characteristics of each wine. Pairing food and wine is all about following a few simple guidelines.

Meal Characteristics

What came first, the wine or the food? Obviously, you need to create the menu before you can choose wines to pair with each course. Once you draft a rough menu, review each course and ask some questions. Is the dish mild or does it possess bold flavors? Is the protein lean or fatty? Is the sauce acidic or rich? Are there any dominating flavor characteristics that require that you choose a varietal? Do not put the cart before the horse. Create the menu and then select the wine(s).

Flavor Balance

A general rule of thumb is to match mild foods with mild wines and strong flavor foods with bolder wines. The reason for this is that you do not want to overwhelm the food or wine. For instance, the chef prepared the catch of the day in a very spicy Thai sauce. Therefore, for one of the red wine selections, I went with a Zinfandel that possessed spicy, peppery notes. In addition, match rich wines with rich proteins and/or sauces. For instance, duck contains enough fat to go well with a number or rich wines, including oak aged chardonnays.

Cleansing the Palate

If you have ever been to a wine tasting, you noticed the participants cleansed their palates with water after tasting each wine. To cleanse the palate with wine means choosing white wine varietals and vintages that possess enough acid to refresh the tongue’s taste sensors. Rich, fatty dishes require acidic wines that cleanse the palate. Red wines also accomplish palate cleansing through tannins. Highly tannic red wines will cut through the fat of a ribeye and the richness of a beurre blanc.

More on Acids

Dishes that contain acidic components, such as a lemon-garlic sauce or citrus vinaigrette, require wines that possess high acidic content. Pinot Grigios and Sauvignon Blancs work well with tomato based sauces and citrus fruits. Acid forms as a natural derivative of the fermentation process and a vital component of a wine’s profile.  Conversely, acidic wines can overwhelm less flavorful sauces and proteins.

Strong Spices

The introduction of southeastern Asian and South American cuisines means we are enjoying dishes that can bring the heat. Zinfandel is just one varietal to pair with spicy foods. Many Gewürztraminers and Rieslings possess strong spicy aromas and flavors. Moreover, neither white wine varietal contains tannins that cause the mouth puckering sensation. Many Indian and Thai restaurants now stock both white wine varietals.


Most people prefer to match heartier foods, such as stews and steaks with fuller bodied red wines. Conversely, lighter foods, such as chicken stir fry seems to go better with lighter bodied white wines. Matching food and wine encompasses more than matching flavor and acidity profiles. Weight places a large role in determining wine and food pairing harmony.

Holiday Wine Pairings

One of the biggest myths promulgated by wine experts is to never pair sweet wines with dinner courses. Their contention is that sweet wines destroy food flavors. However, we drink sweet tea with dinner, as well as lemonade and soft drinks. Once again, the secret to pairing sweet wines with food lies in balance. Acidic sweet wines can complement many seafood and poultry dishes. White Zinfandels are an excellent choice to pair with many holiday meals. Moreover, consider pairing Merlot with cranberry sauce and Pinot Noir with turkey and dressing.

With the holidays approaching, we will have many opportunities to bring wine to a dinner or office party. By following a few simple guidelines, you can make the best wine choices to pair with food. Just remember to create the menu first, before you decide what wines to pair with each dinner course. Above all, pairing food and wine should involve personal preference. The wines that you typically enjoy without food will work as well when you pair them with virtually any type of cuisine.