Finding a great food and wine pairing is one of those truly joyful moments in life: a sip of thrillingly citrusy fizz to wash down fish and chips; the perfect strawberry-scented, leather-tinged Rioja for a lamb roast; earthy mushrooms elevated to heavenly status by an ethereal glass of pinot noir…
The best bit is that a large part of pairing food and wine successfully comes down to going with your instinct. If you love washing down twiglets with Grand Marques Champagne in the privacy of your own home, then who are we to judge? However, we do have a few tips on food and wine matching that are helpful if you want to avoid expensive mistakes, or have yet to experience that magical feeling of smugness when you’re handed the wine list in a restaurant. Read on for our guide to the basics of wine and food matching, or take a quick look at our visual guide.
It’s all about balance
If you don’t remember anything else about matching food and wine, remember this: balance (of flavours, body and alcohol) is key.
Think of wine as a sauce. You probably wouldn’t drizzle an unctuous meat gravy over a fillet of lemon sole, because the boldness of the sauce would overpower the delicacy of the fish. Similarly, a delicate herb-flecked white wine sauce would be lost on a charred hunk of steak because the richness of the fat and seared meat would overpower the delicate flavours. Try matching full-bodied wines, with relatively high alcohol to full-flavoured dishes; lighter, less alcoholic styles, suit more subtle flavours.
Let’s say you’re serving up a charcuterie board with lots of creamy feta or manchego, prosciutto and anchovies; all of these elements have a very salty element to them. Salt is a harmonising food component because it tends to emphasise richness, body and pure fruit flavours in your wine and mellows out any harsh tannins. This means you could go two ways with your wine match.
Choose a boldly tannic wine such as Barolo, Chianti or cabernet sauvignon-based wines which will be balanced by the harmonising saltiness of your food, or;
Go for a fruity acidic wine such as a riesling or sauvignon blanc as the salt will add to the sensation of body and fullness in the wine while the zinginess of the wine will complement the saltiness of the food. Think saline-tinged oysters paired with steely Chablis.
Acidity in food is a double-edged sword when it comes to wine matching. On one hand it can be a bit of a nightmare, as competing sharpness in a vinegar-based dressing, lemon juice or even tomatoes can make your wine seem lacking in vibrancy or a bit ‘flat’. On the plus side, a bit of pep in your food can help bring a wine back from the brink of being just too acidic to handle, as acidic food can make wines seem fuller and more fruity. Acid in food is balanced or cancelled by that in the wine, so it’s important to make sure that you match the levels in both carefully.
Play it safe by making sure your food is paired with a wine that is more acidic than the flavours in your dish. That way you won’t lose the zip of your wine, and the competing acidic elements won’t overpower each other. The best wines for pairing with acidic foods are Champagne, dry riesling (Eden and Clare Valley in Australia are famous for their particularly mouth-puckering examples), sauvignon blanc, gavi, albarinho/alvarinho and English white wines. For reds try a cool-climate pinot noir or valpolicella.
Alternatively a super-fruity red (such as zinfandel, primitivo or grenache) can work really well with the sweet- sour elements at play in tomato-based recipes.
‘Eat something hot and try to wash it down with a fruity red and…well, have fun with that! It’s like putting fuel on the flames’, says German winemaking aficionado Konstantin Guntrum. It’s true that riotous chilli or bold spice can run roughshod over a dry white wine as there are too many flavour elements jostling for place. Plus alcohol increases the perception of alcohol burn, so bear that in mind and try going with something a little more modest in alcohol.
If you’re a sadist and love to ramp up the burn factor factor then go ahead and pair a hot dish with a high alcohol/high tannin red. If you’d rather tone down the spice, then avoid tannic or oaky reds or whites and head for something with a hint or more of sweetness. Rich, off-dry pinot gris, riesling or sumptuously spiced gewürztraminer make a great choice, as do off-dry rosés.
Mildly spiced foods, such as a tagine, will taste great with a full-bodied red such as Chilean carmenére, a Spanish garnacha or a full-throttle fruity number from Portugal’s Douro region.
Creamy, buttery or oily food
Lusciously buttery or creamy sauces taste delicious matched like-for-like with a lusciously rich and buttery wine. Think white Burgundy, new world chardonnay or a rich Rhône blend of roussanne, marsanne and viognier. White Rioja with its plush texture and succulent fruit is another winner for subtly cheesy sauces. Alternatively you could try a brisk, acidic white to cut through the creaminess and cleanse your palate between mouthfuls.
Opposites attract when it comes to deep-fried foods, such as fish and chips, fried chicken or bhajis, pakoras and samosas. They’ll love the cut of a whip-sharp white or bubbly to counteract the oiliness. Champagne, Cava or Crémant de Loire will do the trick, slicing through fattiness and matching the crunch of the batter or breadcrumbs, as will a sauvignon blanc or riesling.
A young, juicy, tannic red can also work well with rich, carby comfort food as tannins perform a similar role to acidity, counteracting the mouth-coating properties of the food. Any of Italy’s brisk red-fruited styles would work, or maybe try a Bordeaux-style blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
What's a leather belt got to do with umami, you might ask. Well, it's representative of undefinable meaty, savouriness of these foods (also, you try drawing 'umami' and see how far you get). It's a relatively new concept in the UK – it’s traditionally been associated with the intensely flavoured broths and sauces of the Far East (and literally translates as ‘pleasant savoury taste’ in Japanese) – but if you’ve ever enjoyed the salty, almost meaty, depth of marmite on toast or the intense savouriness of a slow braised stew, you’ll know what we mean.
The problem is that while umami flavours are addictive to us, they make less harmonious friends with tannic wines, ramping up harsh, bitter and acidic elements and taking away round, fruity flavours. The solution? Keep your red wines mouthwateringly juicy rather than brashly structured and you shouldn’t have too much trouble.
Sweet food and desserts
Sweetness in foods can seriously dull the flavours of a good dry wine, so if you’re whipping up a savoury dish with a hint of sweetness (think pork in cider, an apricot-studded veggie tagine or a Thai curry with the creamy sweetness of coconut milk), you’ll need to consider this when choosing a wine. As a basic rule, go for something with a touch of sweetness to mirror the ingredients, such as an off-dry riesling or chenin blanc, or try a super-fruity zinfandel or its old world counterpart, primitivo.
For properly sweet foods, you’ll need to take a delicious voyage into the world of dessert wines. The rule is that the wine should always be sweeter than the pudding and there are certain dessert pairings that are notoriously good: try a beerenauslese or trockenauslese riesling with a caramelised appley dessert, sauternes is amazing with baked or stewed stone fruits (peaches, apricots) and tropical fruits and dessert wines taste sensational with the cheeseboard too. Gently sparkling Moscato d’Asti from Italy, with its gorgeous white-peach and honeysuckle scent is a game-changer with Victoria sponge.
‘Chocolate kills almost everything when it comes to wine’ says our buyer Marcel Orford Willliams, and it’s true that the mouth coating, melty nature of this decadent dessert treat makes it an especially hard pairing. We’d advise staying away from dry wines completely, side-track Sauternes and sweet semillon and head straight for a sweet red wine. A fortified tannat from Madiran in South West France or a dessert grenache is a good choice. Moscato d’Asti comes to the rescue again here too ? the grapy sweetness and soft, enveloping bubbles cut through the richness of the chocolate to lighten up the dessert experience.
Finally, ‘what grows together goes together’ (except when it doesn’t)
It’s a very romantic idea; the notion that wines made in a particular region will go spectacularly well with ingredients grown in, or dishes unique to, the same place.
But while this rule certainly isn’t a bad place to start (sangiovese or nebbiolo with pizza, Burgundian pinot noir with duck, lamb with Rioja and grüner veltliner with schnitzel all make a very strong case) it doesn’t help much when pairing with foods from non-traditional winemaking countries. The good news is that whether you’re experimenting with kimchi, sauerkraut, Levantine cuisine or Peruvian ceviche the basic rules of balancing flavours remain the same, so have fun by experimenting with different texture and flavour combinations.