Debi Shaw - Cooking for dinner parties
Pairing wine with food…

This topic has been one of the most asked about in my cooking classes over the years. With the variety of flavor, culture, and spices offered in today’s recipes, the options for wine pairing are infinite. Please keep in mind, there are NO set rules for pairing wine with food. What it comes down to is what works for you. For those of you who are new to wine, I am going to review some basics to get you started so you will have a few “first steps” under your belt.

To begin, here are a few key wine terms :
Acidity- The “sour factor”. If a wine is too acidic, it will be labeled as “tart“. If the acidity is too low, it will be labeled as “flat”.

Tannin- Derived from the skins and seeds of the grapes used to produce the wine. This lends distinct character to the wine. The astringency in the tannin is what causes the dry puckery feeling in the mouth.

Balance- Acidity, alcohol and tannins combine to create an overall flavor.

Varietals- Types of wines made from a specific variety of grape. (ex. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are two types of varietals).

When choosing the wine you will pair with your menu, begin by breaking down the ingredients in a recipe. Let‘s look at this example where I will be serving Steak with a brandy mustard sauce.

Look at the ingredients in your sauce:
Brandy
Dijon mustard
Shallots
Cream

I would look for a full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, which is capable of holding its own with such warm flavors. Foods with a more acidic base such as a lemon cream sauce, would work well paired with a Pinot Grigio, which shares an acidic undertone. The idea is to select wine that will complement the flavors in your dish rather than compete with them. The wine shouldn’t outshine the food, nor should it feel like an understudy.

Your goal is to find a perfect balance, with highlights from both the food and the wine, working together in harmony.

While we can recognize limitless aromas, our taste buds are limited to tasting salty, sweet, sour and bitter. It is the combination of smell and taste that allow you to discern the myriad of flavors in wine. Each wine has its own flavor profile, making it more suitable for specific types of foods.

Should I serve red, or white?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, there is no definite answer, but I am going to give you a few food pairing suggestions to help you narrow down your search.

Red wine varietals:

Cabernet Sauvignon: Red meats, strong flavored cheeses, red sauced pasta dishes, lamb.

Pinot Noir: This may be one of the most versatile wines. Well suited with poultry(such as turkey), beef, fish, ham, lamb and pork. Pinot Noir also works well with creamy sauces and spicy seasonings.

Red Zinfandel: Spicy flavors, red or white meat.

Merlot: Lots of berry flavors in this wine. Will work well with poultry, red meat, pasta, pork.

Cabernet Franc: Poultry, Middle Eastern fare, Greek cuisine.

Chianti: Italian foods, beef, chicken, tomato based sauces.

White Wine Varietals:

Champagne/Sparkling Wine: Very versatile. Brie and gouda cheese, shellfish, prosciutto, smoked salmon, vegetables, almonds, chocolate.

Chenin Blanc: Salads, mild to spicy dishes, sushi, seafood and white meats.

Pinot Blanc: Seafood, light flavored meats, light to medium sauces, and mild flavored cheeses.

Riesling: Great with appetizers through desserts. Pork, poultry or fish. Pairs nicely with the spice and zest of Asian flavored foods.

Gewurztraminer: Asian or zesty flavored fare. Sauvignon Blanc: Great with shellfish, vegetables, garlic, poultry.

White Zinfandel: Spicier foods, barbeque chicken, Cajun cuisine, Asian, seafood.

Chardonnay: Parmesan cheese, poultry, pork, or seafood that have a heavy cream base.

So there you go…a little bit of help, I hope! I highly recommend visiting your local wine shop for further education. Your local wine merchant will be able to direct you to a wine that falls within your budget and satisfies your palate. Often times your local wine shop will offer wine tasting and even classes.

Remember, pairing wine is what works for you. Don’t get caught up in the “rules”; have fun and enjoy. You may want to keep a journal, recording the elements you did or didn’t like about a wine. What flavors did you taste? What did you serve with the wine? Soon you will recognize what you like and what flavors complement each other.

Ciao Vino!