What Makes Wine and Food Pairings Work?

October 01, 2021

What Makes Wine and Food Pairings Work?

When it comes to pairing wine with food, one plus one doesn’t always equal two. What we mean is that just because you’re pairing your favorite wine with your favorite dish doesn’t mean they’ll work well together. Whilst wine can enhance flavors of your meal, it can also destroy them. So with that being said, here is a cheat sheet guide to successfully pairing wine with food. 

Finding Balance

The first step is to understand that what makes a good pairing is balance. You need the flavors of the wine and flavors of the dish to balance each other out. This can be by either finding congruent pairings, meaning the wine and the food have similar flavors, or with complementary pairings, where opposing flavors combine to create an even greater flavor. To determine which of these pairings you should use, we’ll outline five key flavor elements of any dish and how to match it. Keep in mind, you want to pair your wine to the most prominent element of the dish. 

Acidic — Congruency 

Acidic dishes need an equally acidic wine to make a good pairing. Whether you’re eating a tomato-based pasta, lemon-based pasta, or even a tomato-based pizza, the acidity of the food will ruin any wine that doesn’t match up. If you’re in doubt, we recommend matching regions: what grows together goes together after all. So if you’re eating a traditional Italian pasta, reach for a Sangiovese, which is a highly acidic Italian wine. Other wines that tend to be higher on the acidity scale are Sauvignon Blanc, Chianti, Beaujolais, and Loire Valley Sancerre. 

Spicy — Complementary

Spicy dishes tend to ruin many wines but that doesn’t mean they can’t work well together. The secret is to go for wines that have a high amount of residual sugar. Sugar is well-known for helping with the heat as it absorbs a lot of capsaicin — the spicy stuff in chili responsible for the burning sensation in your mouth. That means wines with a lot of residual sugar will help dull the heat and allow you to taste the underlying flavors of your dish. 

Our favorite for spicy dishes is an off-dry Riesling which has plenty of natural sugars from grapes left over from the fermenting process. We also think a nice Rosé pairs well with spicy dishes as well, especially kimchi. 

Fat or Rich — Complementary

The problem with fatty dishes like wagyu steak is that the fat can feel like it’s smothering your taste buds. You need something that will help cleanse your palate. A good example is a wine high in tannins. In other words, a heavy red wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. The tannins in these wines can act as a scraper for the fat particles in your mouth. If you want to try something more out of the box, sparkling wines are another great option. In particular, Champagne with fried chicken. The bubbles help cleanse your palate of the oil from the chicken. 

Herbs — Congruency 

The key to matching dishes with a lot of herby flavors is to find a wine with a herby element. When we say herbaceous we mean there are elements of herbs like grass, black pepper, basil, oregano, white pepper, cinnamon, etc. This might take some memorization and experimentation as you taste different wines to know which ones are herbaceous but a popular example is Sauvignon Blanc.

Sweet — Congruency & Complementary

When it comes to sweet dishes, we’re split. The common pairing suggestion is to go for a wine that is sweeter than the dish. If you’re enjoying a sweet and sour pork or any dish with a sweet sauce, then we would suggest pairing it with a sweet wine. The sugar from the dish will actually diminish the perception of sugar in the wine so it will taste drier than it would on its own. 

However, if you’re enjoying an already sweet dessert, pairing it with an even sweeter wine may be too much if you don’t have a sweet tooth. Let's take a blueberry cheesecake as an example. You’ll want to find a wine that matches the fruit elements of the dessert but also has some acidity to cut through the richness of the cheesecake. 

With all this being said, we don’t believe wine rules are black and white. They’re there to help guide you but if you enjoy a certain pairing, then keep doing it. Drinking wine is about your experience, not anyone else’s. No matter how you drink it, wine is one of life’s pleasures that helps everything else go down easier. 

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