The Basics of Wine Pairing: What Goes With Which?
Understanding the basics of wine pairing isn’t so much about following rules. It’s about trial and error. The more you have, the more you know — and the more you realize that you also don’t know. With the different grape varieties, regions of origin, cultures, and terms surrounding wine, it would be a deterrent to think you should learn all of these things before even partaking of a glass (or bottle). As intimidating and complex as it may come off, the experience of wine is truly just a personal journey of taste and memory. That’s because, while you can remember the year of the wine and the prestigious vineyard that produced it, what you remember will be who you drank it with and what made your time so pleasurable.
Often, the memory will consist of an occasion. Was it an anniversary? The graduation of a first-born? Or, perhaps, a first date? If you were planning such an event, it would be wise to come with some basic knowledge of the basic wine pairings as you put together the menu. If you were a guest, it would do good to explore your curiosity of complementing flavor profiles, even for just some conversation at the table. Or, even if you’re just at home and have taken up this delicious hobby of wine and food, then get started with these common standards — but definitely don’t be afraid to mix and match!
Basic Wine Pairings To Try
Sweet Wines to Start (& End With)
Beginner wine-drinkers are often invited to start with a Moscato or a Riesling. Both these types are white wines in the sweet to dry range. They can be quite fruity and citrusy in taste, waking up the taste buds before a meal or re-introducing brightness during dessert after the strong flavors of the mains.
Moscato is a popular wine that has a high sugar and low alcohol content ratio that makes it easy to drink. Starting with a bruschetta or salad when you’re having this sweet wine. Its notes of honey are sure to whet the appetite and go down easily. Riesling, on the other hand, can remind you more of peaches, pears, and apples. Since it’s dry, pairing an appetizer or dessert with these subtle wine notes in the ingredients would be perfect. (Imagine a crisp Riesling mouthfeel with a light pork and apple dish!) The inherent sweetness of fresh seafood appetizers, such as a shrimp scampi or crab cakes, would also be great with a glass or two.
Starting, grazing, or ending with a wine and cheese pairing could also take the place of desserts. Moscato traditionally pairs with Gorgonzola, but it could also do well with a Bleu Cheese just as the Sauternes does. Riesling, for its part, smoothes out an intense nose from Raclette, but so will the red but young-tasting Gamay. A nutty Edam combines perfectly with the dark fruits of Malbec while a fatty, aged Cheddar is highlighted by the equal complexity of a Cabernet Sauvignon. More on cheese pairings here.
Red Wine With Red Meat
The old pairing of medium-bodied and full-bodied red wines with a beautiful steak, roast lamb, or duck is a classic wine pairing for a reason.. Red wines such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Malbec bring an intensity of flavors that naturally complement these dishes.
The body of wine can be determined by its mouthfeel (or mouth-coating) and color. Dark colors can indicate the thickness of the red grape’s skin, where the tannins can be found and the flavors of the terroir (surrounding area and climate) can manifest. Shiraz, for example, can have a tobacco leaf finish that pairs with smokiness in the meat while a Syrah’s dark olive features can blend harmoniously with the richness, say for something like foie gras or beef liver.
Medium to full-bodied red wines have much higher alcohol content, perfect to sip and swirl through the meal than throw back at each bite. Tannin and alcohol compliment the higher fat content found in meat that elevates one’s eating into something with greater pleasure. It also changes the experience of the food and wine pairing when you allow your mouth to masticate the meat then have a taste of the wine.
White Wine With Chicken & Fish
White wine is often relegated to the side show instead of the main event, usually because formal dinners have a rich dark meat as the star dish. However, with the increasing demand for restaurant-quality plant-based meals, white wine’s natural pairing with roasted vegetables, deep soy flavors, and creamy pastas is getting more appreciation these days.
Just because white wine is lighter and clearer doesn’t mean it has less flavor. Many fruitier tones, crisper textures, and more acidity. White wine has a particular tartness that pairs wonderfully with vegetables, chicken, fish, and other seafood.
The popular Chardonnay, which can have a buttery texture and finish, is a favorite for dishes with oil-based sauces (as opposed to, say, tomato sauces). Put a glass beside a fresh aglio olio pasta or broiled lobster tails, and feel the food sing! Full-bodied Gewürztraminer, which has lower acidity but higher alcohol content compared to other white wines, pairs with fatty seafood like tuna or meaty fish like halibut. For the heavy flavors of something like fresh oysters, a bright and clear Sauvignon Blanc would do quite well.
Different Cuisines, New Rules for Pairings
Winemakers in the “New World” including South America, California and Oregon, and Australia, introduced new winemaking techniques that changed the rules from classic European wine pairings. Nowadays, you can find a vintage bottle of Bordeaux in Beijing and an organic Napa Valley wine in the region of Champagne. The flavor pairings of red-to-red and white-to-light don’t always have to hold now that different cuisines introduce a plethora of palates to the wine-drinking experience. But how do you pair a hot Malaysian curry with wine?
Spicy Food Wine Pairings
When it comes to different cuisines, pairings with wine need to find a congruence or a contrast. Heat requires sweetness, spices pair well with aromas, and raw fish can do with some freshness.
Wine Pairings for Indian Cuisine
Most importantly, for a widespread cuisine such as Indian, the key is in low alcohol content that doesn’t exacerbate what are actually subtle spices in the food. Rosé, which is produced like a white wine but macerated with red grape skins for its pink color, is a great wine for this. There’s just the right balance of aroma and fruitiness in the wine to bring out the variety of ingredients in the dishes. Besides the meat tandooris, Indian cuisine has numerous vegetarian dishes that highlight bright features in a white wine like Chenin Blanc or a light-bodied wine like a Pinot Noir.
Wine Pairings for Japanese Cuisine
Japanese food, which usually has sake on the side, can also be complemented by wine. The clean flavors in the cuisine are brought out by high acidity levels and citrus notes. Fried, light pieces like tempura make a good choice with the zest of a Grüner Veltliner while you can’t go wrong when you pair sashimi with the Italian sparkling wine, Prosecco.
Experimental Wine Pairings
Non-Western cuisines, whether exotic or not, may feature stronger taste profiles in sourness and heat compared to the Old World. Regardless, with a little understanding of basic wine pairing and some experimentation based on your own palate, you’re sure to find a wine to enjoy your meal and company.
Aussy Aportadera is pursuing the unhurried life in the beachside town of La Union, Philippines. After a career in communications and publishing for luxury lifestyle, food, and wine, she is now a yoga teacher and co-owner of a ceramics brand.