For centuries, wine has been a staple companion for many of our favourite meals. We still continue this tradition in present day, seeking the perfect red or white to accompany each meal. As misperceived rule of thumb, many think that red wine should be served with meat and white wine with fish. However, this dichotomy oversimplifies wine pairings, potentially muting out flavours and creating clashes on the palate.
The intention of pairing wine with food is to enhance the meal’s flavour and the wine’s natural tasting notes, not to dilute them or nullify them completely.
This post is meant to educate wine enthusiasts who are looking to branch out a bit more and learn about more nuanced flavour pairings. As a bonus to our tasting notes sent with each monthly package, we will guide you through some of the main differences of wine categories and then teach you the basics of perfecting your wine pairing skills. In the end, your wine will taste better and the flavours of your dishes will truly shine. It’s a win-win situation for both your food and your wine!
First, it’s important to understand the basics of the typical categories found in wines. Most wines are divided among reds, whites, rosés, sweet, and sparkling options. However, even further within these categories, we can find even more diverse options. Subcategories can differ in many ways, from tannin intensities to regional variants. It would require a textbook-length publication to fully explain wine classifications from each region. However, we can provide you with some basic descriptions of the better known wine categories to help you with your food pairings.
- Red wines can range from dry to sweet with variations in tannic composition. Typical selections for a main course include Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, Malbec, Merlot, Shiraz, and Zinfandel. We recommend Australia’s own Margaret River wines when it comes to reds.
- White wines in general tend to be less tannic, and they’re enhanced by their crisp, tart, and acidic qualities. Popular whites include Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio.
- Rosé wines maintain a pinkish, blush colour. They shortly ferment with grape skins, creating their unique rose colour. Despite the influence of the red grape skins, rosé wines are more close in flavour profile to white wines and maintain low influences of tannins. Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, and Sangiovese are among the most popular rosé wines.
- Sparkling wines can either be naturally carbonated or have carbonation added to them after the fermentation process. Sparkling wines can be either dry or sweet. Champagne, Prosecco, Brut, and Cava are among the most popular options.
- Sweet or dessert wines are the final category. Usually, sweet wines are served after a meal or as an accompaniment to dessert. Different from other wines, more alcohol is added when crafting a dessert wine, and brandy typically serves as the most popular additive. Common dessert wines are Port, Vermouth, Sherry, and Madeira.
When choosing from these aforementioned categories a wine that will best accompany your food selection, it’s important to note several specific flavour elements about the dish itself. These characteristics go far deeper than the simple “red for meat, white for fish” rule of thumb.
Food Characteristics for Wine Pairing
Richness in food equates to a heavy fat component from butter, cream, or in premium cuts of steak. Although wine cannot offer a complementary fat profile, wine can provide balance to the flavours of rich meals through its tannins and acids. A hearty, fat-forward meal can also handle a boozier wine packed with a higher alcohol component. Acidic red wines and wines with a high tannin component like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec pair well with beef or cream-based dishes. The fat components of these dishes can keep dry red wines from completely coating the palate. In addition, roasted meats can enhance some of the underlying fruit, berry, and jammy flavours in the wine. When pairing rich wines with rich, fatty foods, also consider the price point of the meal. A vintage bottle of one of your finest reds would make a better pairing with a prime cut off beef as opposed to pairing the same bottle with a delivery pizza.
Salt is an interesting flavour component. Bleu cheese, caviar, cured meats, oysters, and sometimes even pickled foods come with heavy concentrations of salt. When pairing with wine, it’s important to understand that salt can strip a lot of the nuanced flavours out of a complex wine. Therefore, acid food needs a palate-cleansing wine partner that doesn’t become muted when serving a meal. Sparkling wines make the best partners for particularly salty dishes because they can add more nuance to the flavours of these foods while preparing your mouth for a fresh, new bite after each sip.
Some foods and many wines can be very acid forward. As a result, you need to find a wine that can hold up to the acid profile of your dish. Otherwise, the wine will seem to present a dull or muted flavour. Foods with citrus flavour profiles like fish, pasta salads, lime-zested Mexican cuisine, and summertime Mediterranean dishes can all pair well with wines that have a high element of acid. Pickled foods, while salty, can fall into this category as well since they also present the acidic tang of vinegar. While salads can be a challenge to pair with wine, a vinaigrette-dressed salad with robust or even bitter greens will make a great pairing for an acid-forward wine. Try a drier Sauvignon Blanc to complement your lighter dishes or more acidic red like Shiraz to hold up to the robust flavours of heavily-spiced, yet acidic foods.
Sugary-sweet foods will usually put you in the dessert category for a proper wine pairing. However, it’s important not to create competition on the palate between the wine and the dessert. In general, the wine should always have a sweeter flavour profile than the dessert with which it is served. When the dessert is sweeter than the wine, too much of a contrast is produced on the palate, making the wine seem overly bitter and the dessert overly concentrated with sugar. Ports and sherries are commonly served with heavier desserts. However, if the dessert is lighter such as baked fruit, or a berry tart, a Chardonnay can create a sublime pairing as it will complement the natural sugars contained in the fruits themselves.
In summary, pairing wine with food should not be oversimplified through the popular red versus white rule. Instead, you really must consider the strength and complexity of the wine in addition to the forward flavour components in the dish in order to determine the perfect pairing. In general, you can think about pairing lighter wines with lighter meals, and heavier wines with heavier meals.
Nonetheless, there is still some wiggle room for experimenting with contrasting wine densities and flavour profiles. When trying to create harmony when serving wine with food, always keep in mind the characteristics that fats, salts, acids, and sugars have when juxtaposed with wine. Consequently, understanding how wine pairing really works opens up the palate to diverse avenues for enjoying meals and a whole new world of sophisticated, epicurean wine and food combinations.