Choosing which wines to serve with meals is always a debate, with each person bringing their own experiences and preferences to the discussion. The traditional belief that you must serve white wine with chicken and fish or big red wines with meats is now challenged by the new wines being blended by extremely talented winemakers across the country.
The emergence of old-world classic wines and blending styles in the Napa and Sonoma valleys has broadened the options for today’s restaurants and party hosts. We are no longer limited to the primary grape profiles. This may cause some confusion and concern that there are too many options, but the rules are more relaxed these days, giving you freedom to do your own new and exciting pairings.
The geography of where the grapes are grown definitely influences their flavor or “terroir”. The soil, climate, terrain (mountains vs. valleys), all create different flavors in grapes. In our area some of the finest wineries use grapes grown in different regions to get variety. For example, at Silver Oak you can taste Cabernets from Napa Valley and Alexander Valley. When tasted side by side it is remarkable what a difference the location makes in the finished wines.
Perhaps the most important aspect of wine pairing is balance – you want both the food and wine to complement and elevate each other. If you are serving a delicate fish, drinking a huge red wine would overwhelm it. With a lighter wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Rosé, or sparkling wine, the seafood will shine. If you are pairing with very bold cheeses, that same wine would taste much weaker.
Balance in foods and wines often relates to the comparative “weight” of the primary elements in a dish or types and percentages of grapes blended together. The combination of acidity, spiciness, sweetness, etc. determines the intensity. This is why full-bodied reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or Syrah/Shiraz go so well with juicy grilled steaks – they both have strong flavor profiles. So lighter fare often goes well with lighter wines and heavier fare with heavier wines. When in doubt, Pinot Noirs, Rosés, and sparkling wines are quite flexible and complement many different types of foods.
Some general rules of thumb are whites tend to go well with seafood, chicken, turkey and most spicy foods. Reds are bold enough to stand up to heartier or gamier meats (beef, duck, lamb, etc.) and tomato-based sauces. And then there is pork, “the other white meat” … depending on the cut it is great with both reds and whites.
You can also look at the adjectives used to describe wines and recipes. If they are both called rich, sweet, smoky, light, etc. then they are likely well matched for pairing.
Another trick is to pair foods and wines from the same region. California cuisine with California wines, Italian pastas with wines from Tuscany. Boeuf Bourguignon is heavenly when served with a beautiful Burgundy. Paella is lovely with the wines of Spain.
When a recipe calls for wine in the ingredient list, it is always good to use either the wine you are planning on serving or a lower priced version of the same varietal. That way the same notes run through every bite.
Above all, drink the wines you like, regardless of the food you are eating. No pairing recommendation will be successful if you don’t enjoy what is in your glass! If you really love white wines, pair heavier whites with heavier foods. If you are a red lover, you can drink a lighter red with poultry, pork and stronger fish (like salmon). Thankfully there is a wide variety of both red and white wines, giving us many options to find just the right combinations. Even if an “expert” tells you that Chardonnay is perfect with chicken but you hate Chardonnay, you will not enjoy your meal. After all, your enjoyment is the key to being happy and having fun at every dinner party!
To help you match the weight of foods, here are some guidelines on which wines will complement a dish with similar intensity of flavors.
Light Dry Whites Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio
Sweet Whites Riesling, Chenin Blanc
Full-Flavored Whites Chardonnay, Viognier
Sparkling Wines Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Moscato d’Asti
Light Reds Pinot Noir, Grenache, Gamay
Medium Reds Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Sangiovese
Full Bodied Reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah / Shiraz, Zinfandel, Barolo Ruby
Dessert Wines Tawny Port, Sherry, Late Harvest
If you want to learn more about food and wine pairing you are in luck. These local places can help us discover new-to-us wines that are perfect complements to the foods we love. These professionals can help guide us and give us ideas about what they would serve. They will also help you set up wine tasting and pairing events for you and your friends. Every conversation about wine and tasting experience will help build your own skill level. And having the opportunity to taste multiple wines side by side is always a fun way to spend an hour or two!
The Vine at Bridges
480 Hartz Ave.
Prima Vini at Prima Ristorante
1522 N. Main St.
321 Hartz Ave, #1