Wine and Food Pairing

Millions of words have been written on the subject of wine & food matching. Do we really need a thousand more from me? Just as everyone has their own taste and preferences, so each author has their own perspective and insights. What I write is the fruit of over 35 years of serving food with wine and trying to pair them in such a way that both are experienced at their best. I learn something every time I open a bottle, every time I read another writer’s opinions, every time I go to dinner at a friend’s house. As we approach the season of festive soirées and celebration dinners, I hope my words offer something you haven’t thought yet; perhaps a few simple pointers if you are new to this style of entertaining, perhaps an unusual recommendation if you’re feeling a bit jaded with it all.

First things first: there are no rules.


Forget “red wine with meat, white with fish.” Forget “driest first, sweetest last.” These are but advice. What matters is what delights the diner. If that is a £100 bottle of Sauternes with their game casserole, who am I to argue? If it’s dry Cava with a cream cake that pleases your palate, go ahead; enjoy. I can describe to you the effect a certain wine might have on the taste of a certain food, or I can tell you what has pleased many of my guests, but I can’t tell you with certainty what you will enjoy. So play with your matches. Use my suggestions as a springboard, but try out other combinations and see how your palate responds.

Let’s think about how dry or sweet a wine is, and how much sugar there might be in the dish you want to serve with it. Our palate gets used to a taste experience very quickly, so a sweeter wine will make any acidity or saltiness in the food stand right out. In the same way, sweet food will make dry wine seem much sharper than savoury food will. The same is true the other way, of course: salty food like cheese or anchovies with make the fruitiness stand out in a wine; dry wines can really enhance delicate flavours like sole or interesting vegetables like your home-grown salads. Sweet flavours tend to linger in the mouth longer, and this is the reason we’re often advised to drink drier wines before sweeter ones, but I have enjoyed many meals that paired a medium-sweet German riesling with a cheese & nut salad starter. Another effect sweetness has is to turn down the heat in chillies and spices. You might want to consider a German or Alsace wine with a Thai red curry. A dry wine would enhance the heat. The choice is yours, of course - how hot do you like it?


Acidity is another key factor to consider. Rich foods like pâtés and dishes finished with cream or butter cling to the mouth and make it difficult to taste anything else. A more acidic wine will break through that fattiness and is likely to be experienced as refreshing and tasty. That’s the reason sweet but acidic wines from western France are served with foie gras. A wine with low acidity, such as a gewurztraminer from Alsace may seem a little insipid with rich food but will taste fruity and floral if served with fermented or marinated foods.


It’s hard to define exactly what we mean by “body” in a wine. I suppose it really comes down to the intensity of flavour. This is where the old “red wine with red meat” adage comes from. A lot of our popular red wines are very full bodied. They have an intense flavour, backed up by a lot of tannin, the substance that gives some younger wines that drying feeling in your mouth. If you don’t know what I mean, have a swig of some strong, black tea: that’s tannin. Obviously, if you’ve spent good money on a nice, full red, you want to show it off at its best. You can afford to pair it with a strongly flavoured dish like a venison steak in whisky sauce, but a delicate, steamed savoury custard with tofu risks being totally swamped by the big flavour of the wine. There are lighter reds that really sing, in my opinion, when paired with fish. Something like a Beaujolais or a New Zealand pinot noir will have very little tannin and a lighter, less intense flavour. With meatier fish like monkfish or a fish dish that also uses pancetta or ham, these wines can have exactly the right intensity to balance your dish. A festive roast turkey might be better balanced with a light red than with a light white. White wines have negligible levels of tannin but can still be lighter or fuller bodied. A lovely salad of carrots, orange and cumin has a lot of flavour, and will overpower a light wine such as a pinot grigio. The deeper-flavoured wines from South Africa, Australia and south America might be a better pairing.


Finally, and this is the hardest point to define, remember that I have said in other blog posts and articles that serving food in courses is like telling a story? Your wines need to be part of that story. Sometimes, it’s best that the wines take a back seat. If you’ve got a star dish to show off, you might want to avoid a showy wine. If the dish has lots of flavours going on (or "all the trimmings"), I’d suggest you pair it with a fairly simple wine, so you’re not adding even more flavours. Some wines – young reds, sparkling whites – feel innately “frivolous,” whereas older wines and fuller bodied ones have a “seriousness” about them that might not suit the occasion or the feel of the dish. Be bold, then, and break the supposed rules. It’s your dinner, your stage on which to dance. Be creative and playful, and I’d love to know what combinations you discover in the process.

Sometimes, a beer can be the best "wine" match!

This post is adapted from an article I originally wrote for The Yorkshire Times.


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