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Pairing Wine and Food

The problem of pairing wine and food seems to be one that bothers many people. It's never bothered me, though, as I follow two basic rules. Firstly, it's far more important to pair wine with people, not food. Secondly, wine and food in general work well together - there are only a few combinations which really do not work. This article describes what I mean by pairing wine with people, and gives some detail about those wine and food matches that are to be avoided, as well as discussing a few of the more classic matches.

Pairing Wine with People

I've always been a big fan of this approach to serving wine. Many people have their preferred style of wine, and stick to that style regardless of the occasion or the food on offer. Whereas this practice might seem an anathema to some people, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it. Serving a fine, elegant Left Bank claret with good steak (whichever cut you prefer) goes down very well in my book, but if a guest drinks only white wine, particularly Mosel Riesling (narrow-minded though that may be), is it not somewhat arrogant of me to force the red wine upon them, regardless of how agreeable I find the combination?

If, however, you are fortunate enough to have a somewhat more open-minded guest, then the importance of pairing wine and food becomes a little more apparent. I find that many combinations of wine and food, not considered to be 'classic' matches, work well, and I therefore intend to approach the matter by discussing those matches which perhaps don't work so well.

Pairing Wine and Food: Red Wine with Fish

This rule isn't as hard and fast as it seems, but it's a good starting point. Red wines in general contain tannins, and these tannins, in combination with a fish dish, will impart a metallic taste to the wine which I find quite unpleasant. The same can be said for many red wine and cheese combinations, a match that many find very agreeable, but I rarely enjoy. Consequently, fresh, unoaked and acidic white wines, such as Chablis, Muscadet or Sancerre are good foils for most fish dishes (and cheeses), as these do not have the tannins, and the acidity helps to cut through the sometimes oily richness of the dish. Those reds that do work well are low in tannin, and with some fish dishes (based around salmon, rainbow trout or similar) I have enjoyed lighter Burgundies, as well as Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley.

Pairing Wine and Food: Dry Wines with Sweet Foods

I've never quite understood how many people seem to continue drinking the table wine, which has accompanied their main course (and perhaps a starter), right through the dessert. The effect of a sweet, heavy pudding is to coat the palate, and overload it with sugar, completely changing the way a dry wine tastes. Anyone who drinks wine in this way is clearly not thinking about what they are tasting, otherwise they would quickly notice how unpalatable this is. The best solution, other than opening a dessert wine to accompany the pudding, is leave the wine to one side, only to return to it after coffee has cleansed the palate somewhat.

These are two basic and simple rules which start us on the road to thinking about matching wine with food, and they illustrate quite nicely two simple themes in this art. Combining a fresh and acidic white wine with a rich, oily fish dish is an example of contrast, where the wine is different in character to the food, yet still complementary. The combination of a sweet wine with pudding is an example of food and wine complementing one another, both working together through their similar trait, sweetness.

Pairing Wine and Food: Classic Combinations

Moving on from combinations that don't work, at least not for me, there are a few classic food and wine matches that are worth knowing about. Many of these have sprung from regional combinations, and it's worth bearing in mind that the foodstuffs of a region or country will often pair well with the local wines, as they have both evolved to complement one another. Simple pasta dishes will usually be a good reason to open any inexpensive Italian red, and in fact these wines, which tend to have higher acidity than many other red wines, will pair well with many foods. Another example is the rich cuisine of Burgundy, which often works very well when combined with the wines of the region, especially when said wines have been used in the preparation of the dish. This is another general rule of thumb when thinking about wine with food - if cooking with wine, using that which is to be served with the dish will help the two marry together.

White wine with white meat, Red wine with red meat

This is fairly standard stuff, but the combination of different meats with different wines can be a pleasure to try. I find most very pleasing, but I have no qualms about serving my guests Mosel Riesling with their beef if I know that is their preferred tipple. For me though, a good and mature Claret, or Rhône, with some well chosen and correctly cooked steak is a joy. Rhône wines also pair well with game, as does Burgundy. It's worth bearing in mind what else comes with the meat, however, as a sweet yet acidic fruit sauce, such as cranberry, could wreak havoc with either of these combinations. Perhaps a Cru Beaujolais would be a better consideration? Also bear in mind that some white meats, roast turkey for example, cope very well indeed with a red wine, and so this is an option worth considering.

Sauternes and blue cheese

This is a classic combination, specifically marrying the sweet, botrytis influenced white wine of Bordeaux, Sauternes, with blue cheese, specifically Roquefort. Many people swear by this pairing, the sweet and luscious nature of the wine working in contrast to the potent, salty nature of the cheese. Personally I don't enjoy it, nor do I enjoy a more commonly suggested pairing, Port and Stilton, which is based on a very similar premise - savoury cheese with a sweet, this time fortified, wine. Fortunately there are no hard and fast rules, and so I am at little risk of being ostracised for this. Pairing food and wine is all about serving the combinations that work well for you.

Pairing Wine and Food: Problem Foods

Some foods are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. Chocolate is one good example, although why anyone would want to even try is beyond me. If you must serve a chocolate-based dessert, I'd concentrate on combining it with some coffee. Don't be fooled by certain newspaper wine writers who proclaim 'even goes well with chocolate' when puffing their latest recommendation - I've never found this to be true. Other problem foods include eggs and egg dominated dishes, where I would recommend a well balanced white wine, neither too acidic nor too rich. Acidic foods, such as tomatoes or vinaigrette dressings, are also problematic. In this situation matching the acidity with a wine which is also acidic is probably the best approach. Finding wines for world cuisine can be a problem, especially for spicy foods, although some matches - wines from Alsace with many Thai dishes, for example - work very well indeed.

Pairing Wine and Food: Conclusion

To summarise, there are just a few important points to bear in mind when thinking about which wines work well with which foods.

That's all I'm prepared to say about pairing wine with food. There are whole chapters (if not books) on the subject, and I'm aware that what is written here is of a very superficial nature. If you are looking for more specific guidance, I recommend purchasing a generic wine guide from the likes of Oz Clarke or Jancis Robinson; many such guides give good advice on matching wine with different foods.