When you stop trying to memorize pairing charts and start to think of wine as a food ingredient, pairing wine and food is easy. Just as there are thousands of recipes to make chili, there are thousands of wine pairing combinations. None of them are wrong, but there are certain flavor combinations you will prefer over others.
Adding ingredients to food is meant to enhance the flavor of the meal. If you are baking fish, you may add butter and a squeeze of lemon to improve the flavor. Now, start thinking of wine as an additional ingredient. Think of wines that you have tried in the past, and imagine which of those flavors would enhance the fish? The wine you think of is what you should serve with the meal.
Now that you have a basic understanding of how to pair wine and food, here are some pairing considerations to keep in mind:
Pairing with Texture
Matching the texture, or body, of a wine with a food is a classic way to make a pairing. The concept here is that the flavor of the wine should never overpower the food, and the food should never overpower the wine.
This is where choosing from wines that you are familiar with becomes very important. It is not as simple as memorizing what grape type will pair with a dish, because the texture of wine can vary. For example, a pinot noir from Burgundy can be a delicate, medium-bodied wine, while a pinot noir from Washington can burst with rich and intense flavors. The Burgundy will pair well with roasted chicken or salmon, while the Washington pinot noir may pair well with pork chops or even lamb. Chardonnay is another tricky wine for texture pairing because it can be medium bodied or a more buttery and oaky full-bodied wine. It is important to pick from wines that you know, or inquire about the style of the wine from an expert.
Common sense would suggest that a zinfandel full of peppery spice flavors would pair well with spicy food. Unfortunately, the tannins in a big, spicy zinfandel clash with the spice in the food, resulting in an unpleasant flavor experience.
Lightly sweet wines, such as gewürztraminer and riesling, actually pair well with spicy food because the sweetness cuts down on the spice. The lower alcohol content of these wines also help with the pairing because high alcohol accentuates the spiciness of food.
Pairing with Sauces
Sauces can derail a traditional food and wine pairing. When the sauce becomes the focal point of the dish, it is time pair the wine directly to the sauce.
Acidic wines can cut through a creamy sauce and greatly enhance the overall flavor of the dish. If you can squeeze a lemon or lime on it, almost any white with bright acidity will be a good pairing. For most other sauces, match the body of the sauce with the body of the wine. A meaty sauce, for example, will pair with a full-bodied wine.
Pairing Across Several Meals
A tricky situation will arise when you are eating with a group of people and are trying to order a wine that will work with everyone’s meal. Lighter- to medium-bodied wines that have higher levels of fruit and acidity tend to work great across several different meals. Dry rosé is one of the best wines to use; it pairs well with oysters, BBQ, ice cream and everything in between. Other wines that work well are sparkling whites, dryer rieslings, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, merlot, pinot noir (especially burgundy), cru Beaujolais and chianti.
Along with the coffee and espresso, more restaurants are starting to add wines to their dessert menus. The most common dessert wines include Port, Sauterne, sherry, Madeira and late-harvest riesling. The rule here is to always make sure your wine is sweeter than the dessert; otherwise, it is very easy for a rich dessert to overpower the wine.