For each meal there are wines that fight it, wines that merely ignore it, and wines that harmoniously complement its every flavor and greatly enhance its taste. But how to find that perfect pairing of wine and food that brings out the best in both?
The secret of a perfect pairing of wine and food is balancing the flavors and matching the intensities. Just think of the wine as another kind of condiment to add to your dish for a perfect meal. You don’t want it stronger in intensity than the food, otherwise the taste of food is simply wasted. You don’t want it weaker either, because it will go unnoticed. Just pick the wine of the same intensity and it will mix its flavors to those of the dish, neither of them eclipsing the other, both contributing to your delight.
When it comes to pairing flavors of wine and food, you have essentially two choices. You can decide to match the flavors for enhancing the effect. Or you can choose to oppose flavors that balance one another and offer a richer taste. But perfect match or tantalizing opposition of flavor, remember the golden rule: intensities should always match!
There are so many flavors in a meal, which one should you focus on? And which is the intensity of a meal? When choosing the wine, think of the sauce, the seasoning, or the dominant flavor of the dish. Usually the steaks and red meats fried or prepared in the oven are intense and need a robust red wine. Fish and poultry tend to be softer and can go well with softer, fruitier wines. Grilled meat and grilled fish however are also softer and go well with fruitier wines. Steamed dishes are the most delicate, asking for delicate wines as well (think for instance of old wines, as they tend to have mellower flavors). Game is usually intense regardless of how it is prepared, so it is better paired with a big and bold red wine. The very spicy dishes (for instance Thai dishes or hot curries) are best paired with sweet, even dessert wines.
Some of the lighter, fruitier wines are White Burgundy, Chablis, and Chardonnay (white wines), or Beaujolais, Pinot Noir or Zinfandel (red wines). Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Burgundy, and Merlot are among the big, bold red wines to pair with intense dishes. One good tip is to look also for a wine from the same region as the dish: the chances are that you will find many with matching flavors.
There are also some foods that don’t get along with most wines. These include soups, vinaigrette dressings and egg dominated dishes. For clear soups and vinaigrette dressings there is no solution: don’t serve any wine with them. If the soup is creamy and consistent, try a dry white wine. If it’s thick, with earthly flavors such as mushroom soup, try a wine with earthly flavors such as Pinot Noir. For egg dishes try a balanced white wine.
Chocolate and desserts are hard to pair with wine, but for them you always have a trump: the Champagne goes well with most deserts! You might want to consider though that for chocolate a better choice might be a creamy liqueur instead of wine. Sweet wines are the usual choice for the desserts, but this works well only if the sweetness of the wine truly matches (or even surpasses) the sweetness of the dish.
No matter what your choice of wine, a few more general rules will help you to get the best of your meal. For best effect, pair complex wine with simple food and simple wine with complex food. If you serve more than one wine at a meal, serve them in increasing order of percent of alcohol, intensity, and sweetness. Never serve a sweet wine before a dry one, or a light wine after a full-bodied one. If you do, the second wine will not be perceived at its best.
Finally, remember that the pairing of wine and food is always a matter of taste. So don’t be afraid to experiment if you so wish, and choose what works best for you and your guests.