Food and Wine Pairings 101


Pairing Foods With Wine

Pairing foods with wines is very much like discovering wonderful new recipes. Just as the right combination of ingredients complements and highlights each other to create a gourmet dish, pairing the right wine with a meal creates a combination that celebrates and enhances the experience of both food and wine.

And, just as a recipe doesn’t have to be complex to be mouth-wateringly good, you don’t have to be a wine connoisseur or gourmet cook to enjoy the benefits of the right wine pairing.

A basic understanding of the food, the wine and how the components and flavors in each interact can make it easy to find a successful pairing on a daily basis, and can greatly increase the chances of finding an exciting synergy between wine and food.

Start with the Wine

When you’re first trying your hand at pairing, we recommend starting with a wine and then selecting and creating the food around it. The simple reason for this is that it’s much easier to tweak a food recipe to make it more compatible with the wine, than it is to start blending your own wines.

Pick a wine you know and love already. This way, you’ll have a sense of its flavors already, which you can use as a starting point to experiment with food pairings. Plus, if the recipe doesn’t work, at the very least you’ll be able to enjoy a nice bottle of wine!

Be ‘Prepared’ With The Food

Forget the white wine with white meat and red with red meats. The best place to begin your food selection is with an understanding of how the food is being prepared – the components and flavors in the dish that are integral to pairing it with wine. This is why food and wine pairing in restaurants can be challenging. You think that everything will be fine and then discover that the dish has a different flavor (Why did the chef add olives, they didn’t mention them on the menu?), texture (Wow, I didn’t know that the sea scallops and bay scallops are so different!) or cooking method (I expected the chicken to be grilled, but it is poached.).

Three Key Points

To keep in mind when selecting the food are
  1. The food item being paired;
  2. The cooking method of that item; and
  3. The additional flavors or sauces
The fundamental rule is to begin by pairing delicate wines with delicate flavors, medium-bodied wines with medium-weight or intensity flavors, and strongly flavored foods with wines that will stand up to their pungency. To help keep things simple as you get started, we’ve put together the following guide. Like anything, these are not absolute rules, but good guidelines to follow to help create the most successful and interesting pairings.
Flavors Delicate Earthy; Hearty Meaty Pungent Spicy
WINE TYPE Riesling
Sauvignon Blanc
Pinot Noir
Cabernet Sauvignon
FOODS Salads/Vegetables Fish Poultry, Game Birds, Pork, Veal Beef, Offal
SAUCES Lemon based Butter; Cream Meat
Wine Demiglace
PREPARATION Poached/Steamed Sautéed Baked Roasted Grilled Braised

For a more comprehensive chart, check out our Wine and Food Pairing Chart

To make the wine even more compatible you can use the sauce to try to imitate flavors in the wine. For instance, mushrooms work well with Pinot Noir, tomatoes with Sangiovese, herbs and mint with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and dark berries with Shiraz.

As we noted, it’s not critical that you memorize this guide and follow it to the letter. The important point is to use this to help learn how the different types of flavors pair with different wines. This understanding of food components and wine flavors is actually much more helpful that simply matching a food to a wine and the basic chicken breast is a great example of why.

Imagine a chicken breast poached (i.e. cooked in water) with a light lemon herb sauce. This might be a dish that could be friendly with light to medium bodied white wines like Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Now add a cream sauce and you can move up in body to a fuller bodied wine, maybe a Chardonnay. Or try it roasted and suddenly the flavors are such that it can marry with light to medium bodied reds, like Pinot Noir or Sangiovese. Grill it and it becomes great with fuller bodied reds, even Zinfandel or Shiraz (Syrah).

On The Contrary

In addition to marrying foods with complementary wines, many people like to create a contrast between various components in the dish and the wine in much the same way that you would balance sweet dessert recipe with a tangy sauce. This is as simple as enjoying a crisp acidic wine like a Sauvignon Blanc to cut through a very buttery sauce, or possibly a more oaky Chardonnay with a very tart or sweet dish.

The result is different, but the approach remains the same – consider the flavor of both the wind and food to create a specific taste experience.

Dining Out

You can see why our point about the difficulty of pairing a wine with a meal can be rather tricky when you’re dining at a restaurant. That’s why it can also be more fun. Sometimes those surprises can open your palate to wonderful new experiences.

Of course, don’t ever be shy about asking how a food is prepared or requesting help from the sommelier. Be sure they explain how the preparation of the food pairs nicely with the wine. You’ll be more assured of enjoying your meal and will learn some good lessons for your next adventure in your own kitchen.

Cheese, Wine and Fruit

Any simple gathering can become a tasting event with the classic combination of wine, cheese, and fruit. View our Cheese and Wine pairing page for more a large selection of pairings.

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.