The change in season means we’re approaching some major transitions: flip-flops to peep-toes. Linen to wool. Barbecue to casseroles. Beer to wine. If you haven’t brushed up on your wine tasting and pairing skills since the last cold front, it may be time for a refresher. But let’s be honest with ourselves: Most of us just fumble our way through the liquor store, choosing a red with a nice-looking label to pair with steak and a moderately priced white to go with fish. If that’s the extent of your considerations when choosing a bottle at the store, you may be doing it all wrong.
I sat down with two sommeliers, Rebecca Meir-Liebman of Chef & Somm and Haley Mercedes of Provence Marinaside, to help us do it right. Both women say the practice of solely matching a wine to the color of your food died back when it was cool to put parsley on everything. It’s an acceptable place to start, but you’ll definitely be missing out on some interesting combinations.
I also learned it’s incredibly difficult to break down what sommeliers do into a set of arbitrary rules, because there are a lot of things at play, both on a plate and in a wine. Which wine to choose isn’t determined by just one thing. It’s like when you see a beautiful woman on the street. She’s not beautiful because of just her nose or eyes—it’s the way everything works together. Alas, I guess we all have to start somewhere on the quest for beauty, so here’s a beginner's guide to impressing the pants off your next dinner guest or date. Welcome to Fuss-Free Wine Pairing 101.
1. Body is key.
Want to fit in at a chichi wine tasting session? Just throw the word body around a lot (and not in reference to the outcome of going Paleo). Body is the analysis of the way a wine feels inside your mouth and can be broken down simply into light, medium, and full. You can liken these “bodies” to the way skim, whole, and cream feel, respectively, if you swished them around your cheeks.
Generally, alcohol content plays a role in the body or weight of a wine because booze enhances viscosity, which influences how a wine coats your mouth. So if you want to pick up a few bottles (you know, as “research”), wines under 12.5 percent alcohol are generally light bodied, between 12.5 and 13.5 percent are medium bodied, and those above 13.5 percent are full bodied.
As a general rule of thumb, aim to pair lighter-bodied wines with lighter dishes and full-bodied wines with heavier dishes, so neither the wine nor the food overpowers the other.
Wines: Chenin blanc, albariño, bordeaux, sauvignon blanc
Food: Pasta, cheese, white fish, seafood, richer salads
Wines: Sémillon, chardonnay, viognier, marsanne
Food: Pink and white fish, chicken, duck, quail, Cornish hen, pasta with cream sauce, seafood, pork sausage
Wines: Gamay, red burgundy, pinot noir
Food: Pink fish, cheese, quail, Cornish hen, chicken
Wines: Sangiovese, merlot, barbera, grenache, montepulciano
Food: Pasta with tomato sauce, grilled meat
Wines: Malbec, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, shiraz, nebbiolo, rioja, petit syrah
Food: Beef, bison, barbecued meat, lamb
2. Focus on flavor.
Like body, the actual flavors in the dish play a role in determining which wine works best. If you’re looking to prevent a food or wine from overpowering its partner, “mirroring” the food with the wine by choosing complementary flavors may work best. Alternatively, you can create an interesting pair and balance out a standout flavor. Here are some general tips for playing up different flavor profiles.
Mirror the food and wine.
Tip 1: Delicate wines pair nicely with delicate flavors.
Think: White fish with pinot gris
Tip 2: It goes without saying, but pair bold wines with big, bold flavors.
Think: Thai cuisine with gewürztraminer
Tip 3: Acidic wines play nicely with acidic flavors because the wine helps the food taste less sour, richer, and smoother.
Think: Citrus salad with sauvignon blanc
Tip 4: Complement fruit in recipes with fruity wines.
Think: Brown sugar pork with riesling
Tip 5: Look for similar flavor notes in the wine and food.
Think: Sauvignon blanc may have lime notes that pair perfectly with salsa, while pinot noir may carry an umami-rich, earthy aroma that would go perfectly with these garlic butter mushrooms.
Tip 6: Rich tannin-packed wines play nicely with fatty food. Fat will help soften the wine’s tannins, while a bold wine will stand up to the richness of the meat.
Think: Prime rib with cabernet sauvignon
Create contrast between food and wine.
Tip 1: Choose a wine that’s slightly sweeter than the food you’re serving. When your food is too sweet for your wine, the vino will taste bitter, tart, and unpleasant.
Think: Pear tart with goat cheese with a classic dessert wine, French sauternes
Tip 2: Pair bitter or sulfurous vegetables with wines that have a lower tannin content, a fruitier flavor, and a bit of acidity. Bold tannic reds can make sulfurous veggies taste metallic and overwhelmingly bitter, downgrading vegetables from tolerable to mildly inedible.
Think: Crack broccoli with sauvignon blanc
Tip 3: Choose acidic wines to help cut the richness of fatty foods.
Think: Baja-style fish tacos with riesling
Tip 4: Go for acidic and sweet wines to help balance super salty flavors.
Think: Sticky rice and pineapple chicken with gewürztraminer
Tip 5: Choose acidic wines to mellow out sweet notes.
Think: Fig and caramelized onion flatbread with pinot blanc
Tip 6: Balance out super spicy foods with an acidic off-dry white, light red, or bubbles. Avoid oak or full-bodied wines that tend to accentuate heat and mute nuanced flavors, and instead look for something with a hint of fruity sweetness, a good balance of crisp acidity, and even a little bubble to kick up those bold flavors.
Think: Spicy Thai cucumber salad with prosecco
3. Fried food is different from baked (duh, but also for your wine glass).
While we may play dumb after a few beers, most of us appreciate that when chicken is fried, it isn’t the light and lean dieters' delight it is when grilled and served with a spritz of lemon. For that reason, how a food is cooked has a significant bearing on which wine that food is best served with. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking fish, salad, pizza, or beef; different culinary preparations carry different “weights” on the palate. For example, shaved raw cauliflower may just wet your palate, while battered and deep-fried cauliflower tends to sit in your gut like a quarter pounder. Use food preparation to guide your next choice of wine.
Poached, Baked, Steamed, or Raw Foods
Go for light, crisp wines such as sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, sparkling wine, and riesling.
Grilled or Roasted Foods
Caramelized, smoky meats and veggies can stand up to bigger, bolder, and even more tannic wines such as zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, and rioja.
Go for acidic or sparkling wines such as riesling, Champagne, proscecco, cava, and chenin blanc to cut through the richness of fried food.
4. Sauce it up.
The rule isn’t limited to the main; it extends to the accompanying sauce as well. “Sauces have a huge role in pairing, as a dish’s acidity, sweetness, and flavors comes from the sauce,” says Mercedes. Sauces laced with butter, eggs, cheese, and cream scream for a hearty, intense, and rich wine, compared with light wine for tomato sauces. A cheesy pasta would be beautiful with merlot, while a bright tomato and basil pasta would be lovely with a crisp pinot grigio. Here are some of the basics.
Light Tomato Sauce
Look for a wine with solid acidity and fruitiness to match the acidity in the tomatoes, such as gamay, pinot noir, chianti, or sangiovese.
Sweet and Sour Sauces
Go for something fruity such as zinfandel, shiraz, syrah, riesling, or gewürztraminer.
Red Wine Sauces
Ideally, use the same wine in the sauce or go for a bold red such as Bordeaux, merlot, or malbec.
Look for a big wine with a bit of acidity to cut through the rich sauce, such as a viognier, sémillon, or chardonnay.
5. Making wine work for you.
If you’re serving a wide range of party foods and need a versatile wine to get you through the night, look for something that offers a light, fruity flavor and is high in acidity and relatively low in tannins.
The Bottom Line on Wine
Clearly there’s a reason sommeliers have a job; there’s a lot going on in each wine and plate duo. But at the end of the day, it’s all just wine. If you choose something a little too grassy or a little too sweet, no one is going to leave the party pissed. Running out of wine, on the other hand, now that’s a real party foul. So even if you just grab that white with the nice label and serve it with everything, make sure you buy enough.