Rules are important. Certain rules, like don’t go the wrong way down a one way street, are more important to follow than others, like no kissing on a first date. When it comes to pairing wine with food, personal preference trumps steadfast rules. With that being said, there are a few useful guidelines to follow that can help you create a harmonious experience where both the food and wine shine brighter together than they would apart.
Be sure to identify the flavor profiles of your food before contemplating wine pairings. If you’re making mac and cheese, you’ve got a dish that’s got plenty of fat and salt. You’ll want to cut that fat with some refreshing acidity or elevate it with even more richness. Dishes with more complex flavors or numerous elements require a bit more thought. BBQ is a perfect example: fatty, smoky, spicy, sweet and sometimes a bit acidic. This warrants some personal testing to see what works and what you prefer. So, if you want your favorite recipe to sing at a dinner party or to wow your friends with a classy bottle of wine, make sure to keep these 7 simple guidelines in mind:
1. Wine should be more acidic than the food it’s paired with. Think of fish with a squeeze of lemon, the wine in this instance serves the function of the lemon.
2. Wine should be sweeter than the food. Dry wine with sweet chocolate is not nearly as good as sweet, viscous wine with unsweetened chocolate.
3. The wine should have the same flavor intensity as the food. Delicate dishes like poached fish deserve delicate wines, whereas smoked meats need bolder, more full-bodied wines.
4. Bitter (or tannic) wines are best balanced by fattier foods: meat, butter, cream, etc.
5. If you’re serving a dish that has a strong sauce component, it is better to pair wine with the sauce than the underlying protein.
6. More often than not, white, sparkling and rosé wines will create complementary (see below) pairings.
7. In a similar vein, red wines will more often create congruent (see below) pairings.
Harry Nilsson nailed this concept back in 1971 when he suggested one should “put the lime in the coconut and drink ‘em both together.” Well said, Harry. Complementary pairings are created when flavor profiles of the wine are used to enhance certain characteristics of the food it’s matched with. For example, a pan-seared grouper (or other delicate white fish) would pair perfectly with an aromatic and herbaceous white wine like Sauvignon Blanc (La Dame Blanche is our go to). The light and crisp acerbity of the wine emulates a fresh squeeze of lemon over the fish, enhancing the delicate flavors of your protein and encouraging another sip of wine with each bite.
If you’re serving something heavier and more savory, like mac & cheese, try pairing with a wine that’s got some sharp acidity like Assyrtiko from Greece or even Pinot Grigio from Italy. These wines will “cut the fat” of the dish by bringing a refreshing tartness otherwise not present.
This method builds upon the flavor profiles of the food by pairing it with wines that have similar flavor notes. Going back to mac & cheese example, a full-bodied chardonnay or viognier (Cuvée Laurine) would enhance the richness of the cheese sauce. The interplay between the creaminess of the dish with that of the wine makes each taste richer by comparison.
Congruent pairings can work with secondary components in a dish as well. If you use smoked cheese for your mac & cheese, try a smoky wine like Syrah (Vignelacroix Rouge). If you throw some crispy bacon in there, try pairing with a Riesling, which will provide acidity to cut the fattiness of the dish as well as sweetness to enhance the same quality in the bacon. In this case, Riesling is both a Complementary and Congruent pairing, double whammy!
Remember, everyone’s taste preferences are just that, preferences. Try multiple ways to pair each dish before you invite your friends over to try your culinary couplings. Now go out there and make some fancy mac & cheese (we love this recipe from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats) and try a few glasses of VINEBOX wine to test and pair with your creations.