Wine Adventures

Pairing Food and Wine--Mystery Solved

If it Grows Together, it Goes Together

In many parts of the world, wine isn’t considered a beverage.  It’s food…part of the meal.  That’s because people in places like France, Italy, and Spain enjoy food and wine matching traditions that go back hundreds of years.  But why do tomato sauce and Chianti go so well together?  Or beef stew with red Burgundy?

It’s been a while since we visited this topic, so I hope to offer a few new insights.  If we want to get the most out of the experience of wine, aside from just slugging it from a glass, it helps to apply some basic principles to pairing with food.  In restaurants, some people decide what they want to eat, then choose a wine to go with.  Others (including us) pick the wine first, then look at the food side of the menu.  Either way, keeping in mind a few fundamentals will go a long way to assuring that the wine enhances the food, and vice versa.

First, whites before reds, light-bodied wines before full, and dry before sweet.  It helps if the wine and food have similar levels of intensity, which is the richness and concentration of aromas and flavors. For example, a light white such as Sauvignon Blanc would be overwhelmed by a grilled New York strip steak.

Then, consider how the food is cooked.  A fish that’s steamed or poached needs a lighter wine accompaniment than a filet of fried grouper.  Broiled, grilled or smoked foods, such as steaks and ribs, need a wine with a smoky flavor, like a Sangiovese, Zinfandel, or Syrah.  Sautéeing puts fat in direct contact with the food, so we’d choose either a wine with an oily texture, or a wine that cuts the fat, such as a full-bodied Cabernet or Syrah.

Next comes what chefs like to call “bridge” flavors: these connect the food with wines that have the same flavor profiles.  A simple example would be Chardonnay that has a buttery, creamy flavor paired with (wait for it) buttered popcorn.  Silly, but it works surprisingly well.  On a more serious note, taste components like the acid in tomato sauce work with acidic wines, such as Chianti or Barbera.

In red wines, tannin is a big factor in pairing with food.  Tannin is a mouthfeel that gives us the dry, “fuzzy” sensation on the palate, and it comes from the seeds, stems, and skins of red grapes.  Mostly, we want to diminish the effects of tannin, and we can do that by pairing reds with fatty foods, such as steaks and chops.  Another technique is to pair tannic wines with saltier foods, because the salt counteracts the tannin as well.

A word about Champagne, and sparkling whites made in the Champagne style:  in general, they go with almost any food.  The high acidity pairs with Asian and Latin dishes, with smoky and spicy foods, and with egg dishes at Sunday brunch. 

We’ll visit this topic again, because there are lots of wines, and lots of foods.  Watch for information about the “lemon law” in wine and food pairing in upcoming issues.  Meanwhile, here are a few of our latest value discoveries.

Masi Masicano Pinot Grigio & Verduzzo della Venezie 2014 ($10) – Not serious, but fun.  Refreshing oak, green apple and pear flavors, slightly sweet on the palate.  A nice, simple sipper.  WW 87

Smoke Tree Pinot Noir Sonoma 2014 ($17) – Bright garnet in the glass with aromas of anise and smoke.  A Burgundian style, offering flavors of forest floor and raspberry.  Needs some time.  WW 86

Renieri Rosso di Montalcino Toscana 2012 ($15) – Gorgeous ruby color, aromas of fresh plum and bright fruit on the palate with hints of warm earth.  Really interesting.  Needs a bit of time.  WW 90

Il Bastardo Sangiovese Toscana 2015 ($7) – Nothing complicated here, but some big cherry flavors in the glass, and plenty of structure to stand up to the strong flavors of Italian cuisine.  Great with pizza and pasta.  WW 88