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Wine and Food

Although mixed drinks are very popular, wine has become the social beverage of choice for many people. What wine you drink at a party is of little concern beyond red vs. white and that it should be of decent quality. Serious wine is best served with food. but when it comes to choosing a wine to go with food (or in my case, food to go with a particular wine), it can get much more complicated.

The topic of pairing wine with food has delighted and maddened untold millions for centuries, so have no illusions about finding the perfect answer here. In fact, there is no perfect answer. That is really the point. Food/wine pairings are guidelines that have worked for most people most of the time, but clearly not for everyone nor all the time. Mood, ambiance, subtle variations in the ingredients of a dish, and the specifics of how a dish is prepared all affect which wines would best be paired with it as well as how well it will pair with a specific wine. And that doesn’t begin to address personal preferences and order effects. The selection of a wine for a certain dish will be influenced by both the food and the wine that came before it, if any.

Before you throw up your hands in despair and just reach for the rosé (It goes with everything, doesn’t it?), consider that there are some guidelines that have stood the test of time. They come from various sources. But consider also that they are only suggestions. Don’t be a slave to the “experts.” Experiment! You may come up with your own personal favorite combinations.


WINE AND CHEESE
Which wine goes best with which cheese is very much a question of personal taste. The truth is that there are so many wines and so many cheeses that it would take an encyclopedia to list and pair them all. Wine is often at its best with cheese, but not all wines go with all cheeses. Just as with other foods, certain cheeses are best suited to certain wines. Red wines, for example, are generally considered best with most cheeses, but whites go especially well with goats’ milk cheese and cooked cheese dishes. It also is not surprising that the wines of a specific region will generally pair extremely well with the cheeses native to that region.

Especially full-bodied and powerful red  wines - Blue cheeses such as French and Danish blue, Gorgonzola, Roquefort and Stilton; soft goats’ milk cheese

Medium to full-bodied red wines - Asiago, Manchego, Gorgonzola, Parmesan. Some say Brie and Camembert, but I find that these cheeses can make any wine taste odd.

Medium-bodied reds - Munster, Edam, Port Salut, Emmenthal, Swiss, Jarlsburg, Gruyere

Fruity and light reds - Cantal, cream cheeses

Light dry reds and whites - Goats’ and sheep’s milk cheeses, young Cheddar, cooked cheese dishes, Fontina, Gouda, Bel Paese

Robust and full-bodied white wines - Gruyere and Cheddar

Rosé and medium-bodied whites - Gouda, Port Salut, Herbed Cheeses

Sweet dessert wines - Parmesan, sweet Gorgonzola, Cheddar, hard or soft goats’ milk cheeses, Stilton (with Port).

When NOT to serve cheese and wine together: The only time wine should not be accompanied by cheese is at a serious wine tasting. Cheese smoothes the rough edges of certain wines, especially young reds, and tends to overemphasize the value of the wine and gives a false impression of its true quality. Put another way, cheese can hide a wine’s defects and make it taste better than it really is. Professionals have a saying: “Buy on bread, sell on cheese.”  


SOME RULES WORTH FOLLOWING

  • Red wines with beef dishes, whites with seafood. BUT, lighter reds can be perfect with many of the more flavorful seafood preparations and there are some rock 'em sock 'em whites that will stand up to meat.
  • The heartier (richer, more flavorful) the meal, the heartier (full-bodied, full-flavored) the wine. Neither the wine nor the food should overpower. You want to taste BOTH!
  • Match the wine with the sauce more than with the type of meat. (Fish with a heavy, spicy tomato sauce would overwhelm most white wines and even many light reds!)
  • The wines of a region often go best with the cuisine of that region.
  • Be careful with complex food flavors and mature, complex wines. It’s safer to pair complex dishes with a fruity, relatively straightforward, and even one-dimensional Cabernet rather than a mature Bordeaux with its panoply of aromas and flavors. Use simpler dishes (such as roast beef, unadorned) to show off mature red wines. Either the food or the wine can be complex, usually not both!
  • Pinot Noir (also red Burgundies) and Sauvignon Blanc (also Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé, and white Bordeaux) are the most versatile varietals. They go with a wider range of foods than most other varietals. If in doubt....
  • White wine tastes sweeter with artichokes and asparagus. Thus, bone-dry, herbal Sauvignon Blanc works best with them.
  • White wine tastes metallic with the dark, gray, oily parts of fish such as bluefish, salmon, and tuna. Generally, remove those parts before cooking.
  • Red wine tastes metallic with more than a tiny amount of vinegar, shellfish, or snails. 
  • Red wine tannins are softened by dishes that contain certain ingredients, such as cracked black pepper or fat. Pepper also fleshes out and improves young, fruity reds.
  • Red meat needs red wines with some tannic grip. A modest amount of tannin behaves  like acidity to cleanse the palate. Obviously, a wine that is very tannic should be aged several years before opening.
  • Salty foods go well with sweeter wines which counteract the salt to achieve balance in the mouth.
  • Spicy foods go best with light weight, low-alcohol, semisweet wines such as German  wines or spicy wines such as Alsatian. Alcohol fans the flames; sugar douses them.
  • High-acid foods (including those with citrus or tomato) need high-acid wines (Italian wines generally work well). Wines with low acid appear flaccid with acidic foods.
  • Subtly flavored foods need subtle, older wines that have lost their youthful exuberance, like mature riesling or Bordeaux.
  • Champagne is NOT the best choice with caviar and smoked salmon! The sugar dosage in most Champagne is amplified by the pungent fish oils, turning the wine sweet and fishy. Very dry (nondosage) or aged Brut Champagne can, however, work well.
  • Champagne does go well with fried and salty food, salty nuts, Parmigiano Cheese, egg dishes (especially with ham or bacon), soups, salads, sushi, and sashimi.

 

Wine and Food Pairing - Wine Matches for Grilled Fare

GRILL-FRIENDLY REDS:
Zinfandel will be able to handle a wide variety of red meats. This bold red wine bellies up to meaty, smokey flavors allowing the varietal’s black pepper spice, acidity, and ripe tannins to carry the meat’s fats and texture to a new dimension. A Zin will also work well with barbecue sauce, steak sauce, and mild salsas - if there is too much spice in the sauce the two will compete and both the wine and the sauce end up as losers.

Merlot is the spicy sauce answer to the above dilemma. With the characteristic fruit-forward flavor profile, this varietal will support the spice and not aggravate it. Grilled pork chops, chicken, and garden-variety salads with lighter dressings also mingle well with Merlot.

Shiraz/Syrah is another varietal that makes the grill-friendly wine list. This varietal is delicious with just about any red meat. Offering dynamic, somewhat aggressive fruit flavors, balanced with more mellow tannins and a softer-fuller body - this wine’s place to shine is definitely at a barbecue gathering! Rhone Syrahs tend to have a smokier flavor characteristic and lend themselves extremely well to smoked brisket.

Cabernet Sauvignon is made for steaks with a higher fat content. Burgers of beef or turkey will also pair well. The tighter tannins are significantly mellowed by the meat’s fat producing a palate pleaser to remember! Top your burgers with bold cheeses, like blue or sharp cheddar, and this varietal gets even better!

Pinot Noir is a flexible varietal that is known for being extremely food-friendly. It can go from grilled fish to a juicy burger in a single sip! Pinot Noir is an ideal candidate for grilled fish (especially salmon), burgers, and chicken. If you aren’t sure what wine will work with your grilled dinner, Pinot Noir will likely be your best bet.

Chianti comes in styles ranging from light to quite full. Like Pinot Noir, it is an extremely versatile wine.

GRILL-FRIENDLY WHITES:
Chardonnay, especially if not too oaky, will work wonderfully with grilled fish (including shellfish), chicken with creamy sauces, and grilled corn on the cob with lots of butter!

Riesling is the perfect varietal for grilled bratwurst, shrimp, barbecue chicken, grilled pineapple and a variety of grilled veggies.

Sauvignon Blanc has an herbaceous quality that supports marinades and sauces with similar attributes. For example, grilled chicken that has been doused in Italian dressing or a citrus marinade will be unbeatable with a Sauvignon Blanc. Likewise, roasted peppers, veggies in fresh herbs, and grilled fish with dill & lemon will all be highlighted by a Sauvignon Blanc.

Gewurztraminer (especially Alsatian) offers a balance to spice with its slightly to moderately sweet character. This varietal would be a great choice to go with blackened Mahi Mahi or grilled Cajun chicken with fresh mango salsa. Also consider Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Others: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), and dry rosés.  

Generally red wines go well with grilled red meats - basic burgers, steaks, ribs, etc. These meats can be somewhat salty, a bit smokey, and tend to be a touch sweeter due to marinades, sauces, condiments, and cooking times. Lighter meats and sauces are apt to go better with white wines that share similar flavors as the foods they are meant to accent. If you are having a backyard barbecue, offer a few whites and a few reds, and let your guests mix and match to see which flavor pairs suit their preferences. They are no hard and fast rules when it comes to pairing wines with your grilled foods. Ultimately it is your palate that you are seeking to please.

Wine and Food Pairing - Some Specifics

Light Appetizers: Canapés (bread topped with spreads, like cheese, paté, etc.) match well with crisp light dry white wines like Muscadet, light Italian and German whites, Champagne, or Pro-secco. Salty or fried appetizers work best with fruity German whites, dry sherry, or Champagne

Heavier Appetizers: such as antipasto (olives, salami, prosciutto and cheeses) are salty and need a bright, fruity wine (Chenin Blanc, Riesling or dry Sherry). Reds include Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and fruity Spanish reds. Rich, oily and salty Spanish tapas work well with sparkling wine (Cava), Albariño, or Manzanilla sherry.

Light Fish Dishes (raw, steamed, poached or broiled delicate fish, crab, scallops, shrimp): Spanish Albariño! Mâcon, light Chardonnay, Muscadet, white Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Ménétou-Salon); unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from California; Italian white or French Chablis. Crispness (acidity) is the key! Try a dry rosé such as those from Provence, a Vouvray Sec from the Loire, or a dry Riesling.

 

Food and Wine Pairing - Classic Mexican Cuisine

Some General Rules

  • Pair wine with the sauce, not the meat, poultry, or fish on the plate.

  • The classics of Mexicanfood are always defined by their sauces. Pay particular attention to the type of chile used. Sauces that feature fresh green chiles typically pair best with white wines.

  • Sauces that feature dried red chiles typically pair best with red wines.

  • Sauces that feature tomatillos pair best with fruity Syrahs or NZ Sauvignon Blancs.

  • Sauces that feature tomatoes pair best with Italian reds such as Sangiovese and Barbera.

  • Match a wine’s acidity to the characteristic lime, sour orange, and fruit vinegar found in many classic Mexican sauces. Good acidity in a wine is often crucial.

  • Match a wine’s fruitiness to the fruitiness of the classic sauce. Botanically chilies are fruits, but many Mexican sauces weave in other fruits as well. A wine with concentrated fruit often works best.

  • Sparkling wines usually do not work with spicy food, but rich, handmade masa appetizers are the exception.

  • Match a wine’s fruit level to the spice level of the sauce. Spiciness does not detract from the wine if the spice is well integrated into the sauce and the intensity of the wine’s fruit matches the intensity of the spiciness. “Fruit” does not refer to sweetness, but to the flavor of the grape; in fact, off-dry wine can often overwhelm the food’s flavor.

Specific Ingredient Pairings

  • Chipotle Chile (a smoke-dried jalapeño, quite spicy, backed up with welcome sweetness) - Explore Argentine Malbecs which will be rich and forward with a smoky, earthy finish. The more you spend, the richer they will be. Or try a gutsy Spanish Tempranillo such as those from  Ribera del Duero or one of the newer style (more robust) Riojas.

  • Epazote  (a pungent herb with a piney aroma used extensively in Central, Southern, and Eastern Mexico) - Try an Argentine Torrontés whose floral notes will work perfectly. If you haven’t yet tried the terrific Tittarelli Torrontés (our February Wine of the Month), this is your opportunity! Or try a cool climate Pinot Noir (Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon, Carneros, Santa Maria Valley, etc.).

  • Guajillo Chile (a light, cranberry-red, long, smooth-skin dried chile which is medium to spicy and brightly lively to aggressive) - The supple, forward fruit of a California or Languedoc Syrah will nicely balance the heat.

  • Hoja Santa (a bold herb with alluring sarsaparilla and anise flavors integral to Southern and Gulf coast food) - Riesling and Vouvray (Chenin Blanc) are the perfect choice.

  • Huitlacoche (an inky-colored, earthy-sweet corn mushroom that is a delicacy in Central Mexico) - Explore Tempranillo or a full-bodied Pinot Noir for their earthy fruitiness.

  • Pasilla Chile (a very dark, long, dried chile which is medium spicy with deep flavors that hint at bitter chocolate and coffee) - Try a rich and spicy Zinfandel or a soft Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • Poblano Chile (a large, dark green chile, medium spicy with rich, complex, and earthy flavors) - An Austrian Grüner Veltliner, a Moscatel, or a dry Riesling all have lovely citrus flavors that will work well.

More information on wine and food pairing can be found here.