Matching Wine with Food

By John Fisher - Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends, Issue #68, Winter 2003)

Time and time again, I hear the erroneous statement “It doesn’t make any difference what wine you match to food. Drink the wine that you like.” This specious statement makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Would you put mustard on ice cream or maple syrup on raw oysters? Would you wear argyle socks with an evening gown or wear a Kansas State sweatshirt to a Nebraska football game? Would you drink Barolo with oysters, or Zinfandel with shrimp tempura?

Of course you wouldn’t. Disparate combinations affront our senses by their lack of symmetry. They have a disjointed feel that attacks our sense of artistry. In
contradistinction, items that match and complement each other become pleasing to the senses; they become hedonistic, they become artistic. Isn’t it logical that certain foods will have an affinity to specific wine styles?

If the pleasure of wine equals one unit and the pleasure of food equals one unit, the idea is to make the union of wine with the food equal to a pleasure of three
or four or more units. In a successful match, the whole should always be greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, in many cases, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Why is it that Chablis goes so well with oysters and Cabernet Sauvignon marries so well with filet mignon? The reason is quite simple. The elements of the wine interdigitate with and reinforce the elements in the dish and thereby fortify flavor.

The following ten tips will guide you in the process of successfully matching wine with food:

1. Tart wines will generally make the best match to foods. Always keep the tartness in the wine greater than that in the food.

2. Sweet foods like to find sweetness in the accompanying wine.

3. Tannins suppress flavor; therefore, only serve tannic wines with robust, flavorful dishes.

4. Acids and tannins lighten the weights of heavy ponderous dishes. Cloyingly rich and big, full-bodied dishes go best with tart or tannic wines.

5. Match the flavors in the dish to those in the wine. Dishes seasoned with white wine flavors (apples, citrus, etc.) should be served with white wines, those with red wine flavors (cherries, berries, etc) with red wines.

6. Complement the flavor in the wine to those in the dish. For example, we know that pepper blends well with steak. Therefore, the peppery flavor in a Zinfandel will in similar fashion complement steak.

7. Always try to match the weight of the wine to that of the food. Heavy-weight wines should always be restricted to full-bodied dishes. Light-weight wines are more versatile; they can be matched to any dish.

8. Salty foods call for tart wines.

9. Always try to match the ethnicity of the food to that of the wine. Although Zinfandel may pair perfectly well with spaghetti and meatballs, Barbera d’Asti would be better. The eye sees the label!

10. Consider the ambiance. An inexpensive Australian Shiraz will successfully pair with steak at a picnic; however, the same steak at a formal dinner party will do better with a quality California Cabernet or a good Bordeaux.

I have always found it amusing that this country’s two most favorite wines–Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay-take first billing on the menus of most restaurants. The fact is that they have limited application in wine-food pairings. Cabernet Sauvignon, a big, rich, full-bodied wine, is only useful in pairing to heavyweight dishes. Sure, it’s great if you are eating at a Chop House, but for the ordinary restaurant, its use in matching with food is rather limited. Chardonnay, a big, rich, and often low acid wine can make wine-food pairings cloyingly rich or ponderously heavy. The union of big, rich wine to big, rich food without the relief of substantial acidity is simply too much.

If I were limited to four wines to use in wine-food pairings, I would select Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and German Riesling. These are versatile wines that will match to a wide variety of foods. Isn’t it odd that they take such a minor role on the wine menu of most restaurants?