Finding the Perfect Match: Key Principles for Food and Wine Pairings

Pairing wine with food is both an art and a science, aimed at elevating the dining experience by harmonizing flavors and textures. But there are some basic principles you can follow to get started.

Some Simple Basic Rules

Match Flavor Intensity: A really simple rule to start with is to pair light-bodied wines with lighter foods and fuller-bodied wines with heartier, more flavorful dishes. Matching the intensity of flavors between food and wine ensures that one doesn’t overshadow the other. Robust dishes with deep, bold flavors, such as a rich beef stew or a hearty lasagna, go well with wines that have a similar depth and character, like a Cabernet Sauvignon or a robust Zinfandel. On the other hand, delicate dishes, such as a light seafood pasta or a lemon herb chicken, pair best with wines that are equally subtle and light, like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. A great start is to understand the dominant flavor profile of both the dish and the wine and then trying to match them. This equilibrium ensures that the essence of both the food and the wine can be appreciated, creating a harmonious dining experience.

Consider Cooking Method: The way a dish is cooked can profoundly change its character, and by extension, its wine partner. Take chicken, for instance. When grilled, it adopts smoky, charred notes, yearning for a wine with similar undertones, perhaps an oaked Chardonnay or a smoky Tempranillo. On the flip side, a delicately poached chicken, with its subtle and gentle flavors, might find its soulmate in a crisp, light wine like Pinot Grigio or a mineral-driven Chablis, accentuating its purity and simplicity.

Think about the Sauce: Sauces, with their array of flavors, can dramatically influence pairings. Imagine a tender salmon; when draped in a zesty lemon-butter sauce, it leans towards a vibrant white like Sauvignon Blanc that complements its citrusy brightness. Yet, when the same salmon is enriched with a creamy mushroom sauce, it could cozy up to a light, earthy Pinot Noir or a fuller-bodied white like an oaked Chardonnay, mirroring the sauce’s depth and creaminess.

Match with Dominant Flavors: In every dish, there’s a flavor that sings louder, setting the tone for the entire meal. It’s this dominant note that can be your compass in the vast world of wine. Picture a succulent lamb dish, infused with aromatic rosemary and refreshing mint. This herb-laden profile might find its match in a wine that echoes similar herbaceous tones, perhaps a Cabernet Franc or a Verdejo, creating a harmonious duet of flavors on the palate.

Key Food Characteristics And Wine

Let’s look at some key flavour characterises of food and how to pair them with wine:

Salt: The interaction of salt in food with wine is one of the more friendly and versatile pairings. Saltiness in food can temper the bitterness and acidity in wines, making them appear smoother and more balanced. This is why certain wines that have a pronounced acidity, like many sparkling wines or crisp whites, can taste even better when paired with salty foods. Think of the classic pairing of salty oysters with a crisp Champagne or Chablis. The brininess of the oysters is mellowed by the effervescence and acidity of the wine.

Acidity:  Acidity in food and wine can be likened to a bright thread that binds them. Foods with a pronounced acidic component can make a wine with lower acidity taste flat and flabby. Hence, an acidic wine elevates an acidic dish, matching its intensity and often mirroring its vibrant flavors. For example, Tomato-based dishes, inherently acidic or salads with vinaigrette dressings, sing when paired with an acidic Sauvignon Blanc or Chianti, both enhancing the freshness of the dish.

Bitterness: Bitter foods can amplify the bitterness in wine. Pairing bitter foods, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, or dark chocolate, with wine requires a delicate balance, as both the food and the wine can contain bitter elements. When pairing, it’s essential to avoid amplifying bitterness excessively. Instead, aim for wines that offer a counterbalance. For instance, slightly sweet or fruity wines can offset the bitterness in foods, while wines with pronounced tannins (a source of bitterness) should be approached with caution. As with all pairings, the goal is harmony, ensuring that the wine and food enhance rather than detract from each other’s qualities.

Umami: Umami, the savory taste that you get in mushrooms, soy, and aged cheeses, adds depth and richness to foods. This savory quality can accentuate the perception of tannins in wine, which can make certain reds seem overly astringent. Thus, balancing this effect with wines that are more fruit-driven or even whites with high acidity can work wonders. For example, a savory mushroom risotto might find its match with a fruit-forward Pinot Noir or a zesty Chardonnay.

Spiciness: Heat in food can can make wines taste more alcoholic and bitter. This is why wines with moderate alcohol and some residual sugar can provide relief from the heat and create a harmonious pairing.

Spicy Thai dishes, for examples, often pair beautifully with off-dry Rieslings or Gewürztraminers.

Sweetness: Sweetness in food can quickly overpower a dry wine, making it taste tart and astringent. By ensuring that the wine is equally sweet or sweeter than the food, you create a balanced experience where neither the wine nor the food dominates the other. For example, a rich caramel dessert would find its partner in a sweet, luscious Sauternes or a Tawny Port.

Key Wine Characteristics And Food

And now, let’s look at some of the dominating features in wines:

Beware of Tannins: High-tannin wines, like young red Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon, can clash with certain dishes, especially those that are high in salt or spicy. However, tannins pair beautifully with fatty cuts of meat, which help soften the perceived dryness of the tannins.

Beware of Oakiness: Wines with a noticeable oak influence often have flavors of vanilla, smoke, or toast. These wines can be paired with foods that have similar smoky or grilled flavors.

Acidity Cuts Through Fat: Acidic wines can cut through the richness of fatty foods, creating a balance that refreshes the palate. The acid acts similarly to squeezing a lemon on a rich dish, lifting and brightening the flavors. This principle is why dishes with a rich, creamy sauce or fatty cuts of meat often pair wonderfully with wines that have high acidity. For instance, the crispness of a Chardonnay from Chablis or a zesty Albariño can beautifully complement the richness of dishes like Alfredo pasta or roast pork.

Some More Top Tips

Think Regional: Another top tip is that often, the wines and foods that have grown together over time in a particular region will pair well. Through centuries, certain regions have developed culinary and vinicultural traditions that have become deeply intertwined. The foods and wines from these areas have grown up together, often leading to an innate harmony when paired. Take Burgundy, a region in France, for instance. The rich, earthy dishes like coq au vin or beef bourguignon, which are hallmarks of Burgundian cuisine, are a sublime match for the region’s Pinot Noir with its earthy, red fruit character. Similarly, the buttery escargots de Bourgogne finds a delightful partner in the region’s Chardonnay, reflecting its creamy texture and mineral undertones. Similarly, the myriad flavors of Italian cuisine, from the tangy tomato-based dishes of the south to the rich risottos of the north, find their counterparts in the diverse wines that the Italian peninsula offers. Whether it’s the zestiness of a Sangiovese with a hearty pasta or the crispness of a Pinot Grigio with a seafood risotto, thinking regionally often paves the way to palate-pleasing pairings.

Pairing with Cheese: The many different flavors and textures in cheeses offers an extensive playground for wine pairings. While many gravitate towards the classic pairing of red wine and cheese, there’s a vast array of cheeses that shine brightest when paired with whites, sparkling wines, or even dessert wines. Take blue cheese, for example; its strong, pungent flavor and creamy texture are beautifully complemented by the sweetness and acidity of a Sauternes, creating a balance between salty and sweet. Similarly, the tangy freshness of goat cheese stands out when paired with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, which underscores its vibrant character and offers a refreshing palate cleanse. Try to match the intensity and primary flavors of the cheese with the wine.

Dessert Pairings: As mentioned, one fundamental principle is ensuring that the wine is as sweet as or sweeter than the dessert. For fruit-based desserts like pies or tarts, a wine that mirrors the fruity profile of the dish can be delightful. A Moscato or a late-harvest Riesling, both of which are aromatic and fruit-forward, can echo the sweetness and fruitiness of the dessert. Meanwhile, the rich, decadent nature of chocolate demands a wine that can stand up to its intensity. Dark chocolates, with their deep cocoa flavors, find a companion in red wines with robust fruit notes, like a Zinfandel. The fruitiness of the wine intertwines with the chocolate’s bitterness, creating a harmonious fusion. On the other hand, the inherent sweetness and richness of Port make it a favorite for chocolate-based desserts, offering layers of complexity and a luxurious finish.

Finally, Trust Your Palate And Preference: It’s essential to recognize that everyone’s palate is different. What works for one person might not work for another. Remember, the most important thing is your personal preference. If you like a particular wine with a certain dish, then that’s the right pairing for you!

Take a quiz to test your knowledge

Written by

Bernard Marr has a deep passion for wine. He has written hundreds of articles on wine, including features for Forbes, covering wine-making and industry trends. Away from the world of wine, Bernard is a world-renown business and technology futurist. He is the award winning author of over 20 best-selling books and has a combined audience of nearly 4 million people across his social media channels and newsletters.

Wine Sections

Tasting and Enjoying Wine | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Tasting & Enjoying Wine

Understanding Wine Making | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Wine Making

Understanding Wine Regions | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Wine Regions

Understanding Grape Varieties | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Grape Varieties

Understanding Wine Labels | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Understanding Wine Labels

The Wines of the World | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

The Wines of the World

Wine Trends & Technology | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Wine Trends & Technology

Wine and Food Pairing | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

My Wine Adventures

Wine & Food Diary | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Wine and Food Pairing

Wine Reviews | Bernard Marr | Wine Cellar

Wine Reviews

Some of my most memorable wines