For many, one of the most enjoyable aspects of wine consumption is being able to pair a wine alongside food. Not only can a quality wine improve or enhance a diner’s appreciation of the food they’re eating, the wine itself can also potentially be enjoyed more when it’s matched with an ideal type of food. Given that each individual’s preference to wine style and food flavours will be quite subjective, there are basically no definitive rules in terms of what can and cannot be matched. However, for the most ideal food and wine pairings, the following few points should be kept in mind:
First is the concept of matching weights, which simply refers to matching foods and wines on the basis of their weight (for food) and body (for wine). ‘Weight’ for foods refers to the intensity and richness of the flavours and the ‘body’ of a wine is usually determined by its alcohol content and level of tannins. Both fat in food and alcohol in wine register as texture in the mouth; fatty meats and high-alcohol wines both seem thicker and heavier than low-fat seafood and low alcohol wines. So for instance, dishes with robust and hearty flavours such as roast beef or braised lamb shanks would be considered a somewhat heavy meal, ideally suited to an equally full-bodied wine, such as the rich and tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. On the other hand, a lighter dish, say a mild flavoured fish with lemon sauce alongside some fresh greens, would probably be better suited to a lighter wine, such as the crisp Pinot Grigio. Part of the reason behind this pairing of weights is to avoid one party in the exchange, either the food or the wine, overwhelming the other. The idea is for neither element to overpower the other, allowing their flavours to mix and mingle on equal terms.
However, another concept for wine and food pairings takes a separate approach, and that is based on the idea that opposites attract.
The idea behind the ‘contrasts’ approach is to select wine and food at opposite ends of the flavour and weight spectrum, in order to strike a unique balance between flavour, intensity and texture. As an example, it would be arguably more ideal to pair a fish dish with a creamy sauce alongside a crisp and acidic white such as a Sauvignon Blanc, rather than a complementary wine such as a creamy, buttery Chardonnay. This is because the crisp ‘bite’ of a Sauvignon Blanc can serve as a great contrast to the texture of the meal and will ‘cut through’ the creaminess of the sauce to provide a more refreshing sensation on the palate than a complementary pairing would.
The idea of contrasting flavours working off one another can also be seen with fruity wines being able to cut through the spice of certain Asian dishes, or when the proteins and fats in certain cheeses are able to mellow the tannins in full-bodied reds, making them seem less bitter and more fruity.
There is also an interesting chemical reaction between wine and salt which has implications for food and wine pairing. Salt blocks our ability to discern acidity in wine, and wine returns the favour by blocking perceived saltiness in the food without compromising overall flavour. Wines need to taste a little too acidic when drunk on their own, in order to taste just right with most foods. Tart wines designed to taste their best in this context are often called food-oriented wines.
One food and wine combination to avoid is pairing a high alcohol red wine with spicy food. Spicy heat in food and high alcohol in wine amplify each other’s dominant features instead of balancing and neutralizing. Alcohol acts as an irritant that briefly makes the burn of spicy food seem more intense and painful, and full-bodied wines seem heavier and more alcoholic when tasted after eating spicy food. Neither effect is flattering.