Fundamentals of Food & Wine Pairing
As another great summer rolls around on the Northern Michigan wine trails, enquiring minds always want to know: “What goes with what?”
What wine pairs perfectly with perch? What’s the best wine with a hamburger? Is it OK to drink white wine with pizza? The answer to these questions is exactly the same: whichever wine you enjoy most.
While there are fundamental principles and guidelines to pairing wine with food, the goal is to drink the wine(s) you enjoy. If your favorite wine is a Riesling and you’re a steak lover, then enjoy them together. Really, it’s OK.
The fun is in balancing the dish with the wine: The sum should be greater than the parts, just as your favorite dish is greater than the sum of its ingredients! Our goal is to have 1+1=3. Bad arithmetic but great taste combinations is what we’re seeking. Synergy is the key.
There are three principles wine professionals use to maximize their guests’ enjoyment of food and wine:
• Matching or mirroring the wine to the dish
• Bridging the wine’s aromas and flavors with those of the dish
• Contrasting the food and wine
But before we start applying these principles, consider a few food and wine “keys.”
While some folks (wine geeks) select the wines before choosing the food, most of us choose the food first. The first on our food “key ring” is, of course, the ingredients— vegetables, meat, poultry and fish.
The cooking method is next. For chefs, the chicken breast is a tabula rasa, or a blank slate. How is it prepared: poached, sautéed, deep-fried, or grilled? The method of cooking has an enormous effect on the dish’s aroma, flavor and appearance. This is critical in determining which wine to select.
Our next keys are sweetness and spiciness. Both are very subjective. What’s really sweet to you may be just a bit sweet to your dining companions. Is milk chocolate your favorite or do you prefer the dark chocolate with 75 percent cocoa? Spiciness is also extremely personal. It’s why menus at many Asian restaurants include the spice level.
Finally, for many diners, a favorite key is sauces and condiments. Whether it is marinara, sweet barbecue, Alfredo or hollandaise, everyone has a favorite. The sauce or condiment is very important when pairing the wine to the dish. All of these food keys unlock what we need to know to best pair wines with our favorite foods.
Keys to wine are a bit different than food keys. The most important key on your wine “key ring” is acidity.
Wines high in acidity are the easiest to pair with food. Balanced acidity’s finish leaves us desiring a bite of food, and then the food begs for a sip of wine. Examples of adding acidity to food are when we squeeze lemon on local whitefish or perch or add a pickle to a hamburger. A bit of acidity “kicks it up a notch.”
Tannins are found in many red wines. They’re acids that create the same astringent feeling as tea that’s been steeped a bit too long. Fruit tannins come from the grape skins. Wood tannins are from the oak barrels. They can be very soft and luxurious or almost like sandpaper. Some folks love the “grip in your mouth” that tannins provide. Others find it unpleasant and avoid tannic wines. Tannins have a dramatic effect on the texture of the wine.
Oak can be a very important key. If used in moderation, it amplifies the wine’s color, body and flavor. If over-oaked, the wine is clumsy, bitter and frankly unpleasant. Balance is key. Some wine lovers enjoy lots of oaky aromas and flavors while others don’t like the lumberyard.
A recent trend, particularly with Chardonnays, is to use no oak at all. Unoaked wines are more flexible in pairing with a variety of dishes.
Alcohol content is also key. The lower the alcohol, the lighter the wine. The level of alcohol is a reliable indicator of mouthfeel and weight.
UNLOCKING PERFECT PAIRINGS
Now we can apply those food and wine keys to the three main pairing principles. Matching is simply mirroring the wine to the dish. Is it a light, mild dish? Are the aromas and flavors delicate and elegant? Or is it a big, bold, hearty dish? Is there a dominant flavor or ingredient?
Matching flavors and textures involves mostly common sense. Light dishes are enhanced with lighter wines. Big, bold, robust recipes call for heavier, denser wines. A summer salad works well with a crisp lighter wine like a Pinot Gris/Grigio. Rich flavors like Lake Michigan salmon in a cream sauce are flattered by a buttery, oaky Chardonnay. Earthy flavors such as morel mushrooms are reflected by the wide variety of Pinot Noirs from our region. A juicy, well-marbled grilled steak with hollandaise sauce is best with a hearty red blend or a Cabernet Franc.
Bridging is linking aromas and flavors in the food and wine. Herbs such as dill, oregano and even cilantro frequently waft from our glasses. Pinot Blancs frequently have herbal, citrus and mineral aromas with zesty acidity. Bridging those aromas with a lemon dill sauce on fresh whitefish is a match made in heaven.
A “Michigan salad” is complemented by a refreshing dry rosé. Trout almondine is perfect with a dry Riesling. Pork or chicken with a sauce of apples or cherries works well with semi-dry Riesling or a local Gewürztraminer.
Smoke is a classic bridge between food and wine. That grilled burger will taste even better with a mellow Merlot. Grilled sausages and hot dogs go great with sparkling wine. Sommeliers often think of the wine as a condiment or sauce in and of itself.
Contrasting the flavors and textures of wines and foods is fun, but a bit more challenging. While there are some classic contrasting combinations (see sidebar), creating new pairings can be an enjoyable adventure. Guidelines for contrasting include sparkling wines with crunchy foods like deep-fried chicken. Or bubbles and popcorn—try it! Heat likes sweet. If you’re dining on spicy dishes, a sweeter Riesling or Gewürztraminer is a soothing contrast to the heat.
The goal is to have a delicious and enjoyable experience. Pleasure is the guiding principle. Have fun, and may each meal be twice as delectable as your previous one.
Michael Schafer, Esq., Sommelier, CSW, is a sommelier and wine educator. He lives in Michigan and offers his services as the Wine Counselor to entertain and educate at all levels. WineCounselor.net.
CLASSIC CONTRASTING FOOD & WINE PAIRINGS
Fresh chévre (goat cheese) with Sauvignon Blanc
Stilton cheese and walnuts with Port
French fries with sparkling wine
Foie gras with sweet white dessert wine
FANTASTIC MICHIGAN FISH PAIRINGS
Whitefish: Chardonnay or rose
Perch: Pinot Gris/Grigio or sparkling
Salmon: Chardonnay or Pinot Noir
Trout: Pinot Gris/Grigio or Riesling
QUICK & EASY PAIRING STRATEGIES
• Pair complex food with a simple wine; pair simple food with a complex wine.
• Refined wines with refined cuisine; robust wines with robust food.
• When in doubt, pair the wine to the sauce, rather than to the food the sauce is on.
• The most flexible wines are sparkling wines and Pinot Noirs.
• Pair the wine to the occasion: value wines with casual cooking, sparkling wines for celebrating, complex wines with elegant dining.