Wine & Food Pairing - Should We Follow Traditional Rules?
By Sara Nichols
There’s an old adage that goes “rules are meant to be broken”. Nowhere is this truer than in the world of wine where there are dictums on everything from how to open a bottle of bubbly to whether you should hold a glass of wine by the stem or not.
The thing is though that, while from the outside many practices connected to wine consumption may look rigid or even pretentious, they have their roots in common sense. For example, the prescribed way of opening a bottle of sparkling wine is all geared towards not doing someone a nasty injury with a blasting cork. Holding a glass of white by its stem rather than its bowl prevents it from warming up with your body heat (you don’t want that after carefully chilling your fine Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc, do you?).
The same goes for pairing food with wine. The whole aim of getting the perfect red, white, rosé, sweet or bubbly wine for your menu is to make both the vino and victuals work better together than they do individually. Think of it as matchmaking for grapes and grub.
Over the years, a slew of food and wine pairing conventions have become de rigeur because they work. But the good news is, so does experimenting.
Wine and Food Pairing Conventions
Exploring how to pair food and wine is a never-ending journey of exploration, but there’s conventional wisdom to guide you.
Sparkling wines are traditionally served at the beginning of the evening to get the party started. They are fun, festive, and the more heavyweight ones have enough ABV to help relax the crowd. Sweet styles of bubbly are also a common choice for the dessert course as the flavour profiles of both bring out the best in each other.
If you’re serving a spicy Indian or Thai dish, a great pairing wine is a still sweet or off-dry style. These both and enhance and cool the chilli heat in spicy dishes making them perfect matches. Note that the higher the ABV, the more chilli spice you will feel on your palate and vice versa.
Heavy red meat dishes go well with highly tannic red wines as the chewy texture in the dish is matched by the grippy mouthfeel in the wines.
Tomato-rich dishes beg for a light acidic red while rich, chocolate desserts and cheeses go well with fortified wine.
Unorthodox Pairings That Work
Got all that? Now it’s time to turn it on its head!
Red wines are typically associated with red meat and for good reason; the tannins in heavier reds complement the flavours and textures of a meat dish. However, did you know that reds go down deliciously with fish as well?
Lean white fish like cod, sea bass, or halibut offer tasty backgrounds for a light, fresh, fruity red like Beaujolais. The trick here is to use tomato or red pepper salsas in the fish dish as a bridge between the two for a perfect pairing. Oily, heavier fish like salmon and mackerel are ideal for a red such as a Joven or Crianza Rioja. The oils soften the tannins and let the red fruit character of the wine shine through.
As for red meat, an acidic white wine like an Albariño goes hand in glove with cuisine that features plenty of salt in its seasoning. The crispness of the wine cuts through and enhances the savoury heart of the dish. Thought rosé was just for summer sipping? Such a wine on the darker end of the scale stands up to salty notes beautifully as well.
When you think of fortified wine like port, what comes to your mind? Stuffily sipping on a glass after dinner somewhere between dessert and coffee and not really enjoying what’s in your glass? The fact is, fortified wines have so much more to offer, and you can pair them across all dinner courses. All you need is a bit of knowledge and some flair.
Take a tawny port for example; the best of these have the rich, plummy fruit notes, spice, and toasty oak to match any red meat dish. Tawnies are also famed for their subtle sweet notes, so why not pour a lovely, chilled glass with that spicy Asian recipe you have on the menu for a powerful pairing? Of course, a tawny port of whatever age is a match made in heaven for intense chocolate desserts, and they love spicy fruity sweets rich with almonds.
Some of this logic applies to sweet wines. We all know they match chilli hot food and sweets but what about fish? A delicate Moscato goes sumptuously with white fish dishes because both are light. You see, wine and food pairing is also about the substance of both and not just where they are on the flavour scale. Why not use your pairing exploration as an excuse to discover new wines?
Finally, by all means, break out the bubbly at the start of the night but save some for dessert as well. Prosecco goes down a treat with sorbet and pavlova while a dry Crémant is perfect for restrained nutty, fruity sweets.
Fast Food and Fine Wine
Don’t listen to any vino snob who claims that your deep-fried goodies or burgers do not belong on the same table as a bottle of wine.
Little goes better with a plate of fish and chips than an acidic white wine or some fizz. Both cut through the fat and refresh your palate, complementing the tasty flavours of the food.
As for pizzas smothered with melted cheese and tomato sauce and juicy burgers, crack open a fruity, spicy red. A Valpolicella or Côtes du Rhône give the right kick and enhance the yummy ingredients in these popular fast-food dishes.
The traditional rules for wine and food pairing are worth knowing because they work. They also give you a sound starting point for exploring new wines and trying out what may seem to be unusual matches that work amazingly well.
Happy experimenting and, when you’re giving new pairings a go, feel free to invite us round for dinner.
Sara Nicholls is the co-founder and director of Wine Compass. She has a passion for making people's days special and a knack for creating the perfect day for her guests with an intimate knowledge of Australia's wine regions and the many boutique experiences waiting for you at unique Australian wineries.