When You Don’t Have A Sommellier Available
When matching food and wine, you don’t have to learn complicated systems for selecting the right bottle to enhance what you’re eating. Of course, it’s fun to experiment and fine-tune, and with experience you may be able to create spectacular matches that dramatically improve both the dish and the wine.
Choose a wine that you would want to drink by itself, rather than hoping a food match will improve a wine made in a style you don’t like. That way, even if the pairing isn’t perfect, you will still enjoy what you’re drinking.
Consider the weight or body, or richness of both the food and the wine. The wine and the dish should be equal partners, with neither overwhelming the other. If you balance the two by weight, you raise the odds dramatically that the pairing will succeed. Hearty food needs a hearty wine. Cabernet Sauvignon complements grilled steaks because they are equally vigorous in taste. In contrast, a light Rosé better accompanies a roast chicken as its taste is equally light. But how do you determine the weight? For the food, fat including what comes from the cooking method and the sauce is the main contributor. For a wine, you can get clues from the color, grape variety and alcohol level, along with the winemaking techniques and the region’s climate.
Identify the dominant character in the dish; often it’s the sauce, seasonings or cooking method, rather than the main ingredient. For example, if we have two different chicken dishes where the first is accompanied with a sauce of Mavrodaphne wine and mushrooms, while the second also chicken with a creamy lemon sauce, then the caramelized earthy flavors of the former tilt it towards a soft red wine, while citrus flavors of the latter call for a fresh white.
This is the point where the combinations of wine and food can be an endless fun. The aromas of wine often remind us of foods such as fruits, herbs, spices and butter. You can create a good match by including ingredients in a dish that echo—and therefore emphasize—the aromas and flavors in a wine. For a Cabernet, for example, currants in a dish may bring out the wine’s characteristic dark fruit flavors, while a pinch of sage could highlight hints of herbs. On the other hand, similar flavors can have a cancellation effect balancing each other out so that other aspects of a wine come out more strongly. Serving earthy mushrooms with an earthy red might end up giving more prominence to the wine’s fruit character.
Aged wines present a different set of textures and flavors. As a wine matures, the power of youth eventually subsides; the tannins soften, and the wine may become more delicate and graceful. Fresh fruit flavors may give way to earthy and savory notes, as the wine takes on more complex, secondary characteristics. When choosing dishes for older wines, tone down the richness and big flavors and look for simpler fare that allows the nuances to shine through.
Ideally, when the ingredients (Tannins, Acidity, Sugars, etc.) of a wine are in balance, you can affect that balance, for better or worse, with the food pairing. The elements in a dish can emphasize or reduce the acidity and sweetness of a wine, as well as the bitterness of its tanins. High levels of acidic ingredients, such as lemon or vinegar, for example, benefit high-acid wines by making them feel softer and rounder in comparison. The sweetness on the plate can make a dry wine taste, sour, but is better combined with a wine that is slightly sweet. Unless a wine balances its sugars with enough natural acidity (such as Judas Teardrop), it can work very well with many dishes. Tannins interact with fats, salt and spicy flavors. Rich, fatty dishes like steak reduce the perception of tannins, making a robust wine like Cabernet Sauvignon seem smoother, as do lightly salty foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. However, very salty foods increase the perception of tannins and can make a red wine seem harsh and astringent; salt likewise accentuates the heat of a high-alcohol wine. Very spicy flavors also tend to react badly with tannins and high alcohol, making the wines feel hotter; such dishes fare better with fruity or lightly sweet wines.
Matching by weight is the foundation of the old rule about white wine with fish and red wine with meat. That made perfect sense in the days when white wines were mostly light and fruity and red wines were mostly tannic and weighty. But today, color-coding does not always work. Like human beings, wines come in all dimensions. So for example a pork dish would accompany it with a red wine, while instead a pork dish with Hollandezi sauce fits perfectly with a white fresh Moschofilero. To match them with food, it’s useful to know where they fit in a spectrum, with the lightest wines at one end and fuller-bodied wines toward the other end. To make your own classic matches, start off on the traditional paths and then deviate a little. Don’t get stuck on Cabernet with red meats look up and down the list and try a fresh Agiorgitiko or a ripe Mavrotragano depending on the weight of the food you have chosen. That’s the way to put a little variety into your wine life without straying too far from the original purpose.