Wine Basics | A beginner's guide to pairing food and wine

Wine Basics

A beginner's guide to pairing food and wine

You know your interest in wine has entered the next level when you start to wonder what food goes with the wine you’re drinking. So I thought it might be helpful to put together this beginner's guide, covering the basics of pairing wine with food.

You’ll be pleased to hear a lot of it is common sense. You would probably no more think of drinking a crisp pinot grigio with a hearty beef stew or a full-bodied malbec with a delicate crab salad than I would but some matches are not so obvious. Do you always need to drink red wine with meat and white wine with fish, for example? Not these days, you don’t.

5 things you need to know about food and wine pairing

It’s not about the basic ingredient but the way you cook it.

Think of chicken for a start. There’s a world of difference between chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce, a coq au vin and a Thai green chicken curry. I’d match the creaminess of the mushroom sauce with a smooth dry white like chenin blanc or chardonnay, a coq au vin with a similar wine to the one you use to cook it with (traditionally red burgundy) and a Thai curry with an aromatic white wine like a pinot gris or a riesling.

The same applies to ingredients like salmon and pasta (it’s all about the sauce, not the pasta shape).

Wines to pair with different pasta sauces

Is it a light dish or a more intensely flavoured one?

This is more useful than is it fish or meat? Fish can be quite robustly cooked - in a fish stew or on a grill for example. Meat dishes, like steak tartare, can be quite light. So it’s more a question of pairing light-bodied wines with raw or lightly cooked dishes and full-bodied wines with more intensely flavoured ones like roast or grilled food. So you can - and should - get away with pairing a seared tuna steak with a red. Try these other opportunities to drink red wine with fish.

What else is on the plate or the table?

An ingredient rarely appears on its own. We’ve dealt with sauces but there are also vegetables and salads to consider. An strongly flavoured side such as roast peppers or red cabbage can affect your pairing. If you’re serving an older, more fragile wine it’s best to keep things simple.

And many meals now - not only ethnic meals - consist of several different courses. Small plates tend to arrive at the same time - what are you to drink with them? (Versatile wines you might want to look out for are Austria’s grüner veltliner and Hungary’s furmint (both white), Provencal rosé and lighter reds such as beaujolais and pinot noir).

Is there a tried and tested combination?

A terroir-based pairing, if you like. They say ‘if it grows together it goes together and that applies just as much to wine - and beer - as it does to food. (Think basil and tomatoes) Oysters and muscadet (or Picpoul), goats cheese and Sancerre, fino sherry and tapas - those combinations you come across on holiday. There’s a lot to be said for the dictum ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it'.

Wines need to be sweeter than the dessert they accompany

If they’re not it strips out the sweetness of the wine leaving it tasting sharp and sour. (Which is why chocolate desserts can be tricky with light sweet wines like Sauternes). If you want to serve a dessert wine it’s safer to pick a simple dessert like an apple or apricot tart or a creamy panna cotta

Still have questions? Enter your ingredient or dish in the search box or email me at fiona AT matchingfoodandwine DOT com if you can’t find the answer!

Photo ©kucherav at fotolia.com

Got other ideas? Do email your favourite pairings to us at greatmatches@matchingfoodandwine.com. To subscribe to our free monthly newsletter and be eligible to enter our fabulous prize draws click here or to get notice of posts as soon as they're published click here.

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