When food and wine are paired perfectly, it turns any meal into a fine dining event. That’s why this week we’re giving you all the necessary skills to get started on your own wine pairing adventure!
We get it! The world of wine can be overwhelming, and trying to create the perfect wine pairing for a meal can be even more intimidating. It seems like there are a million rules and a million ways to mess things up. There are so many subtle nuances to consider: vintage, body, tannins, acidity, sweetness, and so much more.
Well, we’re here to tell you…none of that matters!
Well, ok, some of it matters. However, if it takes the pleasure out of enjoying a bottle of wine or a delicious meal, that kind of defeats the purpose. First and foremost, wine is meant to be enjoyed and the same goes for food. What we consume should nourish our bodies and souls.
That’s why we’re sharing our Wine Pairing 101 guide with you. This is just some basic information to help you discover new ways to explore the food and wine you already enjoy. If something resonates with you, then try it out! But if not, stick with your favorites and savor every moment. No matter what, though, focus on what delights your taste buds and you can’t go wrong.
What is Wine Pairing and Where Did it Come From?
Wine pairing is the process of combining food and wine to enhance the dining experience. That’s pretty much it. Seriously, if you just like to have a glass of your favorite wine with some simple cheese and crackers, you’ve already dabbled in the world of wine pairing.
However, wine pairing can also be an art form. When it’s done right it can elevate a meal into a fine dining experience. That’s where people tend to get intimidated. And it’s no wonder considering the historical connection between wine pairing and culinary traditions for many different cultures.
In the past, it was natural for winemakers to craft wines that paired well with foods their particular region was known for. Before globalization, there wasn’t really any other option. That’s why some wines, on their own, may seem too acidic or too sweet until you pair them with the foods they were intended to be consumed with. All of a sudden, that wine you thought had too much pucker suddenly feels smoother and rounder. That’s the art of wine pairing!
That’s not to say that people didn’t just drink wine for pure enjoyment. They did that in the past, and we’re definitely still doing that today. In the past, people just had limited access to foreign foods and it became natural to pair food with their locally-sourced fare.
Next time you’re able to travel, track down a local restaurant with locally sourced wine. It’s likely that a local winemaker took the regional foods into consideration when crafting their wine. It should make for an excellent dining experience.
Wine Pairing Today
Today we’re able to try food from all over the world, which has broadened the scope of wine pairing exponentially. Wine pairing has also integrated itself as a staple in the fine-dining experience with many restaurants employing sommeliers.
A sommeliers’ job is to recommend wines that will pair well with any meal someone might order. While this is, obviously, a phenomenal experience, it’s elevated the art of wine pairing into something that might feel unattainable to the average person.
The most important thing to remember is that food and wine are meant to be enjoyed. So, while we’ll give you the basics of wine pairing, feel free to follow your instincts or push your boundaries and explore your palate. But no matter what, just enjoy yourself.
Which Comes First? The Wine or the Food?
If you’re a sommelier, a patron would select a dish, and then you’d recommend a wine to bring out particular flavors or textures in the meal. However, if you just really love a particular wine, you might want to design an entire meal around it.
There’s no wrong way to do it! Plus, if you’re a member of a wine subscription service (*wink*wink*), you can start a fun tradition with friends and family where you take turns designing whole meals around your newest wine.
It’s a great way to explore your culinary talents, push the boundaries of your taste palate, and even to try wines that you might not have chosen before. Plus, connecting with friends and family is one of the best parts of food and wine! So, whether you’re sharing wine and food in-person or virtually, this is a phenomenal tradition.
Wine Pairing 101
Now, we’re at the part where many people tend to get overwhelmed. Wine is full of subtle nuances and complexities that, ideally, work seamlessly together. The same is true of the culinary arts as well! So, while we fully support anyone who wants to just drink their favorite bottle of wine with their favorite meal, there’s also a vast world of components you can consider when pairing wine.
So, whether you’re designing a meal around your favorite wine (or vice versa), here are a few items for you to consider.
Use our Wine Glossary for any terms you might be unfamiliar with!
Wine Pairing Taste Components
You might be surprised to find out that there are actually more than 20 separate tastes you can experience in your food. You’re probably familiar with the basics like sweet, spicy, or even sour, but what about umami? There’s even one called “electric” if you can believe it!
Luckily, when it comes to wine there are just six main tastes you should concern yourself with–acid, sweet, bitter, fat, salt, and spice (piquant).
Most wines are lacking in fat, spice, and salt, but they do have acid, sweet, and bitter flavors to some degree. In general, red wines have stronger bitter flavors while white, rose, and sparkling wines are more acidic. Obviously, sweet wines have more prominent sweet flavors.
When it comes to food, you’ll want to try and simplify your dish down as much as possible to identify the prominent tastes. Some dishes will be simpler than others. As an example, scalloped potatoes are primarily made up of fat and salt flavors. Other dishes, however, can be a bit more complex.
A Spicy Coconut Curry dish would obviously have spice, but the coconut adds sweetness and fat, and that splash of lime juice will add acid too. Each dish is different, but try your best to pare it down to its main flavor components. That will help you choose what wine will pair best.
Consider the Intensity of Your Food and Wine
When we say “intensity,” we mean whether or not the flavors are light, rich, and/or complex. You might think a simple cheese board would be light, but if you have any aged cheeses the flavors might be extremely intense. Plus, cheese comes with a hearty dose of fat, which makes it a bit “heavier” (more on that later).
The same goes for your wine. You could have a light-bodied wine with high acidity (like a sauvignon blanc) or a full-bodied, high tannin wine (think cabernet sauvignon) with more bitterness.
Basically, regardless of whether you’re starting with the food or the wine, do your best to identify the primary taste components and the intensity. Once you’ve identified these, you can experiment with congruent and complementary pairings.
Complementary Wine Pairings
As an example, let’s pretend we’re trying to select a wine for a dinner party with mostly finger foods and dips. Let’s say that the main dips are a creamy spinach artichoke dip or maybe even a homemade hummus dip. Both of them are primarily made up of fat and salt flavors, so let’s start there.
A complimentary pairing is when your food and wine have different flavors that “complement” each other. In doing so, the opposing flavors are balanced.
For our Spinach Artichoke or Hummus Dips (which have more fat and salt flavors) we might want something acidic or sweet. In this case, a Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, or another white wine with subtle sweet notes would complement very nicely.
You can also use these methods to enjoy wines that you perhaps didn’t fall in love with the first time around. If you have a wine that’s a tad too sweet for you, pairing it with a particularly salty dish will tame the sweetness and enhance any fruity aromas.
We created a complementary pairing with our Keto-Friendly Salmon and Avocado Salsa and our PALO61, Toscana Bianco IGT No. 08. The light-bodied, balsamic, and floral notes in this wine make it a bit more acidic. When paired with the citrus from the avocado salsa, it really emphasizes the fresh, savory flavors of the salmon.
Congruent Wine Pairings
Congruent pairings, on the other hand, are all about enhancing the components that the wine and food both possess. The concept here is pretty simple. You could pair a sweet wine with a sweet dish, creamier wines with creamy pasta dishes, etc.
While this may seem a little easier, you can run the risk of overwhelming either the flavor of the food, wine, or both. Sometimes this can result in bland flavors. However, a bold, full-bodied red wine is considered a classic pairing for a savory steak meal. This option is all about subtlety.
In fact, many red wines are chosen as a congruent pairing because of their wide range of aromas and flavors. You can find a red wine with cherry, chocolate, smoky, buttery, bitter, and even more flavors. Honestly, red wines are very versatile.
If you were to choose a congruent pairing for our Artichoke Dip, we would recommend a creamier wine. Perhaps a creamy Chardonnay or even this savory bottle of Supertuscan Tenuta di Burchino Toscana IGT.
We used this method when designing our Keto-Friendly Charcuterie. The intensity of the different meats is balanced by the intense spice, black pepper, and cherry flavors in our PALO61 Toscano Rosso IGT No.07.
While both the congruent and complementary methods can yield spectacular results, it’s really all about balance.
Wine Pairing is All About Balance
As you grow your taste palate and experiment with new pairings, you’ll develop an instinct for this sort of thing. As you consider both the body and richness of your food and wine, you’ll instinctively start pairing items that are well balanced.
Balance can mean many things, but often in wine pairing, it means considering the weight (body or richness) of your meal and your wine. When examining your dish you’ll want to pay special attention to the fat content. That means both the fat that was used to prepare the dish and any sauces the dish may include. As an example, a salad may seem like a “light” dish, but a salad with blue cheese dressing will be much heavier than one with a vinaigrette.
When it comes to your wine, you should pay attention to the color, variety of grape, and the alcohol level (for more advanced palates you may even consider the vinification methods and the region where the wine was made). In general, wines with a lower alcohol level are lighter-bodied while those with an ABV of 14% or higher tend to be heavier.
The key is to balance the “weight” of your food and wine. This ensures that neither one overwhelms the other. As we said earlier, this is something you’ll develop an instinct for overtime, so don’t feel defeated if you don’t immediately pick up this concept. Just keep exploring and enjoying!
The Wonderful World of Wine and Cheese
Wine and cheese is a pretty classic pairing, but the world of cheese is just as vast and complex as wine. That means there are just as many details to consider when trying to pair the two together. Honestly, we could talk for days about the subtle art of wine and cheese–and we will! (Be on the lookout for our upcoming Ultimate Guide to Wine and Cheese) But for now, here are a few basics you should take into consideration.
The Intensity of Both the Wine and Cheese is Important
Just like with any other food, the intensity of the cheese will play a big role in selecting a wine. In general, if your cheese has an intense flavor you’ll want to pair it with a more intense wine (something with an ABV higher than 14%). Obviously, if your cheese is milder you’ll want a less intense wine (perhaps something under 12% ABV).
The Older the Cheese, The Bolder the Red
As cheese ages, it loses water content. This increases the fat content and heightens the complex flavors. To balance that, you’ll want something capable of balancing all that fat. Since bolder red wines have more tannins, that makes them ideal for pairing with older cheeses.
Balance Funkier Cheeses with Sweeter Wines
Not everyone enjoys the more “pungent” variety of cheeses. This includes several varieties of blue cheeses, stilton, Roquefort, and more. However, one of the best ways to enjoy them is by pairing them with sweeter wines. The heavy sweet notes tone down the “funky” quality of these cheeses and make them taste creamier.
Elevate Soft Cheeses with Sparkling Wine
Brie, camembert, and even muenster cheese are all absolutely delicious. However, they can often be overwhelming due to their heavy creamy, sticky qualities. A sparkling wine, however, has enough acidity and carbonation to cleanse the palate properly.
Pair Wine and Cheese From the Same Region
For the same reason we recommend pairing food and wine from the same region, you should absolutely be pairing wine with cheeses from the same region. More often than not, there’s a rich history that helped develop the flavor components of the two.
Like we said earlier, there’s a LOT that can go into a wine and cheese pairing. So, if you just want to stick with what you know and like, that’s fine too! However, we really think you should consider having a wine and cheese party to experiment with different varieties of each!
Tell Us About Your Wine Pairing Experiences!
We covered a lot today, so there’s no pressure to be a Master Sommelier overnight. Take your time and explore different wines and dishes together. While there are some classic pairings, your palate might enjoy more unique pairings. So feel free to get creative!
In fact, let us know how you’re pairing your wine! We would love to see what unique or classic pairings you come up with, so follow us on Instagram and tag us the next time you post about your next food and wine adventure. And don’t forget to stock up on all your favorite SECCO Wine Club bottles 😉