Learn the fundamentals behind food and wine pairing to create your own great pairings. This guide will show you the steps and what to look for in your recipe to find the perfect wine.
A great food and wine pairing creates a balance between the components of a dish and the characteristics of a wine. As much as it seems complex, it’s actually pretty easy to make great pairings. All you need to do is mentally simplify each dish into basic tastes and then seek a wine using one of two pairing ideologies:
Complementary or Congruent Pairing
Flavor pairing is based on the science of matching aroma compounds. Design from Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine
A complementary pairing creates balance by contrasting flavors.
A congruent pairing creates balance by amplifying compatible flavors.
The steps to pairing food with wine
- Know the “rules” of wine pairing (see below)
- Identify the basic tastes in food and wine
- Assess the intensity of the dish to find an equally intense wine
- Choose a basic taste strategy (e.g. sweet + salty, fat + acid, sweet + sour, etc)
- Play with subtle congruent or complementary flavor pairings to find a potential match
9 Rules of Wine Pairing Know them before you break them
If you’re just getting started, you’ll find these tried-and-true methodologies to produce consistently great pairings. That said, as you get more familiar with different wines, you’ll become confident and can experiment breaking the rules! (Gamay with trout anyone?)
- The wine should be more acidic than the food.
- The wine should be sweeter than the food.
- The wine should have the same flavor intensity as the food.
- Red wines pair best with bold flavored meats (e.g. red meat).
- White wines pair best with light-intensity meats (e.g. fish or chicken).
- Bitter wines (e.g. red wines) are best balanced with fat.
- It is better to match the wine with the sauce than with the meat.
- More often than not, White, Sparkling and Rosé wines create complementary pairings.
- More often than not, Red wines will create congruent pairings.
Identify The Basics Tastes
The blue lines show flavor matches and the gray lines show flavor clashes. Design is from Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine
In this day and age, we’ve learned that there are over 20 different tastes found in food – from the basic, including sweet, sour and fat, to the extreme, including spicy, umami and electric. Fortunately you only need to focus on 6 tastes when pairing food and wine: Salt, Acid, Sweet, Bitter, Fat and Spice (Piquant).
Basic Taste Components in Wine
For the most part, wine lacks the 3 tastes of fatness, spiciness and saltiness but does contain acidity, sweetness and bitterness in varying degrees. Generally speaking, you can group wines into 3 different categories:
- Red wines have more bitterness.
- White, rosé and sparkling wines have more acidity.
- Sweet wines have more sweetness.
Basic Taste Components in Food
Simplify a dish down to its basic dominant tastes. For example, baked macaroni has 2 primary components: fat and salt. Southern barbecue is a bit more complex and includes fat, salt, sweet and spice (plus a little acid!). Even dishes without meat can be simplified. For example, a green salad offers acidity and bitterness; creamed corn offers fatness and sweetness.
Consider the intensity
FOOD: Is the food super light or super rich? A salad may seem lighter, but perhaps the dressing is balsamic vinaigrette with high acidity. If the intensity of the dish isn’t obvious at first, just focus on the power of each taste component (acidity, fat, sweet, etc).
WINE: Is the wine light or bold? Here are a few examples:
- Sauvignon Blanc is light-bodied, but it has higher acidity
- Chardonnay has more body, but it’s usually not too acidic
- Pinot Noir is lighter bodied (for a red wine) and it doesn’t have too much tannin (bitterness).
- Cabernet Sauvignon is more full-bodied and has high tannin (more bitterness)
Need more examples? 8 Common Wines and Their Taste Profiles
Finding Complementary or Congruent Pairings
Now that you’ve identified all the basic taste components in your dish, you can start playing around with pairing options. The simple example of the baked macaroni will offer up several possible pairings:
COMPLEMENTARY PAIRING: A white wine with high acidity will complement the fat in the macaroni. So, for example, a traditional mac and cheese recipe with a creamy béchamel sauce matched with zesty white wine such as Pinot Grigio, Assyrtiko or Sauvignon Blanc would create a Complementary Pairing.
CONGRUENT PAIRING: A white wine with creaminess will add to the creaminess in the dish. So, for example, a traditional mac and cheese recipe with a creamy béchamel sauce matched with a creamy white wine such as Viognier or Chardonnay would create a Congruent Pairing.
Getting creative with pairings
Once you create balance with the major taste components in both the wine and the dish, you can get creative by pairing the more subtle flavors. Here are some examples using variants of mac and cheese:
BOLD RED WINE: The ideology behind this pairing is that the high bitterness (tannin) will be balanced out by the salt and fat in the macaroni. This balancing will leave you with the remaining subtle flavors to pair with in the cheese and wine. So, for example, if your baked macaroni has smoked gouda in it, you might choose a Shiraz which also has smokiness in it (on the finish). The smoky flavors combine to create a Congruent Pairing while the tannin in the wine creates a Complementary Pairing with the fat in the dish.
SWEET WHITE WINE: The ideology behind this pairing is to bring out the sweet and salty flavors with a pairing. For example, a mac and cheese with ham would match well with a zesty white wine with some sweetness like Riesling. The acidity would create a Complementary Pairing to the fat and the sweetness would act as a Congruent Pairing to the ham.
Need some more help?
Here are a few more guides to get you started:
Have you made an amazing food and wine pairing? Let’s hear about it! Leave a message in the comments below. Also, if there’s a food you’ve been stumped by, let us know about that too so we can help 🙂