Making dinner for the spouse’s boss? Or someone you consider knowledgeable about wine? Afraid you’ll look ignorant by serving the wrong wine?
Don’t panic. Though the Sommelier at the local five star restaurant might like you to think otherwise, food and wine matching is not rocket science. Today I’ll give a few simple survival tips to make you look wine savvy and make your dinner a success.
First, don’t ask what’s on the menu. That way, your bottle of wine is just a gift, and if the person making dinner knows wine, he’d probably rather open his own anyway. Of course, this won’t work if you already know what’s for dinner or if you are the one preparing the meal.
When matching a wine to a meal, consider these three components:
Structure – body/weight, acid and sugar levels
Flavors – The five basic flavors perceived by the taste buds are sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami. The last one is tough to explain. It’s a “savory, meaty pleasant taste that gives a sensation of coating the tongue.” However, there are millions of “flavors” which affect the taste of other foods and of wine.
Textures – soup vs. steak vs raw oysters.
Now, some basic rules to live by:
- The body and weight of the wine should match the food (light with light, full with full.) Otherwise one will overwhelm the other. If the wine is lighter bodied, it must be powerful enough in flavor and high enough in acid to stand up to the food. If you are having a simply prepared chicken dish, a Cabernet Sauvignon will completely overwhelm it If you are having a grilled rib eye, a Pinot Noir or a light white wine probably will get lost.
- Alcohol balances weight and body in food. Alcohol accentuates spice – big time - and provides great balance to sugar and salt. If you are making a ham, the sweetness and saltiness of the meat would work well with a wine with a higher alcohol level. Sweetness and fruitiness also work great with salt and spice. A big California Zinfandel like Saldo by Orin Swift, with its highly extracted fruit and high alcohol, works great. However, if you are having a spicy chile con carne, the high alcohol in the wine will make dinner literally a painful experience. This is why the best wine match for Indian food is beer, with its low alcohol compared to wine. If you want to do white with your salty ham or your spicy Thai food, go with one a slightly sweeter one – perhaps a nice Riesling from Germany like Dr Loosen Blue Slatelate Kabinett. Acid is really important. Acid is the component in wine that makes you salivate and makes your eyes involuntarily close when you sip it. It also stimulates you to eat and drink more. It balances food and seems to separate and bring out the highlights of food ingredients. The acidity in the wine must match or exceed the acidity of the food or the wine will appear dull and flabby. The best wines to drink with food have a naturally higher acidity, which is why old world wines, with their higher acidities and lower alcohol, work so well with food. New world wines, with their higher fruit concentration, higher alcohol, and lower acidity, are better by themselves. A glass of high-acidity Chianti might not be very pleasant by itself, but have pair with a plate of pasta in a tomato based sauce (a high acid dish) and it shines. A low acid red like a California Cabernet won’t work as well with this dish.
- Oak, especially in white wine, does not always enhance its “food friendliness.” Oak rounds out a white wine and gives it flavors of vanilla. These wines also undergo a specific type of fermentation that gives them a buttery flavor. Vanilla and butter don’t go particularly well with a lot of simple dishes made from seafood and chicken, so a heavily oaked Chardonnay will overwhelm them. Higher acid wines with more vibrant fruit not hidden by oak often work better, like a Calera Fiano from Sicily or a Sancerre from France. Oak works much better with red wines, adding complexity and roundness that reins in the fruit a bit. Rich braised meats like Osso Bucco are amazing with a well-oaked Barolo like Roagna or a Bordeaux.
- Tannins can be your friend…or not. Tannin is the component of red wine that makes you feel like you have a clove in your mouth. It dries your mouth and gums. It is a preservative in the wine and originates from the skin and stems and from oak barrels. As a wine ages, the tannins soften, which is why aged red wines become easier and more pleasant to drink than at release. Tannins interact beautifully with fat and protein. The tannins become soft and almost sweet and the meat becomes juicier to the senses and more savory. This is why the classic match of a ribeye with a big tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, Rioja, or Brunello works so beautifully. But tannins work poorly with acid, so don’t drink your Cab with lasagna, and if you drink a tannic wine with fish, not only does the red overpower the fish but the tannins get a metallic taste so the wine performs poorly. If you like red wine with fish, get a light to medium bodied wine with good acidity and little tannin. Beaujolais from France or a fruity Pinot Noir works just fine.
- Sauces often dictate the wine, as does the method of cooking. If you are making seafood in a white garlic sauce, the dish needs a white wine. If you are cooking it in a marinara sauce, you need a high acid red like Mauro Molina Barbera. If you are grilling your beef, a nice Malbec, like Durigutti or Renacer Punto Final from Argentina works great. If you are going to braise it, a nice oaked wine with some age to soften the tannins works better.
- If the food is from there…go with the wine from there. If you are having Seafood in a white or simple sauce, try a white from Sicily where they eat seafood every meal. If you are having southern Italian food, Southern Italian wines will go great. Lamb is everywhere in the southern Cotes du Rhone. Wanna bet on a red Cotes du Rhone red working well? Argentina is famous for its grilled meat. Argentinian Malbec is about as good as it gets with barbeque.
These are just a few things to think about when matching your food and your wine. Most of all go with what you like and know. If you’ve never had Alsacian Gewurztraminer, don’t try it for the first time with your dinner if you’re not willing to suffer the consequences of a good match. Red wine with fish, Champagne with popcorn…whatever works for you. Don’t be afraid to ask your local wine merchant. Many have a good knowledge of what works. This is especially true with tough matches. Are you having artichokes, asparagus, and eggplant? They'll know you need Gruner Veltliner. Cheers!