Each of our daily wine offers contains a suggestion for a recipe to prepare with the featured wine. It’s not just because all of us at SommSelect share a love of cooking (and eating), but because we want to describe not just the “whats” and “wheres” of a wine but the “whys” and the “whens,” too. A little culinary and cultural context greatly enhances the wine-drinking experience, and typically the first topic that comes up when we find a wine we like is what scenarios and foods might showcase it best.
There’s all sorts of wisdom out there as to how to pair wine and food. Generally, it’s more about science than art, but it’s not such an exact science: We all have different tastes. Here are a few maxims we live by when making recommendations and planning meals:
Never, Ever, Pair a Dry Wine With A Sweet Dish
If a wine doesn’t have as much sweetness as the food, the wine will taste especially acidic and dry. For example, pairing a dry Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand with a Key Lime Pie, regardless of any complementary flavors, would be a disaster. Even for savory dishes, keep any sort of sweetness (fruits or other sugar additions) in mind when choosing a pairing. If there are any sweet items on the plate, choosing a wine with a touch of residual sugar (Vouvray, Alsatian Whites, German Riesling etc.) is often a good idea. If not, the sweetness in the dish will make the dry wine taste sour.
What Grows Together Goes Together
When preparing a meal, look at what wines might come from the same region as the cuisine you are preparing. For example, making pasta? Look for an Italian wine which has similar flavors as the pasta dish. If serving a seafood pasta, look for a coastal Italian white wine as pairing, Greco di Tufo from Campania, or Vermentino from Liguria or Sardinia for example.
Acidity Cuts Fat: Use It Wisely
You always hear about how tannic wines require something fatty (usually meat) to soften their bite. Which is true, they do. But just as effective (if not more so) in cutting through fat is acidity. Whereas fat in food has more of an absorption effect on tannin, acid is more of a palate cleanser in that it breaks down fat—which is to say, you don’t necessarily need a big, tannic red to pair with a well-marbled ribeye steak; you might find a lighter, higher-acid style more effective in countering the richness of that big plate of braised beef short ribs.
Obviously, some of the more classic partners for steak and other fatty proteins—
Left Bank Bordeaux, Napa Cabernet, and Brunello di Montalcino—are chosen more for their heft and tannin, although Brunello in particular (which is the ultimate Tuscan bistecca wine) brings a lot of acidity to the equation as well.
Another classic example of fat-foiled-by-acid is goat’s cheese paired with Sauvignon Blanc, which you’ll see everywhere in Loire Valley Sauvignon strongholds like Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre. The wine’s high acid cuts through the palate-coating cheese like a torch through steel!
Contrasting Pairing is Sometimes the Best Option
In this instance, we’re speaking not just of contrasting textures (acid vs. fat), but also contrasts of sweetness/saltiness. The best examples are some of the classic pairings of sweet wines paired with salty, funky cheeses, such as Vintage Port and Stilton or Sauternes and Blue Cheese (sweet contrasted with savory also works, as in the instance of Sauternes and Foie Gras, one of the more decadent and well-calibrated pairings you’ll ever try).
Another great example of contrast is the slightly sweet, slightly unctuous cushion an off-dry German Riesling provides for spicy Thai and other world cuisines with heat from chiles and/or other sources (more on this below).
Salt/Spice Don’t Play Nice With Tannin/Alcohol
Here’s a more straightforward, relatively scientific pairing maxim: High alcohol and/or high tannin in wine will exacerbate the effects of salt and spice. With spicy foods especially, high alcohol/tannin wines can often taste metallic and ramp up the intensity of the spice at the same time. Definitely something you want to avoid.
‘Sweet-on-Sweet’ is Usually Too Sweet
Although restaurants still do it all the time, pairing a “dessert” wine with an equally sweet dessert is usually more than a little cloying, unless there is enough acidity in the wine to cleanse the palate (i.e. Tokaji or German Riesling). Sweet nectars like Tuscan Vin Santo or French Sauternes are effectively desserts unto themselves, with enough texture and sweetness to carry the day without the addition of similarly intense sweetness from the dessert. Drier dessert cakes/biscuits/cookies/etc. can work, with the wine functioning more as the sauce, or icing (probably the best example of which is the tradition of dipping biscotti in Vin Santo).
‘Acid-on-Acid’ Usually Works
Sometimes, fighting fire with fire is the answer—as when you have a lemony, high-acid vinaigrette on a salad. Paired with a crisp, high-acid wine (not necessarily, but usually, white wine), the dish and the wine neutralize each other.
Sometimes There’s a Direct Line
As in, sometimes the flavors and aromas of the wine directly correspond to aromas and flavors in food. As mentioned above, “If it grows together, it goes together,” and there are plenty of delicious examples of it being true—the most iconic likely being the pairing of Barolo, from Italy’s Piedmont, with the region’s famous white truffles. Barolo’s signature earthy aromas and flavors perfectly complement those in the truffles.
There are other combinations that just plain work based on the personality of the wine in question—another SommSelect favorite is Northern Rhône Syrah, with all its smoky, roasted meat savor, paired with lamb (which skews a little gamier compared to your other typical store-bought proteins). Think also of the aromas and flavors of a typical Loire Valley Muscadet: the racy acid and briny, sea-spray quality of the wine tastes almost exactly like the liquid in the shells of freshly shucked oysters. Similarly, there are a host of kindred flavors in Provençal Rose and bouillabaisse: a touch of tomato leaf, some aromatic herbs, a hint of the sea…you don’t need to be a sommelier or a chef to see that one!
Click the links below for our hit list of must-try pairings with accompanying recipe suggestions (where applicable). Cheers and bon appétit!
Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Goat Cheese
Loire Valley Muscadet & Oysters
Barolo & White Truffles
Sauternes & Bleu Cheese
Fino Sherry & Almonds
Vintage Port & Dark Chocolate