Pairing Wine with Food
What do you do when you're not sure which wine you're going to like with dinner? Does it make sense to follow rules that apply to wine and food pairing (which are quite outdated)? Or does eeny-meeny-miny-mo from the wine list do the trick? Neither. There are "principles" to get you through the rough spots. But don't expect them to tell you exactly what to drink with what. What you can expect is to understand why foods and wines work together which will help you make logical on-the-spot choices.
Sweets for the SweetThe most important thing to remember, when choosing wine for food, is your tongue. It perceives the four basic tastes in food and wine both, and it's those tastes that govern the realm of food-and-wine pairing: sourness, sweetness, bitterness and saltiness.
Sourness. You may have heard people say that wine doesn't go with salad. The reason this wrong idea gets such wide play is that the acid in salad dressing can wreak havoc with some wines. But if you serve an acidic wine with that salad, the wine's sourness is negated by the salad's sourness--leading to a pleasant, successful pair. Remember: Pick acidic wines, such as dry German Riesling, dry Vinho Verde or red Sancerre, for acidic foods. Acidic wines also are terrific for salty foods; briny French oysters are especially good with crisp Muscadet, a dry white wine made near Brittany in France, and smoked salmon is a delight with tart Mosel Riesling (made in one of Germany's most northerly regions, the Mosel).
Sweetness. During the main part of your meal, and at dessert time, the same like-with-like principle applies: Sweet food makes sweet wine taste less sweet. If you have, say, a California Chardonnay that's a little sweet, as many of them are, it may taste oddly sweet with a piece of grilled swordfish. But put a little mango-red pepper salsa on the fish, and the wine will now taste miraculously dry. At dessert time, a mildly sweet wine can be wiped out--turned to disagreeable lemon juice--by a very sweet dessert. But if you make sure the dessert wine is at least a little bit sweeter than the dessert itself (such as Sauternes with a light pound cake), the wine will retain its sweetness.
Bitterness. Once again, like-with-like is the key: Wines with a little bitterness make foods with a little bitterness taste less bitter. Let's say you love charred steak on the grill but don't love the slight bitterness that the grill imparts. Young Cabernet from Bordeaux or California also has bitterness from tannin, a substance found in grape skins, seeds and stems that finds its way into many young reds. The solution is at hand: Serve them together and watch the bitterness of each one disappear.
Saltiness. There are no salty wines, but there are plenty of wines that relieve the saltiness of salty food. Serve acidic, un-oaky (see below), low-alcohol wines, such as Vinho Verde from Portugal or Galestro from Italy, with salty food. It's the same principle you see around the world in the service of fish: The classic mate for briny stuff from the sea is lemon, because acidity cuts salt.