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 Does it make sense to follow rules that apply to wine and food pairing (which are quite outdated)?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 Sweet

The 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.

Tannin, Alcohol, Oak and Fruit

There are a few elements in wine (not in food) that also contribute to the roster of principles: tannin, alcohol, oakiness and fruit. Tannin, a bitter, astringent substance in wine, is good with fatty, grilled meats. Alcohol is not a friend of food; generally lower-alcohol wines, such as German Riesling and the Basque Tyokali, are flexible with food (heaven is a dry white below 12% alcohol). The taste of new oak turns up in many wines today, because the wines are stored in new oak barrels that impart flavor. Oaky wine, however, is rarely a friend of food. Lastly, "fruit" is an important concept. All wine comes from fruit, of course, but some wines taste "fruitier" than others. Wines are fruitiest when they're young, then lose that fruit as they age. The fruit of white wine can be almost oppressive--sometimes it tastes like fruity bubble gum--and can get in the way of food. Young New World white wines tend to be very fruity; young European white wines less so. But the fruit of young red wines, which is subtler than the fruit of young white wines, is often a boon in food-pairing. In young reds, the fruit tends to cover up some of red wine's food-difficult elements (like tannin and bitterness), actually making the red wine even better for food.

If All Else Fails

Until you've really trained your palate to detect which wines are high in acid, low in tannin, or free of new oak treatment, rely on a good wine merchant, sommelier or our site to guide you. If all else fails, choose a young, fruity, crisp, low-alcohol, unoaked red wine to go with your food. It will go with practically anything but dessert. From Europe, drink young Beaujolais. From the New World, drink young, inexpensive, California Pinot Noir.