Have you ever wondered how servers at restaurants know which wines to recommend based on the dishes you ordered? There’s actually an art and a science to it.
Pairing food with wine involves numerous factors, most of which focus on the flavors present in the drink and the dish individually.
Whether you’re choosing a bottle at a restaurant or just deciding what goes best with dinner, understanding the basics of marrying food with wine can elevate your dining experience.
This knowledge goes beyond just red wine for red meat and white wine for pasta. Being aware of particular aspects to look out for will help you achieve the perfect balance of flavors. Here’s how you can start practicing this acquired skill.
Sharpen your tastebuds
When it comes to the culinary world, it’s all about the flavors. To start your journey, it’s useful to know what flavors to look out for in both the food and the wine.
Your taste buds pick up these six flavor profiles:
- Spicy or piquant
With these flavors in mind, you can start to identify which flavors are present in your dish and your drink.
What are the different wine flavors?
- Bitter – typically present in red wine
- Sweet – typically present in dessert wines like port
- Acidic – typically present in white wine, rosé, and sparkling wine
While some dishes may contain the same tastes as wine, food usually completes the rest of the list.
Your dinner may contain salty or fatty flavors, which are the most common tastes found in food. Sometimes, piquancy can be present too.
Pairing food with wine is an art because all these flavors can be present in one dish. For example, salad dressing may be acidic, but when poured over romaine lettuce it combines with bitterness.
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Types of pairing
Now that you’ve learned which flavors to identify, you can begin to experiment with different food and wine pairings.
There is no exact science to follow, which makes the learning curve fun. You can trial and error until you find a pair that works best for you.
There are generally two pairing methods: congruent pairing and contrasting pairing.
This method seeks to elevate the meal by matching the dominant flavors in the food, with a wine that has the same qualities.
An example of this would be pairing a mac and cheese dinner with a Chardonnay. Depending on the cheeses used, mac and cheese is rich and heavy. On the other hand, Chardonnay also has a similar creaminess.
Contrasting or complementary pairing
You can also pair your food and drink in contrast. This method does the opposite of congruent pairing.
Instead of looking for the same flavors in both the dish and the wine, go for a wine that tastes the complete opposite of the food. In this way, the flavors will complement each other.
An example of contrasting pairing would be taking spaghetti aglio olio and pairing it with a Sauvignon Blanc. This pasta dish is commonly spicy and salty, while the wine is sweet and decadent.
By pairing them together, the wine’s sweetness can balance out the pasta’s piquancy. Likewise, the flavors in the food will even out the sugariness of the wine.
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More basic tips
You know what flavors to take note of, and you know the basic methods of marrying wine with your menu. Now, here are some more useful tips to help you perfect the pairing.
1. Match wine with the sauce
Many menu items will come with a sauce. Whether it’s a pasta dish or a steak dish, it’s best to focus your tastebuds on the flavors of the sauce and try to pick a wine that would go with that.
Let’s say you’re having steak with mushroom sauce for dinner. This particular sauce is predominantly fatty and salty, with a little bit of sweetness and creaminess to it. If you’re pairing in congruence, try using an equally rich wine like Merlot.
2. Match the color of the wine with the color of the meat
Perhaps the most basic rule to follow is to pair red wine with red meat, and white wine with white meat.
Most red wines are rich, with slightly higher levels of tannins that create bitterness. Pairing these with beef wellington or steak would be a good option.
On the other hand, white wine is light and fairly acidic. This pairs well with lighter meat like chicken or seafood.
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3. Balance out bitter wines with fatty dishes
Sometimes you have the wine you want to drink, but don’t know what food goes well with it. If you have a particularly bitter wine, you can even out those tannins with a fatty dish.
Fatty dishes are heaven in the first few bites, but with time it can get a little too rich. This is where the wine comes in to counter that effect.
Bitter wines like Cabernet Sauvignon work well to balance out fattiness in dishes like burgers, steaks, or braised beef.
4. Pay attention to flavor intensity
When considering the flavors in your food, also consider how intensely those flavors shine through. How does it feel on the palate? Is it light or rich?
For example, you may consider a salad to be light. However, its balsamic vinaigrette dressing may be intensely acidic.
When deciding which wine to pair this dish with, find a bottle with flavors as intense as the vinaigrette, so that none of the wine’s flavors gets drowned out by the dressing. You may opt for a sweeter wine like rosé.
5. Use white wine, rosé, or sparkling wine to pair in contrast
These wines are generally sweet and are therefore the polar opposites of most dishes, which are fatty and salty.
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