Sommeliers will attest that pairing the right wine with the correct food is a culinary science. How can you perfectly pair your food at home?
Wine consumption has a long history that dates far back to ancient times. It was integral to religious ceremonies in ancient Egypt and was considered a privilege in ancient Greece—so special was the beverage that it was referred to in the literature of Aesop and Homer. The Romans were also partial to a tipple and often enjoyed it during social gatherings while debating philosophy and reading poetry. They played an essential role in the development of modern winemaking techniques and established commercial wine production regions throughout Europe that still exist today.
Fundamental to European culture, wine has always been closely associated with gastronomy. The cultivation and development of different grape varieties and alternative storage techniques over the millenniums gave rise to a diverse range of flavours. If paired correctly, wine can marry exceptionally well with food for a delectable taste experience.
Where to begin
The key to food and wine pairing is the compatibility of flavours, according to Mark Pardoe, master of wine at London’s esteemed wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd. ‘At its simplest level, most wines will accompany most foods perfectly well, but very heavy or intense wines need big flavours on the plate and, similarly, more delicate flavours need lighter wines.’
Pardoe suggests that beginners take direction from classic wine and food pairings: ‘A local goat’s cheese from Sancerre goes very well with the wine of that name; both have a high-ish acidity level and they combine well,’ he says. On the other hand, ‘Italian dishes with tomato are enhanced by local Italian wines—especially those with the typical sapid style of the country.’
An education in tannins
A more complex approach to pairing wine with food requires some understanding of tannin in wine—the enzyme found in grapes that creates a drying sensation in the mouth. ‘Tannin is a preservative and occurs naturally in the skins, stalks and pips of grapes and is extracted during red wine fermentation when the skins are in contact with the juice,’ explains Pardoe. ‘As part of the wine, tannin has a chewy, furry texture and is much more prominent in young wines that are designed to be kept for a few (or many) years.’
Tannins are key when it comes to flavour; they give body and structure to the wine and help it to age. As the wine ages, tannin levels in the wine begin to break down. This process is responsible for the smooth taste commonly associated with aged wine. Bitter in taste—‘Imagine chewing a green twig,’ says Pardoe—tannic wines are particularly complimentary when paired with sweet and fatty foods.
Pairing for the main
Pardoe suggests that a ‘good quality white Burgundy from the Mâconnais region or a fresh, unoaked Chardonnay’ are flexible choices of wine that marry well with almost any dish. But for those looking to impress with massive flavour combinations at the dinner table, Pardoe offers a beginner’s guide to pairing wine with meat.
Light white meat. For meats such as fish and chicken, opt for white wines with aromatic or spicy nuances such as sauvignon blanc and riesling.
Rich white meat. For pork or turkey, choose full-flavoured wines that have been stored in oak barrels such as chardonnay and viognier. Fan of red? A Beaujolais or pinot noir will also wash down nicely.
Light red meat. For game meats like duck or for lamb, fruity and structured red wines are the perfect match. Pardoe suggests cabernet sauvignon, merlot or tempranillo.
Rich red meat. Rich cuts like steak and venison should be paired with big-flavoured reds such as a Shiraz, grenache or nebbiolo.
Usually enjoyed in a small glass as an accompaniment to an after-dinner treat, dessert wines are cultivated using sweet wine grapes. Unlike typical wine production methods, these wines are interrupted during the fermentation stage to remove the yeast. This process stops some of the yeast from transferring sugar into alcohol, which explains why dessert wines are particularly sweet in taste.
For fruit-based desserts, Pardoe suggests pairing with late-harvested sweet wine with noble rot such as a Sauternes or a sweet Loire. Pair rich and heavier dessert wines such as a Tokaji or Alsace with creamy desserts, and for chocolate afters, select fortified sweet wines like Beaumes de Venise or tawny port.
For the cheese board
Bloomy cheese. For Camembert or Brie, choose Champagne or chardonnay.
Hard cheese. Cheddar marries well with cabernet sauvignon and parmesan with Chianti.
Blue cheese. Opt for sweet Sauternes wine when serving Stilton and port for gorgonzola.