Wine 101 – How to Choose a Wine (Pairing with Food)

by on March 5, 2012

The question of how to pair a wine with food is probably the single most popular wine-related question.  More often than not, we drink wine with food, so it’s hardly surprising that so many people want to make a good choice in this respect.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.  There are long-standing generalizations like “white wine with fish” and “red wine with red meat”, but such generalizations are far from comprehensive and are often not helpful at all.

Whether you want to become great at pairing wines with food or you just want to get it right at an important dinner, you’re better off learning how to avoid bad wine pairings than simply guessing at good wine pairings.  The good news for you is that avoiding very bad wine pairings boils down to just a couple of factors:

Sweetness

Simple Rule:  If your food is sweet, then your wine needs to be sweeter.

Let’s start with just a bit of terminology.  Wines that have no sugar in them are called “dry”.  Wines that have a small amount of sugar are called “off-dry”.  Wines with more sugar are called either “medium” or “sweet”.

The reason this is important is because the people at the restaurant where you’re eating or at the store where you’re shopping should hopefully know where a wine falls on this spectrum of sweetness.  What you need to know is that if you are drinking the wine with a sweet food, then you need to move toward the “medium” or “sweet” end of the spectrum, or at least “off-dry”.

The problem with eating a sweet food with a wine that isn’t sweet is that the wine will taste very sour or tart.  The opposite, however, is not necessarily true.  It’s entirely possible to drink wines that are somewhat sweet with foods that are not.  For instance, many spicy foods like Thai often pair well with slightly sweet wines.

Got it?

Acidity

Simple Rule:  If your food is acidic, then your wine should also be acidic.

The rule is pretty much the same as with sweetness, but acidity is a bit harder for many people to discern and understand.  In food, you can think of citrus fruit, anything with vinegar, or dishes with tomato sauce.  All of these foods are fairly acidic, which usually means that they are somewhat tart and also that they tend to make your mouth water.

The same is true of acidic wines – they will be somewhat tart and will generally make your mouth water.  Some wines (Sauvignon Blancs and Sangioveses) are usually acidic, but it’s hard to tell if you don’t know, since acidity is not marked on any bottle.

The concern with pairing an acidic food with a non-acidic wine is that the wine will taste less “vibrant”, by which I generally mean that wine will lack any crispness and will taste relatively flat.  Again, the opposite is not necessarily true.  For instance, dishes that are heavy in oil are often complemented well by an acidic wine.

Intensity of Flavor

If you’ve watched the video above, then you know that I don’t really discuss intensity of flavor, partially because it requires a bit more knowledge about any particular wine.

The simple rule in this case would be that foods with more intense flavors require wines with more intense flavors, and vice versa.  The reason for this is that either the wine or the food can be overpowered if one is intensely more flavorful than the other.

Intensity of flavor is surely very important, but most of us are better off focusing first on sweetness and acidity.  Even more so than sweetness and acidity, it’s very tough to know if a particular wine is intensely flavorful.  In addition, if you get a pairing wrong in this respect, then it’s usually not a terrible result.  Either the wine or the food may be slightly overpowered, but neither will necessarily taste significantly worse because of it.  The same cannot be said of sweetness and acidity.

Location

Simple Rule:  If possible, pair wines and foods from the same region.

There are plenty of wines and foods from different parts of the world that pair together beautifully.  However, if you want an easy method of pairing, most wines from a region will go very well with traditional foods from that region.  Eating Northern Italian cuisine?  It’s  pretty good bet that wines from the area will pair well.  There are both historical and geographical reasons for this, but just trust that it generally works.

Tasting, at its best, can get super-complex, but it can also be super rewarding.

If you have any pairings that you particularly like, please leave them in the comments below, as well as any questions.

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