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Wine Tip: ABCs of Wine and Food Pairing

A simple system for devising great matches

Harvey Steiman
Posted: January 4, 2010

Good news: when learning to match food and wine, you don't have to learn complicated systems for selecting the right wine to enhance the food on the table. This is not rocket science. There is a simple way to make successful wine and food pairings, requiring only that you consider the weight of both the wine and the food when making a decision about what to pour with what you'll be serving and eating.

Of course, it's fun to experiment and fine-tune, and with experience you may be able to create spectacular matches that dramatically improve both the dish and the wine. But save those efforts for special occasions, and special wines. Because most of the time, you will spend more time talking with your guests than you will analyzing the pairings. So the first rule of thumb is to make sure the food is good and the wine is, too. Even if the match is not perfect, you will still enjoy what you're drinking.

When it comes to selecting a wine to match with your food, don't try to get too fancy. First, choose a wine that you would want to drink by itself. Then consider the weight of the dish and the wine, respectively. This is where common sense comes in. The old rule about white wine with fish and red wine with meat made perfect sense in the days when white wines were mostly light and fruity and red wines were mostly tannic and weighty. But today, when many California Chardonnays are heavier and fuller-bodied than most California Pinot Noirs and even some Cabernets, color coding does not always work.

How Do Reds Differ from Whites?

Red wines are distinct from whites in two main ways: tannins—many red wines have them, few white wines do—and flavors. White and red wines share many common flavors; both can be spicy, buttery, leathery, earthy or floral. But the apple, pear and citrus flavors in many white wines seldom show up in reds, and the currant, cherry and stone fruit flavors of red grapes usually do not appear in whites.

In the wine-and-food matching game, these flavor differences become mere subtleties. You can make better wine choices by focusing on a wine's weight. Like human beings, wines come in all dimensions. To match them with food, it's useful to know where they fit in a spectrum, with the lightest wines at one end and fuller-bodied wines toward the other end.

To help put the world of wines into perspective, we offer the following lists, which arrange many of the most commonly encountered wines into a hierarchy based on size, from lightest to weightiest. If you balance the wine with the food by choosing one that will seem about the same weight as the food, you raise the odds dramatically that the match will succeed.

OK, purists, you're right: some Champagnes are more delicate than some Rieslings, and some Sauvignon Blancs are bigger than some Chardonnays— but we're trying to paint with broad strokes here. When you're searching for a light wine to go with dinner, pick one from the top end of the list. When you want a bigger wine, look toward the end.

Selected dry and off-dry white wines, lightest to weightiest:

• Soave, Orvieto, Pinot Grigio
• Off-dry Riesling
• Dry Riesling
• Muscadet
• Champagne, Prosecco, Cava and other dry sparkling wines
• Chenin Blanc
• Arneis
• French Chablis and other unoaked Chardonnays
• Rioja (white)
• Pinot Blanc
• Albariño
• Vermentino
• Verdejo
• Sauvignon Blanc
• Greco di Tufo
• Grüner Veltliner
• White Bordeaux
• White Burgundy
• Pinot Gris (Alsace, Tokay)
• Viognier
• Gewürztraminer
• Barrel-fermented or barrel-aged Chardonnay (United States, Australia)

Selected red wines, lightest to weightiest:

• Valpolicella
• Beaujolais Cru
• Dolcetto
• New Zealand Pinot Noir
• Burgundy
• Oregon Pinot Noir
• California Pinot Noir
• Cabernet Franc
• Barbera
• Chianti Classico
• Rioja
• Brunello di Montalcino
• Ribera del Duero
• Barbaresco
• Grenache/Garnacha
• Pinotage
• Merlot (United States)
• Malbec
• Barolo
• Bordeaux
• Petite Sirah
• Zinfandel
• Cabernet Sauvignon (United States, Australia)
• Rhône Syrah and Australian Shiraz

More common sense: Hearty food needs a hearty wine. A dish like braised pork belly, for example, or a lasagna Bolognese, will run roughshod over Pinot Noir or Valpolicella, making them taste insipid. Better to uncork a Malbec, Merlot or a Cabernet Sauvignon.

With lighter food, you have more leeway. Lighter wines will balance nicely against your chicken Caesar salad, sashimi platter or chilled pea soup, of course, but heartier wines will still show you all they have. Purists may complain that full-bodied wines "overwhelm" lighter foods, but the truth is that anything with a modicum of seasoning still tastes fine after a sip of a heavyweight wine.

These are the secrets behind some of the classic wine-and-food matches. Muscadet washes down a plate of oysters or crudo seasoned with sea salt because it's just weighty enough to match the delicacy of a raw bivalve or slab of pristinely fresh fish. Cabernet complements short ribs or grilled lamb chops because they're equally vigorous. Pinot Noir or Burgundy makes a better match with prime rib or pasta with sautéed porcini mushrooms because the richness of texture is the same in both the wine and the food.

To make your own classic matches, start off on the traditional paths and then deviate a little. Try a dry Champagne or a dry Riesling, which are on either side of Muscadet on our weight list, with raw or lightly cooked shellfish for a similar effect. Don't get stuck on Cabernet with red meats—look up and down the list and try Zinfandel or Côtes-du-Rhône. Instead of Burgundy or Pinot Noir with beef or mushrooms, try a little St.-Emilion or Barbera. That's the way to put a little variety into your wine life without straying too far from the original purpose.

But What About Sweet Wines?

Some wine drinkers recoil at the thought of drinking an off-dry (sweet) wine with dinner, insisting that any hint of sweetness in a wine destroys its ability to complement food. In practice, nothing can be further from the truth. Think about how many Americans (and not just children) drink sweet tea, lemonade or soda with dinner. Why should wine be different? The secret to matching wine and food is balance.

So long as a wine balances its sugar with enough natural acidity, a match can work. This opens plenty of avenues for fans of German Rieslings, Vouvrays and demi-sec Champagnes. One of the classic wine-and-food matches is Sauternes, a sweet dessert wine, with foie gras—which blows the sugarphobes' theory completely. The match works because the wine builds the richness of the wine upon the richness of the fatty liver.

The moral of the story is not to let some arbitrary rules spoil your fun. If you like a wine, drink it with food you enjoy and you're bound to be satisfied.

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