Food and Wine Pairing Basics: 12 Essential Tips

Food and Wine Pairing Basics

A good food and wine pairing will make the wine and food both taste better. Who doesn’t want that? There’s an array of wines that can complement a dish. It’s up to you to decide what flavors you want to emphasize. But don’t worry, finding the perfect wine with a dish is easy if you know the food and wine pairing basics.   

First order of business is to identify the main components of the food and match them with the components of the wine. Is the dish heavy or light? Spicy or mild? Is it sweet? Sour? Salty? Fatty? All these elements will determine what wine will make the best match. As for the wine, is it full or light bodied? High or low in acidity? Fruity or earthy?

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s begin with 12 Food and Wine Pairing Basics.

Food and Wine Pairing Basics
The pizza toppings will change what wine pairs best with it

Tip #1 Drink what you like

This is a tip that’s often overlooked. There’s no point in drinking a wine that you don’t like even if it is the perfect pairing. Don’t like red wine? Then don’t drink red! You don’t HAVE TO even when you’re having a steak. You can still find a good match. If you take nothing else away from this guide to food and wine basics, remember this! You can have red wine with fish and you can have white wine with steak; the key is balance. 

Tip #2 Balance – Wine and food need to be in balance

This applies to both the weight of the wine and food as well as the quality. Essentially, heavy dishes should be served with heavy wines and light dishes with light wines. Easy enough. Steaks with full bodied reds. Salads with light bodied whites. You can also have a steak with a full bodied white and a salad with a light bodied red. The key is to not let the wine overtake the food or the food overtake the wine. If the wine is too light, you’ll barely taste it. If the wine is too heavy, you won’t taste the food. Need help identifying body in wine? 

Matching quality is also important. If you’re having pizza on a Tuesday night, this isn’t when you want to reach into the cellar for your prized French wine that you’ve been cellaring since your trip to Paris. Likewise, when you have the boss over (does that still happen or only in movies?) or are celebrating a big life moment, that is when you want to drink something special. 

food and wine pairing basics
White wine and fish is usually the best food pairing match.

Tip #3 Consider the sauce when pairing with wine

When talking about food and wine pairing basics it seems that we stop at the protein; red meat, red wine, white meat, white wine. But there’s more to food than the protein. Chicken with a cream sauce and chicken with a tomato sauce pair perfectly with different wines. The cream sauce begs for a full bodied creamy white wine, whereas a tomato sauce is begging for an acidic red. A sauce can completely change the flavor profile of the dish, so don’t forget it when pairing.

Planning a pasta night? A complete guide to wine and pasta pairings.

Tomato sauces pair perfectly with red wines with high acidity

Tip #4 Acid cancels out acid

This doesn’t make sense in a chemistry lab but a tangy or tart dish is neutralized by a high acid wine. The acid in the wine will cancel out the acid in the food making them both better. Tomato sauces are quite acidic and pair best with high acid reds. Hello, spaghetti Bolognese with Chianti! Lemon sauces or vinaigrettes need high acid wines or else the wine will taste flabby and flat.

Tip #5 Tannins in wine need protein to neutralize

This one does work in a chemistry lab. Tannins are attracted to the protein in our saliva and will attach there and dry out our mouth and cheeks. If an alternative protein is available, like meat or cheese, the tannins will go there. The reason that steak and Cab go together is because the tannins bind with the protein from the steak, acting as a buffer between the tannins and your cheek. This makes the wine seem smoother and the meat seem more tender. Fatty meats can handle even more tannin. 

Tame tannins with red meat.

Tip #6 Tannins and alcohol inflame spicy food

If you really want to punish yourself, have a super spicy dish with a high alcohol/high tannin wine. The alcohol and tannin will intensify the spiciness and heat. Be prepared to call the fire department to extinguish the fire in your mouth. But hey, maybe you’re into that sort of thing. If you want to enjoy the flavor of the dish and not just the heat, opt for a fruit forward, low alcohol, less tannic red, or better yet… 

Tip #7 Spicy food pairs with sweet wine

Sweet wines, not necessarily dessert wines, but off dry, fruit forward wines are great with spicy food. The sweetness will coat the tongue and let the spice flavor come forward instead of the heat. The trendiest pairing right now is Moscato d’Asti with Mexican food. Moscato d’Asti is only 5% alcohol and quite sweet. This pairing lets the food shine without overwhelming the senses. 

Tip #8 Wine should be sweeter than the food 

This is essentially the same concept as above but this rule generally applies to eating dessert. I feel this is one of the food and wine pairing basics that is too often confused or overlooked especially because of the whole ‘red wine and chocolate’ idea that’s floating out there. You have to be very careful that the chocolate you’re choosing is bitter and the wine you’re choosing is very fruity. Think of it this way, a big bite of a syrupy cake will block all of our sweet receptors. Following it up with a dry wine will make the wine taste bitter, flat, and awful. A sweeter wine holds up against the sweetness in the dessert and creates a more harmonious pairing. 

Fatty dishes need wines with high acid

Tip #9 Fatty dishes needs high acid wines  

In order to cut through a fatty dish, pair it with a wine with lots of acidity. Fat adds balance to the acidity in a wine and brings the flavors into harmony. Lamb is one of the fattiest meats and pairs well with a high acid red like Tempranillo or Barolo. Keep in mind that fatty dishes are heavier and need a wine with body and higher alcohol. Fried foods also benefit from more acidic wines. This is perfectly proven by arguably the greatest pairing of all time: Champagne and french fries.

Tip #10 Think of wine like a condiment

Wine pairings, like condiments, impart a specific flavor, enhance flavor, or complement a dish. You can just match your wine to your condiment.  A high acid white wine will pair with anything you would squeeze a lemon on (Sauv Blanc with fish). A jammy spicy red will pair with anything you put BBQ sauce on (Shiraz with grilled pork chops). If you’re going to top a dish with butter, pair it with a buttery white (Chardonnay with lobster).  If you would crush pepper on your dish, try a peppery wine (Gruner Vetliner for white or Syrah for red).  

It isn’t a coincidence that the wines from Santorini pair perfectly with fish and seafood

Tip #11 If it grows together, it goes together 

The original food and wine pairing basics tip was formed out of access to wine. If it grows together, it goes together. Traditional dishes throughout the old world all have their perfect match. The wine that is made in each region is styled to match the food of the same region. Even in the new world, it’s not a coincidence that Argentina produces some of the world’s great beef and they’ve chosen to produce Malbec. But you don’t need to be this strict. It can be as simple as pairing white wines from the Greek islands with seafood and fish or Italian wine with Italian food or German sausages with German Riesling.

A match made in heaven. Champagne and french fries.

Tip #12 Champagne goes with everything

This is an unofficial rule of food and wine pairing basics but still an essential one. When in doubt, grab the bubbles. You can’t go wrong with Champagne. Champagne and other sparkling wines have plenty of acidity to cut through any food. The bubbles will wash it all down beautifully. 

Now that you know the food and wine pairing basics, it’s time to take it even further.

My new ebook goes passed food and wine pairing basics and into the intricacies of flavor matching. It’s 30+ pages long and reads more like a magazine than a stuff book. Download it today! Also available on Amazon.

wine and food ebook
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Food and Wine Pairing Basics

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3 thoughts on “Food and Wine Pairing Basics: 12 Essential Tips”

  1. I have never tried champagne with fries (I tend to feel ill if I have wine with fatty foods). However, I do like blue cheese with a sweet wine. Some great, easy-to-follow tips here!

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