• August 2010

Pairing Wars: A Guide To Food Partnering

By John Peters
Wine Director
Culinaria Cooking School
Opening in the fall of 2010 in Vienna, VA

I have been told by many people that they get very anxious when it comes to matching wine with food. I can see how this could be a problem — but from my point of view, half the fun of drinking wine is discovering what works well together.

Maybe I am a bigger risk taker than I thought, but I truly enjoy putting myself out there and being willing to make a food faux pas. And yes, I’ll admit it, I’ve hit my share of potholes (mixing a chardonnay with a steak, for instance, wasn’t a proud moment). But I’ve also had more than my share of victories.

It is those victories I share with you this month in my guide for pairing food and wine.

Rules of the Road

First and foremost, food and wine are for relaxation and enjoyment. Although I will set forth many rules to help you avoid some of the pitfalls, my best suggestion is to enjoy the food you like to eat with the wine you like to drink — regardless of any rules.

Honestly, I have friends who love chardonnay and they love steak, and they have no problem enjoying them together. So much for my biggest disaster story.

For starters: Think of wine as a part of the seasoning for the meal. So just as you might squeeze lemon on shellfish or Parmesan cheese over your spaghetti marinara, wine can highlight flavors in the food and vice versa.

Delicate foods deserve delicate wines. Because you don’t want to overpower the food, a few good pairing examples would be Muscadet with oysters or Sauvignon Blanc with Sole.

Full flavored foods need full bodied wines. When serving braised beef, choose a Barolo. When making lamb, pick a Red Bordeaux.

Rich foods need a rich wine. When dinner tonight is chicken in a cream sauce, go for that rich California Chardonnay.

Ethnic foods need to be paired with an ethnic wine. You can’t go wrong serving the wine with the food from the same country or region. In many cases, these matches were developed hundreds of years ago in each wine growing region, due to what was available in terms of the food that was grown there.

For example, the Portuguese coast is rich in seafood, so a bright crisp white wine called Vinho Verde would be the perfect match. Ditto for the tomato sauces with pasta from Tuscany that would be perfectly paired with a Chianti wine. Both are high in acid and are able to go head to head.

As You Get More Daring, Try These Wine / Food Pairing Techniques

Match similar flavors. If a wine shows a strong smoky character, prepare the food in the same manner, such as grilled salmon and Pinot Noir. Or pair a highly-seasoned and grilled ribeye with a lovely Syrah. Lobster in drawn butter works beautifully with a buttery Chardonnay and a salad with grapefruit segments pairs nicely with a Sauvignon Blanc that has grapefruit overtones.

Match textures. The briny mineral texture of oysters matches well with the briny mineraly Muscadet. A sweet Sauternes wine, with its viscosity and weight, matches nicely with Fois Gras. When serving a well-marbled meat, pair it with a tannic red wine.

Note: Acidity plays a big role in cleansing and refreshing the palate. For example, a plate of fried calamari comes alive when matched with a crisp white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or a sparkling wine / champagne.

The Chemistry of Food and Wine

Now that you have a basic idea of how the food / wine pairing game works, I have compiled a list of tried and true wine and food combinations for you to try. As you get the hang of these synergies, you can start your own list of favorites — but I must warn you, it can become habit forming!

White Wine

Albarino: The perfumed, elegant aristocrat of Rais Baixas in northwest Spain. Pair with shellfish, shrimp, and paella dishes.

Arneis: This foral-scented Piedmont speciality has been rescued from extinction. Drink when young. Pair with delicate fish, salads, and anything else that’s light in the heat of the summer.

Chardonnay: The most famous white wine of all, at least to Americans. I find the best chardonnay for food matches are unoaked or lightly oaked. Too much oak can overpower a meal.
Pair with full-flavored dishes that have been grilled, roasted, or sauteed, including lobster, sea bass, shrimp, chicken, turkey, pork or dishes prepared with butter and cream sauces.

Chenin Blanc: This one is tricky because it can be dry, or off-dry, depending on the producer. Start with a Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in the Loire Valley. Pair with slightly spicy foods such as Thai or Chinese, or perhaps pork loin in a fruity dressing.

Gewurztraminer: This full bodied wine has the characteristic and distinctive smell of lychees and rose petals. Pair with spicy foods as well as smoked foods such as smoked turkey.

Melon de Bourgogne: Palomino is the grape of sherry in southern Spain. This dry wine is best served as an aperitif or with first courses, including soup, mousses or delicate fish. The classic Muscadet grape match-up is with shellfish.

Picpoul de Pinet: This country wine from the Languedoc is best served cold on a hot day. It is great for big parties because it is delicious and cheap. Serve with appetizers, summer salads, and simple foods.

Riesling: Please know that not all rieslings are sweet. The off dry styles work well with crab, ham, quiche and veal dishes.

Sauvignon Blanc: Also known as Fume Blanc, this dry crisp wine matches well with goat cheese, chicken, pork, raw oysters, or slightly acidic foods.

Viognier: This grape’s home is Condrieu, in the northern Rhone, but it is now being planted all over southern France, in California and in Australia. This lively and refreshing wine offers citrusy fruit with orange zest, so pair it with chicken and pork.

Red Wines

Barbera: A medium-bodied red with high acid and tart cherry fruit works well with simple Italian fare and roast duck.

Cabernet Sauvignon: The most famous of the red wines is loved for good reason. Cab grapes makes full-bodied wine that have black currant flavors and some tannins. Pair with beef, duck, lamb, roast chicken, and wild game. This wine is also fabulous when served with aged Montrachet or dry Monterey Jack cheese.

Gamay: This grape is grown in Beaujolais and is at its best slightly chilled and served with picnic fare, well-seasoned poultry or sweet and sour pork. It’s also deliciously paired with Feta cheese.

Malbec: The pride and joy of Argentina, this lush and powerful red is generous with thanks to its plum and jammy berry fruit. It’s just waiting for a big slab of grilled meat, but works well with beef empanadas.

Merlot: This wine is produced right on the right bank of Bordeaux (Pomerol and St. Emilion). Softer than Cabernet, with black cherry and plum fruit, it is wonderful with red meat, game, and lamb.

Nebbiolo: Italy’s noblest wine, and a speciality of Piedmont, it produces both Barbaresco and Barolo. Pair with lamb, beef dishes, stews, rich sauces, and mushrooms.

Pinot Noir: This medium-bodied wine from Burgundy features raspberry and strawberry fruits with earthy tones. Pair with salmon, tuna, duck, pork, veal, and mushrooms.

Sangiovese: This grape of Chianti produces a medium-bodied wine that features cherry fruit, has good acidity and packs the power of a tannic grip. Pair it with tomato sauced pastas, lasagna, meatballs, and roast beef. Also wonderful when served with Pecorino cheese.

Syrah/Shiraz: From the northern Rhone Valley, Syrah wines tend to be big and chewy with earthy overtones. Meanwhile, Shiraz from Australia tends to be more fruity and features the flavor of blackberries. Pair with brisket, stew, beef steaks, lamb, and venison.

Tempranillo: Spain’s most widely planted top quality grape is most famous for the wines of Rioja. Pair this lovely red with chicken cooked in tomatoes, lamb stew, veal scallopini, quail or squab. Also serve it with Manchego cheese.

Zinfandel: Our adopted grape from Europe cranks out some killer full-bodied red wines in California. Laced with spicy blackberry fruit, it has hints of pepper, making it the ideal match for highly seasoned steak, pork, sausages, and lamb.

Have questions? Don’t hesitate to contact me at john@culinariacookingschool.com.


About John Peters
Director of Wine, Culinaria Cooking School

A three-decade veteran of the wine business, he first worked with his father and brother to found Wide World of Wines in 1982. John ran the retail business through 1989, hand selecting wines from vineyards all over the world.

John then went to work for Continental Liquors until 1994, and from 1997 to 2003 he was the Mid-Atlantic Marketing Manager for De Loach Vineyards. John is frequently invited to speak about wine at the National Press Club, the Decanter Club, The Greenbriar, The Homestead, and the French and Australian Embassies in Washington, DC.