Perfect Pairings: Principles of Pairing Wine with Food


Posted by Kathy Merchant, DWS, CSW 

Pairing wine with food can be very confusing, even frustrating, perhaps best left to chefs and sommeliers. Not!!! A few simple principles can strip away the uncertainty that prevents many of us from exploring new cuisines, unusual flavors and unfamiliar wines.

Five basic principles guide most wine and food decisions. In future blog posts I will share more in-depth information based on “Perfect Pairings” at The Grotto in Mt. Adams, a series of tasting events I am co-hosting with chefs Dave Cioffi and Brady DeLong of The Painted Chef catering.

#1 ǀ Match wine with food from the same place

Across the globe, this principle is simple: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”! In wine world, the concept of terroir is central to explaining why Pinot Noir from Burgundy tastes different than Pinot Noir from Oregon. The same goes for food and other aspects of regional cuisine. Remember, grapes are food. The main elements of terroir are soil structure and climate conditions. Certain types of hardy vines can grow just about anywhere, including Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas other vines such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano only grow in specific places due to growing conditions (and regulations).

When in doubt, stick with “international” varieties grown worldwide that can be paired with many foods: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and (dry) Riesling for whites; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir for reds.

#2 ǀ Match wine to ingredients, not protein (or vegetables)

Most of us know two simple principles for pairing food with wine: white goes with chicken and fish/seafood, red goes with everything else, including chocolate, and nothing goes with vegetables. None of these seemingly sensible principles are 100% correct or complete. What about rosé or sparkling wines, two personal favorites? Would a light red Beaujolais go well with salmon? How about a fruity white such as Albariño with pork?

The secret lies in matching wine to ingredients including sauces, spices/herbs, fruits, savory vegetables, even butter vs. olive oil. Coming soon: how to think about ingredients in a dish according to flavor intensity, heat (spiciness), weight, delicacy, contrast, saltiness, acidity and more. But for now, mix it up a little and try something new!

Dessert divides the universe into two parts: those who like chocolate with Cabernet, and those who don’t. (I’m definitely in the latter group.) This pairing idea merits an entire discussion of its own…

#3 ǀ Use “bridge” ingredients to create a stronger tie

”Bridge” ingredients tie flavors and textures together primarily through cheeses, spices and sauces. For example, slow-cooked onions connect with creamy wines, whereas carmelized onions would bridge a simply grilled steak to a meaty Rhone Syrah. A cut of beef roasted with rosemary would marry well with a Cabernet Sauvignon exhibiting the same herbal aroma in its flavor profile.

Asian food is a special case, always requiring a bridge. With the exception of China, where a wine industry is flourishing, winegrapes are not grown and wine is not locally produced. Generally speaking, wines with a hint of sweetness such as Gewurtztraminer or Riesling will cool down a spicy Asian dish and be versatile enough to complement dishes made using many different cooking methods, sauces and seasonings but often served simultaneously.

#4 ǀ Take into account what else is on the plate

Have you ever been served an oaky Chardonnay with a vinegary salad or asparagus? How about a young, high alcohol red wine that overwhelmed the flavor of a lean cut of beef with oaky tannins? Yuck!! These are the worst possible pairing problems. The simple solution for high-acid or tart foods is a complementary high-acid white wine. The safest bet is Sauvignon Blanc, but there are many other options such as Italian Falanghina or Greek Assyrtiko. And that beef problem? Just introduce some fat – say a cheesy potato or rice dish, or butter in a wine and mushroom sauce – to solve the pairing challenge.

#5 ǀ Guide for serving multiple wines throughout a meal

One hard and fast rule never changes: move in progression from light/dry wines to rich/full-bodied wines. Generally white wines will be served before red, but a full-bodied white can follow a light red. If you are serving a multi-course meal starting with hors d’oeuvres and ending with dessert, the sequence should generally flow as follows: sparkling wine with hors d’oeuvres, acidic white wine with the salad course, full-bodied white and/or red with the main course, and a red or white dessert wine such as Port or Sauterne to complement a sweet dessert. And if you’re a rosé lover? Stay on the light/fruity side of the menu and serve it throughout the meal! Think strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert…

Thanks to The Painted Chef catering and The Grotto of Mt. Adams for partnering on Perfect Pairings, and to Monteverdi Tuscany for being our wine sponsor! Join us for our four-part summer series which launched June 10th at The Grotto, 6:00 – 8:00 pm. You can register by calling (513) 386-8437. Join us July 10 for Backyard BBQ, August 14 for summer tomatoes, and September 9 for French.





NOTE: You can order the 13×19 infographic poster “Pairing Wine & Food” from for $19.95 plus taxes and shipping.

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