It is about taking two great things and bringing them together so that the sum is better than the parts. It is not an exact science governed by immutable rules. It is best approached with curiosity and a keenness to try new and sometimes unusual permutations.
As with everything in the wine world, food and wine pairing is a journey to be savoured, not a destination.
A few simple guiding principles and a willingness to trust your own palate are all you really need to set off epicurean fireworks between the kitchen and the cellar.
Match the weight of the wine to the weight of the dish.
The body of a wine, or how it feels in your mouth, is generally described as being light, medium or full. A good way to assess this is to ask yourself if the mouthfeel and viscosity of a wine remind you skim milk, 2 per cent milk or homogenised milk.
In terms of dishes, poached sole served with nothing more than lemon juice would be a lighter dish than pan-seared halibut served with a butter sauce.
Similarly, beef Carpaccio would be lighter than braised beef with root vegetables in a red wine sauce.
A light bodied wine, either red or white, will be overpowered by a heavy/hearty dish.
In most cases, it will seem thin and flavourless. It may not clash with the dish, but a great pairing is unlikely.
Conversely, a full-bodied wine will overwhelm a light, delicate dish making it difficult to pick up any flavour nuances. Assessing the perceived weight of a dish, including contributing factors such as cooking techniques (e.g. poaching vs. braising) and sauces, may take a little practice but once you start thinking about your cooking or ordering in restaurants in that light, it becomes fairly easy.
Match the flavours of the wines with the dominant flavours of a dish.
Imagine, for example, matching herb-roasted rack of lamb with a garrigue-inflected red from the Southern Rhone Valley such as a Gigondas or a Châteuneuf-du-Pape.
Garrigue is what the French call the dry, low scrubland adjacent to vineyards where wild thyme, sage and rosemary grow. No surprise that this would be a match made in heaven given that these wines are perfect echoes of the flavours of the dish.
Similarly, a riper style of Riesling from Australia or New Zealand with citrus and tropical notes would be in perfect harmony with roast pork served with a mango salsa. When matching flavours, it is also important to match wines and dishes with similar flavour intensity.
A variant of this principle is to intentionally contrast the flavours of a dish with those of a wine. Pairing the sweet, berry flavours of Port with the salty tang of Stilton cheese is a classic example of this approach. This pairing works in part because both the wine and the cheese are intensely flavoured and are both heavy/rich.
A question that often comes up when discussing pairings is how to make red wines work with dishes traditionally paired with white wines and vice-versa for guests that prefer white or red wines exclusively regardless of the food being served. There is always a way to tweak dishes to optimise the pairing with a given wine.
In Portugal, for example, many fish or seafood dished are prepared in a hearty style with tomatoes and sausages that make them very red wine friendly.
Preparing flank steak in a citrus marinade and serving it with grilled vegetables would be a way to make a red meat-based dish work wonderfully with a full-bodied, oaky California Chardonnay.
Much more could be said about food and wine pairing, but in the end it is about eating what you like with wines that you enjoy and trusting your palate to let you know what works for you.
Here are four versatile wines to pair with summer fare:
Domaine du Tariquet Classic 2015
Côtes de Gascogne, France
An appealing blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Gros Maseng and Sauvignon Blanc. Aromatic nose of ripe pear and quince. On the palate, nice tension between yellow apple and pear fruit and vibrant acidity. Medium-bodied with richer mouthfeel and pleasant freshness on finish. Great to sip on its own or pair with chicken salad with blue cheese and pears or most squash dishes.
Stoneleigh Riesling 2012
Marlborough, New Zealand
Beeswax, lime and candied lemon peel on the nose. On the palate, flavours of Red Delicious apple, apricot, white peach and pink grapefruit are bolstered by and almost creamy texture and lively acidity. Pair with roast pork stuffed with apricots or served with mango salsa. Also a great pairing with Pad Thai and other Thai dishes.
Sandalford Winemakers Shiraz 2015
Western Australia (Margaret River and Swan Valley), Australia
A lighter, fresher style of Shiraz great for the warm weather. Displays blueberries, eucalyptus, raspberries with hints of floral and tobacco. A versatile red with lots of pairing potential from quattro formaggi thin crust pizza to turkey sandwich with cranberry-chipotle mayonnaise. Don’t hesitate to chill slightly before serving – 10 to 15 minutes in refrigerator.
Errazuriz Estate Series Carmenère 2014
Aconcagua Valley, Chile
An approachable interpretation of Chile signature red grape variety. This Carmenère displays strawberry and blackberry along with some text-book bell pepper notes and hints of vanilla and coffee bean on the finish. The discreet and velvety tannins and the refreshing acidity make this another great medium-bodied red for the summer. It will pair well with most BBQ fare from wings and ribs to sausages and burgers. Don’t hesitate to chill slightly before serving – 10 to 15 minutes in refrigerator.
Jean-Sébastien Morin is a category manager with P.E.I. Liquor. He is an accredited sommelier, wine writer, educator, and wine judge. His love of wine was born in the late 1980s, while studying and working in Europe. Inspired Grapes aims to transmit Morin’s passion for wine while never forgetting that the pleasure of a glass of wine often resides in the moment and the company in which it is shared. To reach, Morin email firstname.lastname@example.org