Wine and Food

Finding the Perfect Match

   Wine always makes a meal more pleasurable, and there's no reason to restrict wine-drinking to special occasions. Wine is meant to be enjoyed by everyone, with just about any meal. Trying to choose the right wine for your meal can seem like a daunting task, but there's no need to feel intimidated. In fact, some people will tell you that any wine can go with any food, as long as you like it. While this is true to a certain extent, especially for casual meals, there are a few other things to consider if you want to go the extra mile and serve thoughtfully chosen wine with a meal you went to great effort to prepare. Think of wine as food, and put the same consideration into matching it with your meal as you would any other side dish.

A Cornucopia in Every Glass
   In order to pair wine with food well, it's necessary to know the basic flavor characteristics of the wine you will be serving. Depending on the grape variety and the climate and soil of the vineyard, some of the flavors white wines can have are melon, apple, pineapple, pear, citrus, vanilla, caramel, flowers, herbs, grass, minerals, olives and mushrooms. Some red wine flavors are berries, peaches, currants, plums, cherries, oranges, flowers, earth, wood, smoke, chocolate, tobacco, leather and coffee.

Bottle Buzzwords
   Besides flavor characteristics, there are some other terms commonly used to describe wine. 'Dryness' refers to the residual sugars in wine. Grapes, of course, have lots of natural sugars, and during the wine's fermentation process, a large quantity of these sugars is converted into alcohol. A very dry wine has very few natural sugars remaining (and is thus usually higher in alcohol), and an 'off-dry' or sweeter wine still contains a greater quantity of natural sugar. When someone refers to 'acid' in wine, think of the sharp bite of lemon juice or vinegar. When someone talks about ' tannins', think of the bitter element you would taste in a very strong cup of tea. Acid is usually used to describe white wine, whereas tannins are found in red wines.  

Help at the Store
   It can be difficult to know exactly which aromas and flavors a bottle of wine is going to have when you haven't yet tasted it, however. No need to worry, though: This is where your local wine shop comes in handy. Many wine shops and grocery store wine sections will have little cards next to each wine that profile the wine's major characteristics (using many of the terms we've already discussed). If there are no cards, there should be someone on hand to personally help you out. Even if the shopkeeper isn't a definitive expert on food and wine pairing, they should at least be able to tell you what the wine tastes like. Most dedicated wine shop employees are more than happy to share their knowledge with you, and if someone is unhelpful, or makes you feel stupid or embarrassed, you can simply choose to not patronize their business. Wine is for everybody, not just for the elite. Drinking it, don't forget, is supposed to be enjoyable and relaxing.

Matching and Contrasting Points of View
    There are two basic principals you can follow when pairing wine with food: The Matching Principal, and The Contrasting Principal. Matching the flavors in wines and foods can highlight the particular attributes that overlap between the two, bringing those flavors out much more than if either one were consumed separately. An example of this would be if you were eating a chicken breast with a delicate herb sauce, and you chose a wine that also had delicate herbal notes to it. On the other hand, contrasting the flavors in wines and foods is effective for keeping the palate awake and lively. For example, if you're eating fatty foods, you may want an acidic or tannic wine to cut through the rich, palate-coating flavors.

   Remember to consider not just the central ingredients of the dish (i.e., beef, chicken, fish, pasta), but also the overall flavor. Often the marinade, glaze, or sauce will have a more pronounced flavor than the main ingredient itself. For instance, a tuna steak that has been broiled and basted in lemon butter is going to have a much different flavor than a tuna steak that's been bathed in a sesame-garlic marinade and served with a spicy mango salsa.
Perfectly Balanced

   Another easy rule you can choose to follow is simply to match the boldness of the wine's flavor to the boldness of the food's flavor. Light wines go best with delicately flavored food, and very bold wines are the best match for food with equally bold flavors. Below, we have organized common whites and reds from their lightest to their boldest (and in parentheses, we note the acidity and tannin levels to further characterize these wines for you):  

White wines from lightest to boldest (and their acidity levels): 

Pinot Grigio (low acid)
Off-dry (i.e., sweeter) Riesling (high acid)
Dry Riesling (high acid)
Champagne and other dry sparkling wines (medium to high acid)
Chenin Blanc (high acid)
French Chablis (medium to high acid)
Sauvignon Blanc (high acid)
Pinot Gris (low acid)
Gewürztraminer (low acid)
Chardonnay (medium to high acid)

Red wines from lightest to boldest (and their tannin levels):
Beaujolais (low tannin)
Tempranillo (low tannin)
Pinot Noir, from the United States (low to medium tannin)
Burgundy (low to medium tannin)
Chianti Classico (low to medium tannin)
Barbaresco (low to medium tannin)
Bordeaux (low to medium tannin)
Merlot, from the United States (low tannin)
Zinfandel (medium to high tannin)
Cabernet Sauvignon, from the United States or Australia (high tannin)
Rhône, Syrah, Shiraz (high tannin)
Last Words Before Uncorking

Feel free to play around with any or all of these wine-pairing techniques, and pick what's most comfortable for you. No matter which technique you use, there is one more rule to go by: If you're serving more than one wine with a meal, you should serve white wine before red, dry wines before sweet ones, light wines before bold ones, and simple wines before complex ones. This approach will ensure that everyone's palates are primed to appreciate each wine that you so carefully selected for their enjoyment.

Keep in mind that wine is a vast, sweeping subject which you could spend your whole life studying and still not know everything about it, so don't stress out about becoming an expert -- just enjoy yourself! Try to trust your own instincts. Occasionally, you'll discover a food and wine combination that's absolutely divine, and sometimes you'll stumble across a combination that you won't want to repeat again. Learn from experience, and whatever you do, don't stop tasting!

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