‘Drinking good wine with good food in good company is one of life’s most civilized pleasures.’ - Michael Broadbent, MW wine critic
A great food and wine pairing creates a harmony between the elements of a dish and the characteristics of a wine. It can be a little complex to get your head around if you’re just getting started, but we’re here to help!
We’ve all seen people swish and swirl wine around in a glass, and stick their nose in for a good sniff. While you might think they look a little silly, they’re actually on the money — tasting wine is about so much more than just drinking. It’s a sensory experience, and first you need to examine with your eyes and nose before finding the perfect pairing for your meal.
You can discover a lot about a wine from how it looks; it should be brilliantly shiny and clear. Hint: more colour usually indicates more flavour, and as a general rule darker wines are more mature. Swirl the wine in the glass to assess its legs (viscosity) — the greater the amount, the thicker the body and the higher the alcohol content and/or sweetness.
You can pick up on thousands of different aromas and flavours with your nose, whereas tastebuds can only detect four distinct tastes - sweet, salty, sour and bitter. So give your wine a swirl and assess it with your nose. How intense is it? Can you identify any flavours? Not everyone will have the same experience, so don’t be alarmed if you smell peaches and they smell pine trees.
Finally, you drink it. Take a decent sip, savour it, swish it around in your mouth — hit all the taste hotspots.
Generally speaking, taste receptors on the tongue go like this: sweet = front and middle; salty = front and sides; sour = back and sides; bitter = back.
The initial flavour of wine hits different parts of your tongue, and develops in the mouth. It may be sweet or acidic or dry and tannic. You’ll feel the aftertaste of the wine develop, and as the lingering flavours slowly leave you, you’re left with its finish.
There are four basic components of wine: acidity, sweetness, alcohol and tannin.
Acidity in wine is basically how sour it tastes, and is perceived as that mouthwatering, puckering sensation at the back of your jaw. Wines with high levels of acidity are often described as ‘zingy’ or ‘tart’, whereas lower acidity wines tend to be described as ‘creamy’ and ‘smooth’.
This is the amount of natural sugar in a wine. The tip and top of the tongue are where we sense sweetness, so it’s generally the first taste you’ll get when taking a sip. Sweet wines are generally made from white grapes, unless it’s a dessert wine.
The alcohol level can add texture and ‘body’ to the wine - think of the body as how the wine rests on your palate. Often likened to milk and cream, is it subtle like skim, heavier like whole, or decadent like cream? This gives you a rough idea of the textures of light, medium and full-bodied wines.
A characteristic found in red wine, tannin is a bitter acid perceived on the middle of your tongue and roof of the mouth as a drying sensation, like eating cotton wool or drinking really strong, unsweetened tea. Tannin naturally exists in the skins and seeds of grapes, and oak barrels.
As a general rule, follow these guidelines:
- Red wines tend to be more bitter.
- White, rosé and sparkling wines have more noticeable acidity.
- Sweet wines are, unsurprisingly, sweeter in taste.
There are similar basic components that can be applied to food, too.
Sweetness in food will amp up any bitterness, acidity or alcohol in a wine, and reduce the fruitiness, sweetness and body. So when pairing with sweet foods the wine needs to be of equal or more sweetness.
Bitterness in food will heighten any bitter taste in the wine. Therefore, try counterbalancing bitterness with fruity, low tannin wines.
Opposite to sweetness, acidity in food will enhance the body, sweetness and fruitiness in a wine and lessen the acidity often making them seem flabby and fat. Therefore, look for a wine of equal or more acidity.
Salty foods will increase the body and decrease the bitterness and acidity in the wine. Salty foods can help to soften some of the harder elements in wine. Counterbalance salty food with acidity, carbonation or sweetness.
On a basic level, another helpful thing to keep in mind is matching the fundamental elements of the food and the wine. Pair delicate with delicate, and bold with bold. That way, one won’t drown out the flavours of the other.
To do this, you’ll need to determine a wine’s weight — it’s body. In wine terms, ‘body’ is an analysis of the way a wine feels inside the mouth. Wines fall into three main categories: light, medium and full-bodied. This is based on a variety of factors, but alcohol is the primary contributor. The alcohol level will determine its viscosity (legs), which affects how heavy the wine is, and how it feels on the palate.
- Wines under 12.5% alcohol are considered light-bodied.
- Between 12.5% – 13.5% are medium-bodied.
- Any wine over 13.5% is said to be full-bodied.
Now you’ll have a better arsenal to determine a wine’s weight and compare that to a meal, and you can begin to play around with finding the perfect match!
Will you go complementary, or congruent? For example, with something cheesy and creamy like mac & cheese or potato bake, an acidic white wine (Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio) will complement the fatty, cheesy elements. This is a complementary pairing. Alternatively, a creamy wine (Chardonnay or Viognier) will add to the creaminess of the dish — a congruent pairing.
In short, here are some basic food/wine pairing tips and tricks to help you perfect your pairing:
- The wine should be more acidic than the food.
- The wine should be sweeter than the food.
- The wine should have the same flavour elements as the food, eg. delicate with delicate.
- Red wines pair best with bold flavoured meats (e.g. red meat).
- White wines pair best with light-intensity meats (e.g. fish or chicken).
- It is better to match the wine with the sauce than with the meat.
- More often than not, white, sparkling and rosé wines make contrasting pairings - creating balance by contrasting tastes and flavours, eg. chocolate & coconut.
- More often than not, red wines will make congruent pairings - creating balance by amplifying shared flavour compounds, eg. beef & mushroom.
While opinions will vary on the do’s and don’t of food & wine pairing, these are just a couple of good rule-of-thumb tips to keep in mind when you’re just getting into it. Of course, personal taste will dictate a lot, and that’s totally fine! And don’t be afraid to try new things. Want more? Take a look at Virgin Wines here for an awesome deal on some delicious wines!