What’s for dinner? That’s the first question Sarah Cyr has to answer before she can match a wine to a meal. The sommelier and co-owner of the Wine Cellar & Bistro says the wine choices for her table are spontaneous, inspired by menu, season and mood.
“I always have something seasonal at my house,” she says. “White Bordeaux in the summer, lighter reds for rainy spring weather … heavy reds come in handy on snowy winter nights. To pair with meals, we usually plan the meal first, and then I choose a wine to complement second. It is usually a last-minute acquisition.”
Most of us aren’t as knowledgeable as a sommelier to pull out a perfect wine match when planning a meal. Wine and food pairings can be simple or complicated, depending on each diner’s personal taste preferences and spirit of adventure.
“It’s all completely subjective,” Cyr says. “Every palate is different.”
There is only one universal wine and food pairing rule: A good pairing is when the food and the wine do not overshadow each other. Whether you complement or contrast, pairings work best when each does not mask the other’s unique flavor and characteristics.
Matching what’s on your plate to what’s in your glass takes in four elements: weight, flavor intensity, taste and smell. Characteristics of the food — the way the dish is prepared and cooked — will affect these elements. Is the dish heavy, medium or light? Is the flavor weak, moderate or strong? Is the aroma earthy, fruity or herbal? Does it taste sweet, spicy, acidic, sour or bitter? The way your palate answers those questions — drawing from your background, culture and habits — can help determine your complementary wine preferences.
There are a few basics of traditional pairings — reds with red meats, whites with poultry and seafood. Terroir comes into play as well — matching food and wines from the same region — because it makes sense that foods, wines and cuisine styles from the same area would go together.
It all comes down to personal preference. Experiment to learn the combinations that you enjoy most. Here are a few guidelines to get you started.
Tannins are the reason red wine complements red meat so well. These phenolic compounds bind to proteins in the meat, creating an astringent reaction in your mouth. A sip of a tannic red wine after a bite of beef helps cleanse the palate and meld the flavors. Not all red wines contain the same levels of tannin, though, so varietals boasting other traits pair well with a variety of foods.
Good matches with red wines include:
Steak: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Shiraz, Petite Sirah
Roast Beef: Merlot, Bordeaux blends, Beaujolais
Pork: Oregon Pinot Noir, Chambourcin
Lamb: Norton, Pinot Noir, Rioja Tempranillo
Ham: Beaujolais Nouveau, Zinfandel
Wild Game: Norton, Super Tuscans, Shiraz
Salmon: Pinot Noir,
Pasta (red sauce): Chianti, Barbera
Pizza: Zinfandel, Carménerè, Chianti
Burgers: Zinfandel, Beaujolais Noveau
Barbecue: Sangria, Norton, Zinfandel, Merlot, Grenache, Rosé
Green Salads (with fruit): Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Rosé
White wines are good accompaniments to fish and poultry. Crisp wines are especially good pairings with seafood — the acid in the wine counters the oils in the fish for better balance on the palate.
Good matches with white wines include:
Chicken: Chardonnay, Chablis, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc
Turkey: Gewürztraminer, White Burgundy, Sauvignon Blanc
Grilled Fish: Pinot Grigio, Chablis
Fried Fish: Sauvignon Blanc
Salmon: Vignoles, Pinot Grigio
Pasta (white sauce): Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Viognier, Gavi
Raw/Steamed Shellfish: Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne
Green Salad: Sauvignon Blanc, Vignoles, Pinot Blanc
Chinese: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc
Japanese: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling
Thai: Riesling, Vignoles, Icewine, Chablis, Chardonnay
Sushi: Sake, Riesling, Vin Gris, Sauvignon Blanc
Wine and cheese is a classic combo, subject to personal preference and the addition of fruit, breads and other offerings on the platter. Start with these standard pairings:
Cabernet Sauvignon: Brie, Camembert, strong cheddar, Danish blue, Gorgonzola, Gouda
Chambourcin: Brie, Camembert
Champagne/Sparkling Wines: vintage Brie, feta, Edam, Gouda, Parmesan
Chardonnay: Gouda, Gruyere, provolone
Chenin Blanc: Camembert, feta, fontina, Gouda, ricotta
Gewürztraminer: boursin, chevre, Swiss
Merlot: Asiago, Gouda, Gruyere, Brie, Camembert, Jarlsberg
Norton: cheddar, bleu
Pinot Noir: Brie, Camembert, Gruyere
Riesling: colby, Edam, Gouda
Rioja: Asiago, havarti
Sauternes: gorgonzola, Emmentaler, Stilton
Sauvignon Blanc: Gruyere
Sherry: bleu, vintage Brie
Syrah/Shiraz: Asiago, bleu, aged cheddar