The Happy Marriage of Food and Wine

A lot of people fret about matching just the right food with the exact wine to complement it, but this tasty decision isn't really as tough as all that. It may help to keep in mind the simple reality that humans have been making wine to go with food for more than 5,000 years, and most wines go very nicely with most dishes. It's easy to go right, and hard to go wrong, as only a few combinations don't work well.

Check this page often, as it's a work-in-progress, and I intend to add a lot more specific food-and-wine pairings. Meanwhile, though, if you'll keep in mind a few simple, basic principles, you'll find that you can choose a good wine to match your meal every time. I'll go into more detail below, but first, here's a quick overview.

General Principles ...

Rule I - Red Wine with Red Meat, White Wine With White
Perhaps surprisingly, the old saying "red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat," works quite well as a general principle. A powerful, tannic red wine would simply overwhelm delicate white fish, for instance, while a light, ethereal white like a fresh Viognier would seem mighty wimpy alongside a joint of rare roast beef.

Rule II - Don't Sweat the Exceptions
Yes, there are exceptions to the "Red with Red" rule, but they're tasty exceptions. Although roast chicken counts as a "white meat," for instance, it goes very well indeed with a fruity red. So do salmon and fresh tuna, shattering the notion that you should never serve red wine with fish.

Rule III - The Rule of Complements: Match Likes with Likes
Newer in principle than the ancient "red with red," this one makes intuitive sense: Look for a wine with flavor and aroma characteristics that evoke the trademark flavors of your entree. A slightly sweet, rich seafood like lobster or crab makes a wonderful marriage with a slightly sweet, rich white wine like a big California Chardonnay. Add a sprig of rosemary to your pan-grilled steak and watch it wake up with the herbal qualities of a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux.

Rule IV - The Rule of Contrasts: Opposites Attract
This is a little more tricky, as it takes the intuitive nature of Rule III and turns it on its head. It can lead to some lovely surprises, though, as when you match a tart, lean white like a White Bordeaux or Loire Sauvignon Blanc against a rich, oily fish like bluefish or mackerel. Don't be afraid to experiment!

The Bottom Line - Drink What you Like!
Remember always that all these rules are advisory. There's nothing more impolite than the wine "snob" who insists that only his answers are right. Try the standard rules first, but if you decide that you want a Chardonnay with your steak, it's certainly your privilege, and you shouldn't be ashamed to exercise it.
I've provided a number of more specific examples and discussions below.

Appetizers and Salads
Vinegar is the natural enemy of wine, so it's wise to push back your wine glass when you're digging into the salad bowl. Appetizers, on the other hand, may run the entire gamut. Consider the primary ingredient of the appetizers and apply the general principles listed on this page. Or go the festive route and open your evening with Champagne!

Steaks, Roast Beef and Lamb
Hearty red meats like beef and lamb absolutely require dry red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux), Pinot Noir (Burgundy) and the Syrah-based red Rhone wines are the classics, and naturally the equivalents from the U.S., Australia, South America and South Africa work as well. The big reds from Tuscany and the Piemonte in Italy -- Barolo, Brunello, Chianti -- make great marriages with red meats and even wild game, as do the very inky and robust American reds like Petite Sirah and Charbono.

Seafood and Fish
Fish, at the other extreme, almost always demands a white wine, preferably a dry and crisp white. I love Sauvignon Blanc (from California or Down Under, or the Bordeaux and Loire whites from France) with all white-fleshed fish and seafood. Sancerre and Muscadet from the Loire are exceptionally suited to oysters, perhaps because shellfish are an important part of the local cuisine and the wine evolved to match. Pinot Gris, whether it's a dry, crisp version from Oregon or Alsace or the similar Pinot Grigio from Italy, also makes an excellent match with seafood and fish.

You can even get away with the right combination of red wine and fish! Keep the wine fruity and non-tannic (Beaujolais or a California or Oregon Pinot Noir), and it will sit up and play music with oily, full-flavored fish like mackerel or bluefish; a Central Coast Pinot will even work very nicely indeed with grilled salmon or tuna.

Be conscious, though, that very light, delicate fish like sole rarely work well with red wine; and tannic, astringent reds like young Cabernets don't show their best with fish, often bringing out an unpleasant metallic or tangy taste in both the wine and the fish. Similar principles apply to seafood: mussels, being dark and rich, go very well with reds, but lobster and scallops are really too "white."

Your choice of sauce or accompaniment may also be influential. Bouillabaise, cioppino, and other fish stews with tomatoes and lots of herbs call out for a Chianti or similar warm, Mediterranean-style red (and this is also the best way I know of to help shrimp marry with a red wine. If you add cheese to the equation, it may even bring up a lighter white fish to meet a red.

The 'other white meats:' Poultry, pork and veal
Following the "white wine with white meat" rule again, whites -- particularly richer whites like most Chardonnays and Pinot Blanc, go well with lighter meats like chicken, veal and pork. As an "in-between" category, though, this one gets interesting. Although chicken is a "white" meat, grilled or roasted chicken is great with a red, especially a fruity red like Zinfandel or Merlot. Veal and pork suggest a fine, rich White Burgundy (Chardonnay), but they'll go with any white or even with a light red like Beaujolais from France or Dolcetto from Italy.

Turkey and Ham
Turkey is challenging because it has light and dark meat, and its meat has an oily quality that's not always friendly to dry wines. I call my solution "the cranberry sauce principle." Cranberry sauce goes well with turkey because it's both fruity and tart; so choose a wine with similar characteristics -- Beaujolais or Zinfandel if you want a red, or Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Chenin Blanc if you're inclined to a white.

Ham is challenging cause it's so salty and strong-flavored. My choices are fruity, quenching wines: A Beaujolais, a Zinfandel or a lighter-styled Pinot Noir.

Fiery fare: Some like it hot
In all honesty, I find that wine doesn't make a very good accompaniment for curries, Thai food and other hot-and-spicy dishes. The alcohol in still wines interacts with the otherwise pleasant fire of curries to create a burning sensation that I find unpleasant. Accordingly, I quite frankly recommend forgoing wine with food of this type, choosing instead either a good beer or, as the people of those cultures do, cold drinks, often dairy-based, such as the Indian yoghurt lassi or the sweet, cream-topped Thai iced coffee.

If you're absolutely set on wine with fiery fare, then I'd suggest choosing a modest sparkling wine. The carbonation seems to work reasonably well to ameliorate spicy heat, and Champagne-type wines go well with foods of all sorts. As a final alternative, if you must have a still table wine, choose one that's fruity and not overly tannic or acidic: A Beaujolais, for example, or an American Zinfandel or Australian Shiraz. But don't say I didn't warn you!

Ethnic Cuisine
To make a long story very simple and short, I enjoy matching the food of a country with the wine of a country, picking Italian vino with Italian cocina, French vin with French cuisine and ... well, you get the idea. It makes simple sense that the people of wine-making countries evolve their foods and wines to go well together, so why second-guess tradition?

But what about foods from countries that don't make wine? In my experience, dry table wines in the European and American tradition go surprisingly well with non-Occidental foods, subject to the limits imposed by hot-and-spicy fare. Simply focus on a wine to match the primary meat, poultry or seafood ingredient, then consider whether the sauce or accompaniments would alter the equation. For some examples, see my online article on matching wine and Chinese fare.

Vegetarian Dishes
Vegetarian entrees are a little harder to match with wine, but think in terms of saving heartier fare like bean dishes, enchiladas, etc., for your red wines, and using the lighter whites with dishes based on green vegetables.

The Cheese Tray
When I'm in the mood for a serious session of analytical wine-and-cheese tasting, I like to have a good array of cheeses and a selection of wines, tasting across the lines to compare and contrast the different ways they go together. But generally speaking, I'd propose the following broad categories for seeking the ideal marriage between a specific wine and a particular cheese:

Cheddars and similar sharp "English" cheeses: Dry reds, Cabernet Sauvignon or better Merlots.

Swiss, Gruyere, and the equivalent: Pinot Noir.

Blue cheeses: Sauternes (or other sweet, fine dessert wines) is traditional, but these also work nicely with dry reds, and surprisingly so with very dry (Fino) Sherries. Be careful about tannic reds like Cabernets, though, which sometimes get a funny metallic taste with blue cheese.

Ripe, creamy cheeses like Camembert and Brie: Rich, buttery Chardonnay. Or for a change of pace, try them with Champagne.

Hard cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano, etc.: This is probably kind of a cliche, but I really do like them with dry Italian reds, from Chianti to Barolo. Or try a chunk of really fresh Reggiano with a heavy Amarone.

Sweet wines are generally better sipped by themselves and not with food. There are a few traditional matches, including foie gras with Sauternes and other great dessert wines; Stilton (or other fine blue cheese) and walnuts with Port; and a creamy, not-too-sweet creme brulée with a fine dessert wine. But in my opinion it's best to have the dessert wine be the dessert rather than serving it with dessert, or save the dessert wine for contemplative sipping after the meal has ended.

© Copyright 1999 by Robin Garr.

我係一個好鍾意食野既 PORKGUY~