What in the World Should I Pair with Dinner?
It is almost impossible to learn anything about wine without learning a little bit about pairing it with specific foods. The time-old classic is that you don’t drink red wine with fish, but is that always true? And what are you supposed to pair with foods that you are eating at home without the guidance of a restaurant’s Sommelier? Here are some suggestions on what you may want to drink when you are eating your favorite foods.
The first thing you want to consider, is how is the body and texture of the wine going to play with the dish? The next thing you want to think about is how will the flavor profile mesh between the wine and the food? If you can get both of these questions answered positively, then you are on the right track for a good wine pairing experience!
Let’s start it off a little simpler with what you may want to pair with different proteins.
Filet Mignon, Ribeye, New York Strip, etc.
Beef in general is going to have a fairly high-fat content which will need something with a good tannic structure to it like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, or Tannat. If you are going to be eating a cut that has an even higher fat content like a Ribeye you may even need something with an elevated acid profile as well, just to help cut through that richness, such as a left bank Bordeaux. The next thing that you need to consider is the type of sauce or sides that may be involved in your dish. If you are having Steak au Poivre you should consider opening a Malbec with its touch of black pepper aromatics. A Bearnaise sauce or a gravy with a more neutral profile (in comparison to the dish) would be an easy pairing for a classic Napa Cabernet to match that additional richness.
Pork and Chicken
Pork Tenderloin, Pork Roast, Spatchcock Chicken, etc.
Pork has a huge range of fat content depending on what the cut is, for example, belly needs a big tannic wine like Barolo, whereas tenderloin would do just fine with something a little lighter that may even have some age on it like a Rioja. Chicken also has a fairly wide range from the breast to the thighs. Both pork and chicken come in a variety of fried formats that are excellent with a very dry representation of Champagne. Champagne and fried foods playoff almost the exact opposite style of pairing where you are seeing a contrast of weight and richness instead of matching. This gives you something to refresh your palate and allows you to fully appreciate each bite and sip.
Lamb and Game
Lamb Chops, Venison, Bison, etc.
Lamb and game have such a stark flavor profile that pairing wine with them becomes very easy. Either you are aiming to match the sort of funkiness of the food with something like Chateauneuf du Pape or an Aged Brunello di Montalcino, or you are trying to contribute a flavor profile that will tame it to an extent like a California Zinfandel or Beaujolais. Both of these styles are perfectly valid, it is just dependent on what kind of experience you prefer.
White Fish: Halibut, Sole, Barramundi etc.
Whitefish tends to be fairly lean and is often cooked with a variety of herbs and spices, this means that you are going to want a wine that will not only match the weight of the dish but also its aromatic intensity of it. You will want a wine that is light and dry at the minimum here, then depending on what the fish is seasoned with you may need to tinker with the variety. If you have something with a lot of aromatic herbs, you may want to consider Sauvignon Blanc or Grunner Veltliner. If the flavor profile is more focused on just citrus or butter/oil consider drinking Pinot Blanc or Albariño.
Fatty Fish: Salmon, Ahi, Swordfish, etc.
With more richness than white fish, fatty fish like Tuna and Salmon have a little more options for what will play well with it. Again you want to be matching the weight of the dish which in this case will call for a full-bodied white or a lighter red wine that doesn’t have a ton of tannin. Some good white wines to consider are Chardonnay and Viognier. If you prefer drinking red wine, a lighter style like Pinot Noir or Gamay is a good choice here.
Pasta is such a diverse category of food with vast differences in sauce weights and flavors that offering a single pairing for the group almost feels almost barbaric. So let’s break it down into some larger categories:
Red Sauce Pasta
Includes Ragu, Sugo, Lasagna, etc.
The red sauce can be a bit tricky, there is a lot of natural acidity in tomatoes and a bit of natural sweetness. On top of that, there is typically a strong presence of herbs increasing the aromatic intensity. All of these factors imply that a good pairing will also need an elevated acidity profile, a strong aromatic presence, and at least a medium body. Good candidates are Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and if you want to go French, Chateauneuf du pape.
Includes Alfredo Sauce, Carbonara, Caccio e Pepe, etc.
The rich nature of dairy-based dishes needs a fairly full-bodied wine or something in the opposite direction that will cut through and refresh the palate. Depending on what kind of pairing you prefer there is a lot of room for diversity here. If you want something to complement a rich white wine or a lighter-bodied red is an ideal pairing, good go-to's are new world Chardonnayor Pinot Noir. If you want something that will cut through to refresh your palate, think sparkling wine like Franciacorta or a lighter white wine like Soave.
Herb and Seafood Pasta
Includes Pesto, Puttanesca, Linguine, and Clams, etc.
The biggest thing to consider with a heavily seasoned dish is whether or not your wine will be overpowered. When thinking about Pesto or shellfish pasta you should be considering very aromatic wines that will match the intensity of the dish. Grapes like Sauvignon Blanc or Vermentino have the power on the nose and the palate to stand up to these types of dishes.
Daal, Curry, Tikka Masala, etc.
Indian dishes are famed for the amount of flavor that is packed into them, this high complexity food needs a wine that will help de-muddle the palate in between bites and be able to showcase itself alongside the food. Because of the heat that is often showcased in more commonly consumed dishes in the US, a wine with a touch of sugar in it can go a long way. For spicier dishes, an off-dry Riesling or an Extra dry Champagne, are great pairings to cool off your palate. If you are eating something a bit milder like dosas or daal a light fruitier style of red like Gamay or Barbera are great go-to’s.
Tacos, Tamales, Mole, etc.
Traditionally, Mexican food is fairly rich and can display varying levels of heat depending on what kind of dish you are eating. Much like Indian food, if you are having something with a lot of spice you are going to want an off-dry white or sparkling wine to go along with it. But if you are having something like a traditional mole, Picodillo, or Carnitas that aren’t inherently spicy you have a lot of flavors that you can play off of with a variety of wine styles. Good flavor combinations from grapes like Cabernet Franc and Assyrtiko play well with these more meat-heavy dishes with big aromatic profiles.
Larb, Tom Yum, Pad Thai
Thai is another food category that can run high on the spice level that you will want an off-dry white to pair with. That being said Thai food is often packed with herbs and runs a much leaner weight profile than either Mexican or Indian food. This gives you plenty of pairing opportunities for dishes like Larb to pair with light dry white wines like Albarino or Pinot Grigio. If you are eating something with a bit higher acidity level like Tom Kha a higher acid white wine like Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling is a great match.
Sushi, Katsu, Ramen, etc.
Sushi is always the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Japanese food, but there is a huge diversity of flavors and styles of food throughout Japan that we see specialized here in the US. For rich dishes like Katsu or Ramen, Champagne is a great go-to to cut through the weight but a slightly savory but medium-bodied red like Lagrein or Dolcetto goes a long way. Izakaya dining needs something versatile like a Sancerre or a lighter red like Pinot Noir. If you need a stand-in for Sake when you eat sushi, white Burgundy is your best bet with elevated weight and a similar creamy flavor profile.
Chocolate, Pastry, Candy, etc.
Dessert foods call for dessert wines. Sugar is a very powerful thing on the palate and either needs more sugar in the wine or a bitter and acidic profile to contrast (think of the way coffee pairs well with pastries). If you like to combine sweet with sweet there are a lot of different avenues to go down depending on the type of dessert you are eating. Fruit-based desserts do best with wines like Sauternes or Ice Wine, whereas chocolate and caramel-based desserts do best with darker flavors like a Vintage Port or Vin Santo. If you prefer a contrasting style of dessert pairing there are plenty of options. There are a variety of Vermouths, Chinatos, Marsala, and Sherry that play well with both fruit, nuts, and chocolate.
Ultimately pairing is largely personal preference. If you don’t like either the food or the wine, then there is a good chance that you won’t like the pairing. The examples above are just suggestions based on tried and true experiences but certainly not exclusive. One of the best parts of wine is experiencing it alongside a large variety of different foods.
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