There is only one rule that is important to remember when matching food and wine. You are entitled to drink absolutely anything you want with whatever you decide to eat. If you want to drink Lambrusco with lamb chops, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. However, having said that, I must warn you that the wine will always change when paired with food. It will never taste the same as it does when you drink it alone. That change will either be for the better or for the worse, and that will depend on the wine and food combination. Most people still adhere to the old rule: white meat and fish, drink white wine – red meat, drink red wine. In today’s world with the blending of international cuisines and chefs constantly pushing the envelope with their complex blending of flavors, this antiquated rule, I like to call “color coding wine” is practically useless.
The first and most important step in matching wine and food is to determine the dominant flavor on the plate. It is the dominant flavor that you match your wine to. More often than not, the dominant flavor is in the sauce. For example, if you were to prepare chicken in a lemon and butter sauce with some thyme or dill, your wine choice would be white. But, take the same chicken and add a marinara or barbecue sauce and the wine choice would be red. It’s the same chicken, however, the sauce dictated the wine choice.
Heat in a dish can also act as the dominant flavor. The wine you choose must have an appropriate amount of sweetness to balance the heat in the dish. The hotter the food is, the sweeter the wine must be. If you try to use a dry wine with a hot dish, the wine will taste bitter and the alcohol in the wine will seem even hotter on your palate. It would be like throwing gasoline on a fire. A wine with some sweetness and low alcohol is the perfect match for hot food.
In the case of a sweet dish, the same rule applies. The sweeter the food or sauce , the sweeter the wine must be. As in the hot dish, the sweetness of the dish will make the wine appear less sweet. If the wine is not sweet enough it will taste bitter with the dish. Picking the right amount of sweetness in the wine to pair with a hot or sweet dish involves a bit of trial and error. Just remember, if the wine gets bitter with the food, it’s not sweet enough.
And finally, let me mention salty foods. Once again, one of the best matches for salty foods is a wine with some degree of sweetness. Although some dry wines do work with salty foods, a sweeter wine works well to counteract the saltiness and achieve balance in the mouth.
There is a lot more to say on this topic that cannot be covered in this article. In the second half of this article, I make an argument for the use of sweeter wines in many situations. All too often, most people avoid using a sweeter wine in favor of a dry wine, thinking the dry wine is a more “sophisticated” choice. In an upcoming article, I will discuss this further and make my case for why I think Riesling is the most food friendly wine on the planet.