Recommended food and wine pairings can be found everywhere from the labels of supermarket bottles to the menus of gourmet restaurants, but when it comes to choosing the perfect tipple to accompany a meal, most of us are fairly clueless.
A well-matched wine can transform and enhance certain ingredients, either by mirroring specific flavours, or by providing a contrast to break up the more overpowering ones. But how do you know which wines will up your dining experience, and which ones will leave a sour taste in your mouth?
If you’re baffled by tannins and don’t know what makes a wine ‘heavy’, we’ve got you covered. This easy-to-follow guide will help you crack the wine bottle jargon and bring out the best in your meals.
Balance the weight
Heavy food with heavy wine, light food with light wine. It’s as simple as that!
Think about how full-fat milk feels different to skimmed milk; the same can be applied to wines. Wines with high alcohol content tend to have a high viscosity meaning they are ‘full-bodied’ and heavy. Low-alcohol wines are less viscous or ‘light-bodied’ as most people might say.
Balancing the weight of the food and wine is more important than colour when searching for the perfect match. Delicately flavoured foods will be drowned out by big, bold-tasting wines, and lovely, light wines will taste like water alongside rich or heavy food.
Bear in mind that red doesn’t necessarily equal big flavours – a light red (Pinot Noir, for example) will be more compatible with delicate flavours than a heavy, oaked white, such as Chardonnay. Rich stews and fatty meats need punchy, full-bodied wines to stand up to the flavours in the food, while citrusy salads, white meats and fish will work in perfect harmony with crisp, fresh-flavoured wines.
Reds - Shiraz or Malbec
White - Chardonnay
Medium and light bodied wines
Red - Pinot Noir
White - Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
Mirror the dominant flavours
It’s a common misconception that white meat or poultry will always go well with white wine, regardless of their accompanying flavours. To find the perfect pairing for a meal, consider the most dominant flavours in the dish, as these are the elements that your wine will complement or contrast.
In the case of light meats, fish and poultry, the flavours are so subtle that they are usually the less-dominant flavour in a dish. Pay attention to the sauces or accompaniments – though they may not be the visual centrepiece of the meal, they are where the flavours will really come through.
The flavours that come to mind after a sip of wine are the perfect indicator of which foods they’ll pair well with. Without getting too technical, you can pick out distinctive notes and choose foods which mirror those same flavours. If your tastebuds aren’t up to the test of picking up subtle hints in a wine, read a description of the wine to find out which fruits, herbs or spices are dominant.
For example, the dark, fruity flavours in Cabernet Sauvignon are brought out beautifully by currants, and the spicy notes in a Shiraz or Syrah will pack a peppery punch when paired with a dish using fresh black pepper.
Ready to get technical? For most of these distinguishing characteristics, you’ll find that wines and foods with similar qualities will be most complementary to one another.
Acidic foods, such as lemon and vinegar, are best enjoyed with wines of a similar acidity which will soften the taste and bring out rounder flavours.
Acidity in wine is also the perfect way to balance out very salty foods, and cut through heavy fats. For example, sweet acidity makes Champagne an ideal companion for salty appetisers, while a sharp red will break through fatty cuts of meat, balancing the flavours after each mouthful. For more info on why Champagne works with all things salty and fried, check out our blog on ‘Surprising Food Combinations’.
Desserts can be tricky to pair wines with as the wine should always be sweeter than the food, to avoid the wine from tasting too tart or sour. With desserts, it’s especially important to remember to mirror flavours. Fruit-based desserts, for example, will go beautifully with fruity wines.
Sweet wine also combines really nicely with salty food, as it balances the flavours to produce the satisfying effect you get from foods that are both sweet and salty.
You may find that rich, fatty foods drown out the flavours of delicate or soft wines. A full-bodied wine will bring out the best in this kind of food, as will rougher, tannic wines which lend their astringent qualities to more unctuous foods.
Red wines are particularly high in tannins. You may recognise tannics wines as those that leave a dry sensation in the mouth.
High alcohol concentration tends not to flatter spicy foods, and rather than refreshing the mouth between bites, will accentuate the spicy oils in the food and create an unpleasant taste. If you’re serving up a hot curry, avoid high alcohol and opt for off-dry, low-percentage wines, or even beer, which you may find is more complementary to the dish.
Choose what you like
Don’t have confidence in your wine pairings? If you’re struggling to decipher tannins from acidity and weight from colour, don’t worry. Choose a wine that you know you like – that way, you’ll enjoy drinking it even if it doesn’t perfectly complement your meal.