Food and wine go together. Wonderfully. Whether relaxing after work with a bottle or entertaining clients at lunch, the permutations are endless which is why so much has been written on the subject.
Much of it, as with much wine writing, is impenetrable and unpalatable to the amateur. This no nonsense guide to matching wine and food however will enable you to hold your own in dining situations with friends and work colleagues, and help you display a grasp of the basics when entertaining clients.
While wine and food and matching is entirely subjective, being dependent on your own opinion, tastes and preferences, different world cultures have also developed their own unique cuisine and wine styles to match.
In Italy, local grape varieties such as Sangiovese are selected to make the perfect wine to consume with local produce. The same goes in Spain with Temparanillo and in France with Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Other varieties, like Shiraz, have found homes across Europe and throughout the world.
Brave new world
In New Zealand we are fortunate in enjoying a great cross-section of cultures created from the customs and traditions of the immigrants who have settled here. These influences have created a huge selection and variety of cuisine.
We are blessed with a climate that produces some of the best raw ingredients in the world – including seafood, vegetables and meat. Add to this our global outlook as a nation and we are willing to explore eclectic tastes when it comes to wine consumption, seeking out wines of different styles from around the world.
But to the budding wine enthusiast, trying to select a wine for an occasion or meal can be overwhelming.
Here are some basic guidelines for food and wine matching. But do not let them stop you from experimenting, be bold! You will be rewarded with wonderful and personal taste experiences. And remember, the only rule is that there is no rule!
White with white, red with red
A basic truism is white wine with white meat, and red wine with red meat. While a cliché, it’s a good starting point. Let us consider red wines first.
The general rule that red wine should be served with red meat has some basis in truth. Red wines have a tannin structure that comes from the skins of the grapes and the stalks. It’s like a drying taste in your mouth – next time you eat some grapes chew the skin for a while and you’ll see what I mean.
Matched with red meat, the tannin structure in red wine helps to break down the fatty proteins in meat. Tannins are not so prevalent in white wines.
Different red wines have different tannin contents. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most tannic wines due to the thickness of the Cabernet grapes and the colour extracted by extra contact with the skins.
Pinot Noir is generally less tannic with the exception of some of the more extracted styles now coming onto the market. With less tannin, Pinot Noir matches well with lighter red meats like spring lamb. Matching a red wine with the perfect tannin structure for the meat allows the two to marry and cleanse your palate, leaving you ready for the next course.
Of course there are exceptions, like veal – a red meat that is often best matched with white wine – particularly a Chardonnay. While a red meat, veal is very delicate in texture and does not stand up well to the tannin structure in red wine. So a white wine is a better accompaniment.
Spicy red meat dishes also don’t work with tannic wines. Spice and tannin just don’t match. You are better served by a sweeter wine – which will complement the spice – like a Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer, or even a cold beer if you’re having a curry.
With fruity aromas and flavour, lighter reds such as Pinot Noir and Petit Verdot , Sangiovese and Temparanillo offer a large array of accompaniments like wild meats from game birds and rabbit, as well as pork and lamb.
New Zealand lamb and Pinot Noir is a classic match, but try tuna, salmon and trout for some additional culinary magic. And, don’t forget the pizza and pasta dishes that have been washed down with Sangiovese wines for centuries by the Italians.
The red grape varieties of Grenache, Merlot and Mourvedre fall into the group of medium-bodied styles of red wine with fruity, spicy and oak influences. These wines are made for the stronger meats – try beef, lamb, game birds, venison and sausages. You can also enjoy spicy dishes, hard cheeses and Cheddar with these reds. The many blended red varieties of Merlot and Grenache also fit into the medium-bodied red category.
Full-bodied reds made from Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon suit all of the meats mentioned, plus stronger variants of sausages, salami’s and hot dishes.
These wines are often more tannic than other red varieties, with bite and a hard, rough texture, so meaty pasta dishes and curries are great partners. These big full-bodied reds can be drunk with hard strong cheeses. Classic full-bodied wines like these develop over time and turn into silky and smooth reds.
Rosés are becoming increasingly popular. Fun and easy drinking summer wines, they are usually medium-sweet and best consumed young. These lighter wines are slightly sweet and fruity and go particularly well with chicken, but my own favourite pairing is with oysters or other shellfish. Spicy Asian and Japanese cuisines are also good pairings. Roses can be made from various different varieties with Pinot Noir and Cabernet increasingly being used these days in the blends. While rose wines are often better with soft cheeses, you can also have fun with hard ripened cheeses.
Match Like with Like
• Match heavier weight foods with heavier weight wines. Beef stew with a rich powerful wine, a delicate fish dish with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc
- Spicy dishes with a Spicy wine – Indian with Gewurztraminer
- Sweet wines with sweet food – a late harvest wine with apricot tart
- Butter sauces with a creamy buttery chardonnay
- Acidity with acidity – a salad with a lemon dressing, match it with an acidic white – a young Riesling. Acidity subdues acidity.
But there’s an exception – salt. Salt is no friend to wine. Sweet wines though do balance salty foods, so a sweeter pinot gris with a saltier dish. Or if you are brave and many chefs are, you can match completely opposite tastes with some stunning results but be pre warned this can turn into a disaster!
The tannin structure of red wine leaves white meat looking pale in comparison. As a general guideline;
- Light Chicken Dishes Light Style Chardonnay
- Creamy Chicken Dishes Heavier Chardonnay
- Fish and Seafood Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Gris
Lighter variants, often referred to as aromatics because of their strong perfumey aroma, include Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. These wines pair well with pork and shellfish, as well as with vegetarian dishes and salads. Feta and goat cheeses also match nicely. Aromatic wines are good for starting a meal. Non-vintage Champagne also makes a great starter!
Medium-bodied white varieties
Verdelho, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier are best accompanied by chicken and seafood. The softer styles of cheeses also pair well. While the New Zealand wine industry produces many styles of Pinot Gris, they tend to be fuller and more austere than the aromatic style of the rest of the world.
Viognier can be found in both medium and full-bodied styles. Fuller styles have a fruity apricot textured flavour. The white variety Viognier (originally from the Rhone in France) is often blended with Shiraz (5%), to create a very exciting lighter red style.
All of the white wines mentioned above are suited to Japanese, spicy, Asian, pasta and Chinese dishes, though some wine drinkers may prefer to match more aromatic dry wines with delicate Asian foods, and the heavier, fuller whites for extra spicy and flavorsome dishes.
When it comes to sweeter white wines, lighter styles like Muscat and Riesling are still suitable to drink with shellfish and perhaps takeaway and vegetarian food. They are even better with desserts; fruit salads, ice creams and puddings and soft cheeses including blues.
The heavier Sauternes and stickies with intense rich flavours are best suited to fruitcake and soft cheeses.
Short cut – Food and Wine Matching
1. Red wine with red meat
2. White wine with white meat
3. Match like with like
4. Drink what you like
5. Don’t forget to experiment
To finish off there is port, a perfect after dinner nip with cheeses and Muscatelle raisins and my favorite blue cheese. Or do as the French do and have a soothing glass of champagne to finish off the evening. This also cleanses the palate.
Short cut – The one bottle meal
Matching one wine with an entire meal or matching wine with a buffet becomes a little tricky. Try these guidelines;
- White wine is more flexible than red wine
- Beaujolais is as flexible as a white wine
Choose a wine that matches the meat component of the meal
A little of what you fancy
Everyone’s tastes are different, so what is a perfect match for one person may not be as good for you. These are guidelines, but at the end of the day, if you would prefer a Sauvignon Blanc and you are having steak – go for it. Drink what you like and enjoy!
Don’t forget to experiment
Matching food and wine to enhance each other can truly enhance your dining experience. As your taste is uniquely your own, don’t forget to experiment and work out what is best for you.
Game set and match
These are not the last words or hard and fast rules. How can they be when there are so many variations of wines and foods? My advice is to use these guidelines as just that; a guide, and if you’re feeling particularly inclined, take note of the combinations you experiment with. You will soon be musing over your own perfect match.