The first thing you need to know about pairings is that they're very individualistic--what you like may be different than what I like and vice versa. So the "art" of pairing--not just the standard typical white wine with fish practice--is one that's learned through trial and error. Sometimes what you try will work and sometimes what you try won't.
There are two goals for pairings—well at least for me:
- The first is to highlight the characteristics of both the wine and the food, and
- The second is to have fun.
For example, one of my favorite pairings is a Rombauer Cabernet Franc with County Line BBQ. There’s something about County Line’s BBQ and the slight sweetness, “jamminess” of the Rombauer that I can’t get enough of. Many people would shrug at this pairing given the fact that the Rombauer is not an inexpensive wine and BBQ in theory seems like a casual relaxed meal not befitting such extravagance. I’m sure you can pair this particular Cabernet Franc with other foods, but for me this is the perfect pairing and I’m now reticient to even try.
My general advice for learning about wines and pairing:
- Get recommendations--wait staff at higher-end restaurants are typically trained by the distributors and can give guidelines for pairing wine/food. They usually don't just recommend the highest priced wine as they know if the wine fails to complement the meal they are less likely to receive a good tip.
- Take notes-write down what amazed you and what you absolutely abhored.
- Experiment with a few basic wines and dishes to start with until you know what you like and expand from there.
The more you try, the more you'll discover what works/doesn't work for you, and the more confidence you'll have--which will lead to everyone handing you the wine list when you go out. When I first started choosing wines, it was a really limited range of safe wines--your Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.
Some general tips (from The Wine Lover's Cookbook: Great Recipes for the Perfect Glass of Wine by Sid Goldstein):
- Food and wine pairing is about synergy—the food should not overpower the wine, nor should the wine overpower the food.
- Great food and wine combinations come from finding similarities and contrasts of flavor, body (texture), intensity, and basic taste. This is a highly subjective, inexact endeavor. Taste, and trust your own instincts.
Some general pairing tips (from The Wine Lover's Cookbook: Great Recipes for the Perfect Glass of Wine by Sid Goldstein):
- Spicy, salty, smoked and highly seasoned dishes (Thai/Indian) are best paired with wines that are fruity and lower in alcohol such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris/Grigio, dry roses, and Pinot Noir. Avoid oaky (most California Chardonnays) and more tannic wines (Zinfandels, young Cabernet Sauvignons). When pairing with Rieslings and Gewurztraminer make sure you're not choosing a Late Harvest style which has higher alcohol content than the other styles.
- Richer, fattier foods pair best with heavier, full-bodied wines such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Syrah.
For example, Grilled Salmon with a Lemon Dill Sauce paired with Joseph Phelps Chardonnay is one of my favorites as the oak finish balances the sharpness of the dill and sourness of the lemon. I'd never try that dish with a Rombauer Chardonnay which is doesn't have the strong oak and which is a great Chardonnay for drinking by itself.
- When pairing sweeter foods with wine, try to keep the sweetness in the dish less than the apparent sweetness of the wine (For example, Canadian Ice Wine with Chocolate Torte works while a Peach Sorbet with Joseph Phelp's Esribe doesn't). If necessary, sweetness in the dish can be curbed with a touch of citrus juice of vinegar. (This advice also works well with Thai stir-fry dishes that include red, orange or yellow bell peppers and that are typically finished with lime juice. You can easily add a little more lime juice so that a dry Gewurztraminer shines with the dish.)
- Higher-acid foods, such as goat cheese, tomatoes, and citrus fruits, pair most effectively with higher-acid wines such as Sauvignon/Fume Blanc, some Reislings, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir. If the wine seems too tart for the dish, add a touch of lemon juice or vinegar to the dish. (Spinach Salad with Mandarin Oranges and Toasted Almonds and a Lemon Vinaigrette used to pair very nicely with Texas Hills' Pinot Grigio. They changed the yeast they use in production as of in 2002 so it no longer has the slight hint of lemongrass which the mandarin oranges accentuated.)
- In a meal progression where multiple wines will be served, serve lighter wines before more full-bodied wines. Serve dry wines before sweet ones, unless a dish with some sweetness is served early in the meal, in which case it should be matched with a wine of like sweetness. Serve lower-alcohol wines (Riesling, Sauvignon/Fume Blanc, and Pinot Gris/Grigio) before higher-alcohol ones (Chardonnay, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah)
Tips for Cooking with Wine (from The Wine Lover's Cookbook: Great Recipes for the Perfect Glass of Wine by Sid Goldstein):
- Help connect dishes to the specific wine you're serving by tasting a small amount of the wine as you're finishing a sauce or side dish so that the recipe can be "tweaked" to maximum effect. If the wine seems too tannic or bitter for the dish, a sprinkling of citrus zest or nuts can be added to the dish, for example.
- When using wine in marinades or sauces, use a decent-quality wine. If possible, this should be the same varietal as will be matched with the dish, but it need not be the same exact wine if you wish to drink a better wine than the one with which you're cooking.
- Grilling, roasting, sautéing, and braising are preferred cooking methods when matching dishes with most wines. Poaching and steaming are more delicate cooking methods that work best with more delicate wines such as Pinot Gris/Grigio and some Riesling. Smoking food works most effectively with lighter, fruitier wines—Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel.
Short List of Favorites Books on Wine
- Best book with basic info about wines (common flavors, easy to read brief history of the wine) and on pairings--not just actual pairings but how all the components come into play--is: The Wine Lover's Cookbook. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006BD9C4/sr=1-1/qid=1146070883/ref=pd_bbs_1/103-1048109-0991000?%5Fencoding=UTF8&s=books%C2%A0
- Best (most readable) book about the overall process of how wine is made is Seasons Among the Vines: Life Lessons from the California Wine Country by Paula Moulton.
There are a bunch of cookbooks that pair recipes with specific wines. A caution about the cookbooks that are dedicated to wines from one vintner—sometimes they “force” their wine into a pairing—so use the general trends from those cookbooks as a guide not the specifics. Before my last move I had tons of cookbooks from vintners and dedicated to the pairing of wines with foods, only two survived and they’re marked with numerous notes, the pages are dog-eared, and the bindings are cracked. These two well used, frequently referenced cookbooks are:
- The Wine Lover’s Cookbook: Great Recipes for the Perfect Glass of Wine by Sid Goldstein. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006BD9C4/sr=1-1/qid=1146070883/ref=pd_bbs_1/103-1048109-0991000?%5Fencoding=UTF8&s=books) The author presents a roadmap for pairing and then presents guidelines for each varietal along with recipes designed to highlight the flavors of both the wine and the food.
- The Tribeca Grill Cookbook: Celebrating Ten Years of Taste by Don Pintabona with Judith Choate. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0375504354/sr=8-1/qid=1146070486/ref=sr_1_1/103-1048109-0991000?%5Fencoding=UTF8) The authors give recommendations for pairings with most of their recipes and briefly explain the key to the pair—for example a Barbera with full-body and acidity that stands up to the Roma tomatoes in a pasta sauce. Some of the recipes are not for the faint of heart though—they can be complicated and somewhat time consuming, but the results are well-worth the effort. My favorite recipes are the Beet Gnocchi and Herb-Roasted Chicken with Porcini Gravy.