Food and wine pairing is something that some people take very seriously. While the perfect combination of a particular dish with a particular Douro wine can be a marriage made in heaven, with the flavors of each perfectly complementing and highlighting the other, a poor pairing can be a disaster, clashing, bringing out awkward flavors and just simply making each suffer. If you are serious about your food and wine, as I am, then risking destroying a dinner course or the enjoyment of a fine wine is serious business!
That being said, should you be afraid of wine and food pairing? No. The fact of the matter is that there rarely is any one perfect combination of food and wine. For any one dish there may be dozens of wines that would pair very nicely with it. With a little practice, experience and know-how you can pretty easily predict which wines will highlight a dish and which will detract from it.
To begin with, drink what you like to drink with what you like to eat. Don’t force yourself to drink a wine you wouldn’t normally like to drink just because it is theoretically supposed to be best for a given cuisine. Also, in general it is best to try to pair wines with foods that have a similar level of flavor intensity. In other words, a light, aromatic white wine may not be the best match for a hearty grilled steak. Try to pair wines in such a way that the flavors of the wine or the dish are not completely dominating so that the other suffers in comparison. Beyond these basics, experiment a bit. It helps to make some educated guesses about what will work and what will not. That is where this article comes in. I hope it will give you some ideas as a starting ground to make wise food and wine pairing choices.
Here are a few classic and very basic food and wine pairings for white wines. Understanding these basics, along with some experience with them, will help you to learn why certain wines work well with certain foods so that you can start to make your own pairings that make sense. For red wine pairings, see the companion article “Five Classic Red Wine and Food Pairings”.
Fresh raw oysters are a seductive and luxurious sensory experience all to themselves. The silky texture and subtle flavors are unique and entrancing. Due to their subtlety, anything too powerful or dark would clash with them. The perfect match with these treasures of the sea are wines which are bright, crisp and intense. White wines with bright minerality, like the oyster shell itself, and high acid are the perfect companion to wash down these treats. Chablis, the northern-most village of Burgundy, produces a wine which fits the bill perfectly. In fact, many of the vineyards of Burgundy have oyster and other ancient crustacean shells in the soil from centuries ago when the area was under water. The wines are traditionally intense, steely and full of mineral flavors with bright acidity. Chilled down they are the perfect foil for the silky texture of these glorious bivalves. Other bright, crisp white wines also compliment raw oysters nicely, including crisp, dry sparkling wines, Muscadet and some Sauvignon Blancs.
Good caviar, traditionally only from the Caspian Sea, is salty and has a creamy, dense, luxurious texture and flavor. There are few wines that could possible stand up to and compliment their rich complexity. However, Champagne can combine an intense, bright acidity and minerality with yeasty, doughy and creamy textures and flavors. This acidity and creaminess can stand up to the creamy, salty flavors of good caviar, washing over your palate with a seductive texture which compliments the sexy sensory delight of the fish roe. Many purists will tell you that great Champagne, and caviar, should be savored on its own. But Champagne is actually a profoundly great food wine. It compliments a slew of different foods with ease. Unless you absolutely just want to focus on the Champagne alone, without interruption, I suggest that it can be one of the best food wines on the planet.
Most people do not think of pairing Japanese cuisine with grape-based wines. We all know that Sake and even just beer is a great pairing with sashimi and sushi, respectively. However, some of the most profound pairings of food and wine I have experienced are with Japanese cuisine and sparkling wines! The silky textures of great, fresh cuts of raw fish, along with the spicy and salty flavors of wasabi and soy are hard to pair anything but bright, intense wines. Sparkling wine fits the bill perfectly! Like raw oysters or caviar, the lush, luxurious textures of good raw fish demand a wine which is equally lush and luxurious. Champagne or other good sparkling wine help to wash these dishes down and stand up to the intense spice and saltiness that accompanies them. In fact, sparkling wines are a great pairing with a number of slightly spicy cuisines like Indian and Thai food as well!
Some food and wine pairings seem to come out of left field. Why should salty, creamy and pungent Stilton cheese be perfect with a sweet Port wine? Yet somehow they balance and compliment each other. The same goes for foie gras, fatty goose or duck liver, with sweet white wines. Foie gras is one of the most sexy and hedonistic of culinary treats. The combination of the meaty flavors with the almost buttery fat, combined with a melt-in-your-mouth texture, leads to a fabulous, albeit acquired taste, flavor experience. What wine could possible stand up to such a dominating sensory experience? Only one which is so seductive and powerful in and of itself. Sauternes, the sweet wine of Bordeaux made from grapes infected with botrytis, has a rich, sweet and hedonistic personality which stands up to and compliments the creamy richness of foie gras. Even as a starter course, where you would not expect to drink a wine which is usually considered a dessert wine, Sauternes is the perfect complement to a foie gras dish, whether in seared or terrine form. Other rich, sweet white wines also go well with foie gras, including sweet Loire Valley wines, Alsatian vendange tardive or selection de grains nobles, or sweet German Rieslings.
Another Sauternes pairing? Well, it is helpful to have a number of tricks up your sleeve for sweet wine pairing. Most people do not want to drink too much sweet wine. But paired with the right food, it can balance the sweetness and richness of the wine so that anyone would want to come back for more! Whereas in the previous example the rich, buttery texture and flavor of the foie gras was the perfect foil for Sauternes and other rich, sweet, white wines, in this example a pungent and salty flavor is mellowed out by the sweetness of the wine. Roquefort, arguably the first and best blue cheese in the world, can be quite intense and salty on its own.
Unless paired with something else to tame it, it can be hard to eat alone. That is why it is often served in a salad with sweet flavors like pear and Roquefort. However, served alone with Sauternes or other rich, sweet, white wines, the intensity and saltiness are mellowed and buffered by the sweetness of the wine. This makes for a sublime tasting experience which has been a classic for many a year. Interestingly enough, Stilton, another classic blue cheese, seems much better suited to Port, while Roquefort, and even Gorgonzola, seem best with sweet white wines. We may never know why, but we can at least enjoy the otherworldly combination of flavors they give us!