Everything to Know About Pairing Food and Wine
Unless we’re trained sommeliers, professional chefs or oenologists, our knowledge about pairing food and wine is likely somewhat limited. We understand that white wine goes well with fish and seafood and red wine complements red meat and foods smothered in rich, hearty sauces such as barbeque and tomato.
Achieving perfect pairings between wine and food is truly an art form, but you don’t need a sommelier-approved pairing to explore and enjoy it. Once you learn some basics, such as how to identify dominant food and wine tastes and how they complement or contrast each other, you’ll be well on your way to a near-perfect pairing experience. The essential thing to remember is that pairing wine and food should be fun and pleasurable, not stressful!
A Guide to Pairing Food and Wine
Before we get into specific food types and wines, understanding a few “rules” will make pairing simpler and more successful. You could spend years learning about the hundreds of grape varietals, wine-growing regions and the differences between early and late-season harvests, but most of us just want to understand enough to buy wines we like to drink that will elevate our meals.
Rules of Thumb to Remember for Pairing Food and Wine
A good starting place is to learn four or five common white and red wine types, plus a rosé and a sparkling. Armed with the knowledge of about a dozen wine types will enable you to confidently steer your way through a restaurant wine list or the wine store aisles. Winefolly.com also has a helpful list describing eight common varieties, plus alternatives.
The first thing to understand is that food contains six essential tastes: salt, acid, bitter, sweet, spice and fat. Wine contains three: acid, sweet and bitter. Sparkling, white and rosé wines taste more acidic than reds, whereas reds taste more bitter.
Wines such as Riesling, Port, Madeira, Sauternes and Moscato are considered sweet wines, while wines with higher acidity will taste drier (less sweet), and the same goes for wines with more tannins. Tannins are compounds in plants and are what make foods taste bitter and astringent — think unsweetened chocolate, coffee and red wine.
A wine’s aroma affects how it tastes, so a wine that smells sweet will taste sweeter. Wines also have base flavors, with darker reds tending to taste like dark fruits such as black current, black cherry and plum. White and sparkling wine base flavors reveal fruit flavors such as citrus, green apple, peach and pineapple.
Most foods will feature one or two tastes over others, so the goal is to pair a wine that either complements or contrasts the dominate food taste. For example, a crisp, acidic Pino Grigio will complement a fatty, cheesy dish — but a buttery Chardonnay will create a contrasting, aka congruent, pairing.
One important thing to remember above all else is that your wine should be sweeter and more acidic than your food.
Foods such as seafood, chicken, turkey and leafy green salads are often considered lighter in texture and intensity compared to juicy red meat, duck, hearty stews and rich, spicy tomato-sauced pasta. A general rule of thumb is to match the food to the wine’s intensity, which is how the white-wine-with-fish and red-wine-with-beef mentality started.
Keep in mind that often the sauce is a dish’s dominant flavor. For example, an acidic Sauvignon Blanc will complement chicken smothered in a lemony, garlic sauce, whereas a medium-bodied Merlot or Chianti would better complement chicken parmesan (chicken smothered in tomato sauce and cheese).
Wine has different intensities too. Pinot Noir is a light-bodied red wine that is low in tannins. In comparison, Cabernet Sauvignon is an intense, full-bodied red wine high in tannins. Chardonnay is more full-bodied and intense than Sauvignon Blanc, but Sauvignon Blanc is more acidic.
Pairing Wine with Meat
You can’t go wrong with serving Chardonnay with red snapper and a Cabernet with grilled steak, but as we noted above, the meat itself isn’t always the dominant flavor. Let your preparation, sauces and seasonings be your primary guide, but here are some basic guidelines.
- Poultry: For turkey and chicken dishes with light, creamy or tangy sauces, serve Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. For duck or poultry with hearty mushroom or light red sauces, Pinot Noir is a solid choice.
- Pork: Pork chops, tenderloin and pork loin pair well with medium-bodied red wine such as Pinot Noir, Grenache and Zinfandel. Fruity, acidic wines such as Riesling, Moscato, Zinfandel and rosé will complement a thick ham’s salty sweetness.
- Lamb: Lamb dishes can vary, but for slow-cooked large cuts, Cabernet is the way to go. Lamb kabobs or curried lamb flavors will pop with a Gewürztraminer or a Pinot Noir.
- Beef: We can cook beef in so many ways — grilled, braised, sautéed, slow-roasted or seared. In general, lean cuts (top sirloin, top round) do best with light or medium-bodied reds like Sangiovese and Merlot. For fattier cuts like filet mignon, skirt steak, New York strip and ribeye, look for bold reds such as Cabernet and Barolo. Due to veal’s more delicate texture, a lighter Pinot Noir or Zinfandel pairs better. (More on the best cuts of steak here.)
- Cured Meats: Cured meats are a different ballgame because they are generally spicy, salty and fatty. Riesling, Gewürztraminer and sparkling wines such as Cava and Champagne tame the salt and cut through the fat. Light and medium-bodied reds like Beaujolais and Pinot Noir work well too — but you don’t want to overwhelm the meats’ spiciness, so avoid red wines with heavy tannins. Check out our guide to Italian cured meats to learn how to assemble a tantalizing charcuterie board.
Pairing Wine with Seafood
Seafood and fish are diverse in flavor, texture and intensity. Seafood such as oysters and caviar have a briny, salty taste. Crab is delicate and sweet. Salmon is firm and oily, but sole is light and flaky. If you’re serving fish with a robust tomato sauce, does that mean a red wine? Again, some of this will depend on the seasonings and sauces, but here are some general guidelines.
- Shellfish and Light-Textured Fish: Raw oysters and Champagne (or another sparkling wine) are a match made in heaven. Since shellfish such as crab, lobster, mussels, shrimp and scallops are light in texture, light-bodied white wines tend to pair best. We usually see light sauces on delicate fish such as tilapia and flounder. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are safe bets. (Check out our “21 Recipes to Celebrate 25 Years of Forrest Gump” for some awesome shrimp recipes!)
- Medium-Textured Fish: Trout, red snapper, grouper, haddock, halibut, monkfish and Chilean sea bass are flaky but firmer-textured. These fish can handle more robust sauces and full-bodied whites like Chardonnay.
- Meaty Fish: Tuna, salmon, mahi mahi, monkfish and mackerel are hearty, which means they are versatile. A Chardonnay can work just as well as a rosé or a Pinot Noir.
Pairing Wine with Pasta
Ah, there is nothing like sipping a glass of Chianti while dipping into a tomatoey, garlicky plate of spaghetti and meatballs! However, don’t assume a red wine is a must when serving pasta. When you’re trying to enhance the flavor of a pasta dish, the sauce is what counts.
- Creamy Sauces: For sauces such as fettuccine alfredo or carbonara, Soave, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Grigio will complement the creaminess of the sauce. Try pairing some wine with this cream sauce-based recipe for Beef Stroganoff.
- Tomato-based Sauces: These sauces are high in acid and are often a little spicy, so go for a medium-bodied red such as Zinfandel, Chianti, Grenache or Sangiovese. Try pairing some wine with this tomato-based sauce recipe for Italian Herb Paleo Chicken Sauce Tomat
- Cheese-based Sauces: For a complementary pairing for cheesy sauces, try a crisp, dry white such as a Trebbiano de Lugana or Pinot Grigio. For a congruent pairing, go for a light Chardonnay. If the sauce contains root vegetables or mushrooms, try a Pinot Noir or Sangiovese. Try pairing some wine with this recipe for Pumpkin Ravioli in Parmesan Cream Sauce.
- Seafood Sauces: For sauces with salty seafood such as anchovies, clams and other shellfish, light to medium-bodied white wines such as Pinot Grigio are the way to go. If it’s a tomato-based sauce, aim for a rosé.
Pairing Wine with Cheese
Pairing wine with cheese is one of the easiest pairings! Unlike meals with a variety of flavors and textures, cheese usually has one dominant taste. One simple way to pair cheeses and wines is to choose both from the same region, such as Spanish Manchego cheese with Garnacha.
Another key element is to pair wine with a cheese of equal intensity. For example, a full-bodied, intense Cabernet would overpower a mild cheese like Brie but would be excellent with aged Gouda. If you’re interested in pairing Italian wine and cheese, then check out our Italian Wine and Cheese Pairing Guide, or go Greek with our Greek Wine and Cheese Pairing Guide, or try the luck of the Irish with our Irish Wine and Cheese Pairing Guide.
Here are some suggestions for pairing wine with cheese:
- Aged Hard Cheese: For Cheddar, Gruyère, Parmesan, Grana Padano, Gouda and Manchego, choose a bold red wine such as Cabernet or Rioja.
- Washed-Rind, Blue-veined Cheese: Often thought of as “stinky” cheeses, these intensely flavored cheeses such as Taleggio, Reblochon, Stilton, Gorgonzola and Roquefort do best with sweeter wines like Gewürztraminer, Sauternes and Port.
- Soft, Creamy Cheese: Brie, Camembert, Muenster and spreadable cheeses tend to do best with sparkling wines due to their high acidity and palate cleansing properties. Rosé and Pinot Noir work too.
Pairing Wine with Fruits, Veggies and Side Dishes
You might notice that sometimes cheese or charcuterie boards contain fruit. Fruits pair really well with wines (just ask Sangria) and a general rule of thumb is to pair mild fruits with light wines and intensely flavored fruits with full-bodied wines.
For example, Sauvignon Blanc does well with cantaloupes, peaches and mangos. Strawberries match perfectly with Champagne and sparkling wines. Raspberries, plums and blackberries pair better with a fruit-forward wine such as a Tempranillo or Syrah. Apples are versatile and pair well with everything from sparkling wines and Chardonnay to Merlot and Cabernet. GourmetSleuth.com has a handy chart for pairing fruit and wine.
Vegetables follow the same guidelines as fruit — lighter colored and textured green vegetables such as lettuce, kale and green beans will do best with a light-bodied, non-oaky white such as Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine. Heartier vegetables like potatoes, corn, mushrooms and beans can handle a more robust wine like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or even a Chianti.
If you or someone you dine with is a vegetarian or a vegan, you might be feeling left out — but don’t despair! Wine pairs just as well with vegetarian cuisine as it does with meat-based meals. Similar rules apply — pay attention to sweetness, acidity and robustness and match wine accordingly.
Matching regional vegetarian or vegan cuisine with its regional wine is another safe bet. For example, drink a Chianti with a robust tomato-based Italian pasta or a Spanish Rioja with a Moroccan chickpea dish. For spicy meals, aim for sweeter wines like a Riesling, which will temper the heat. Sauvignon Blanc is generally a safe bet for a wide range of non-spicy, lighter vegetarian meals, but you can go for a bold red when eating something like a hearty lentil soup or veggie chili. OhMyVeggies.com provides a helpful pairing list for vegetarian cuisine.
Pairing Wine with Appetizers
Again, not to sound like a broken record, but pairing wines with appetizers follows the same guidelines as all other foods. If the appetizer is salty, sparkling wine is the way to go. If you’re going for spicy appetizers like chicken wings, aim for lower alcohol, sweeter wines such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Chenin Blanc. For antipasto, a dry Pinot Grigio, rosé or a light Italian red like Valpolicella pairs well.
For creamy dips such as artichoke spinach dip, goat cheese, nachos, guacamole, tomato salsas or shrimp cocktail, a Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre is a good bet. For an earthier appetizer such as sausage stuffed mushrooms, try a Pinot Noir. Riesling, sparkling wine and fruity reds like Beaujolais pair perfectly with mini quiches.
If you’re serving a range of appetizers (like these holiday appetizers), avoid full-bodied, oaky Chardonnays and high tannin reds. Instead, serve a few different wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Prosecco (or another sparkling wine), dry rosé, Beaujolais or another light, fruity red.
Pairing Wine with Dessert
A general rule of thumb when pairing wines with desserts is the darker the dessert, the darker the wine. You’ll also follow the same rule mentioned earlier – wine should be sweeter than the food.
You might be scratching your head thinking, “How can a wine be sweeter than a dessert?” — don’t worry, you will be able to pair wines with desserts! There’s a reason why fortified wines such as Port, Sherry, Banyuls and Madeira are common sights when dessert arrives. Port pairs perfectly with sweet, rich desserts such as pecan pie and hearty chocolate desserts like cake and dark truffles.
If you’re serving lighter fruit-based pies (apple, peach, etc.) or custardy desserts, serve a light, sweet wine such as Riesling, Sauternes, Moscato, Ice Wine or Gewürztraminer — or a sparkling wine such as demi-sec Champagne. For darker fruit desserts (cherry, blackberry), you can get away with a fruity red wine. Pumpkin pie pairs well with a variety of wines, including Tawny Port, Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Bonus: Drink While You Cook
One way to make cooking more fun is to sip a delicious glass of wine as you stand over the stove! And there’s no better reason to do that than adding a little bit to your recipes.
If you’re new to cooking with wine, it’s not as complicated as it might seem. The critical takeaway when choosing a wine to cook with is to make sure it’s drinkable. You can ruin your dish if you use an unpalatable wine. You don’t need to uncork your best bottle, but don’t go for the cheapest wine either.
You might think the dish’s other flavors or the heat will improve a lousy wine’s taste, but it’s actually the opposite — heat accentuates the wine’s unsavory attributes. Check out our guide to cooking with wine and you’ll be adding wine to your recipes like a pro.
A Few Final Thoughts to Remember
Food and wine pairing can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Remembering these guidelines will help you successfully serve a wine that will enhance the flavors of your meals:
- Match the wine with the sauce instead of the meat for lighter meats such as chicken and pork.
- Choose wines that are more acidic and sweeter than the food.
- Match flavor intensities.
- Serve sweeter, lower alcohol wines with spicy food.
- Balance bitter red wines with fat.
- Red wines tend to create congruent (amplify shared flavors) pairings and white, sparkling and rosé tend to create contrasting pairings.
Now, go ahead and pour yourself that glass of wine and check out this awesome list of 20 recipes that involve cooking with wine!