Wines are generally paired with food around two criteria—weight and flavor. It sounds odd at first to think of wine as having weight, but wine does have a certain heft on the palate. Some of that heft is due to tannic structure—cabernets and syrahs, for instance, have plenty of tannin, while pinot noirs are generally lighter. A wine’s weight also depends on its alcohol content. Higher levels of alcohol give wine a thicker mouthfeel. Wines with a higher alcohol content cling to the glass more, having thicker legs, and considerably more weight on the palate. Swirled water, for instance, has no legs—but swirled brandy has drips like cake frosting.
To choose a wine for a particular dish or meal, I consider the weight of the food before anything else. If it’s light fare, such as heirloom tomatoes, light pasta dishes, salad, or pale meats, I would choose from a spectrum of wines that might include whites and light-bodied reds. If a dish involves red meat, heavy sauces, and comforting carbohydrates like mashed potatoes, I would gravitate toward heavier reds like cabernet, syrah, and zinfandel.
The second pairing criterion is flavor. I try to match dishes with wines that have similar flavors. The tricky thing is to look for flavors that are really evident in the dish, because sauces, grilling, and herbs will affect the overall flavor and feel of a dish. For instance, we like to grill racks of baby New Zealand lamb, rubbed with sea salt, coarsely ground black pepper, and herbs de Provence. Lamb is generally considered a light meat, but the pepper, lavender, and other herbs in the rub give it an incense-like finish, and barbecuing imparts a light char. Therefore, syrah and zinfandel are good matches for an otherwise feminine cut of meat. An otherwise light vegetarian pasta that is heavily laden with garlic, roasted tomatoes, peppers, or caramelized onions would be better with a sangiovese or zinfandel than a crisp white wine.
To add to the confusion, basic wine varietals like chardonnay, cabernet, syrah, and zinfandel are huge categories with myriad variations. You can taste a thousand chardonnays and find flavors ranging from light, crisp, pear flavors to heavy butterscotch. Red wines offer flavors starting at strawberry and working their way toward road tar.
Pairing wine and food should be fun and adventurous. Relax, explore, and learn. Invite your guests to bring wines or make suggestions. Cook what you like, and open a range of wines for your guests. For instance, if you’re serving grilled prawns as an appetizer, steak and vegetables for dinner, and a cheese plate for fireside chat, then open a sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, a pinot noir, a cabernet, and maybe a late harvest zinfandel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Baker is a wine and culinary consultant with over 20 years of experience in wine marketing and production. She has worked for outstanding producers like Wild Horse and Justin, and conducted wine seminars throughout the central coast.