Food and wine pairing seems like an almost untouchable art form. Only the excessively sophisticated know exactly which wine to pair with which dish, and only the real experts get it right every single time. The rest of us—the casual drinkers and the wine lovers, alike—are left feeling intimidated every time we look at a wine list, throw a party, or head to the grocery store before a routine wine and cheese night. During each of these occasions, we’re making our best guess at a food and wine pairing that will work. Sometimes, we’re right. Other times, we’re not. And all we really want is to be a little more right, a little more of the time. (OK—a lot more of the time.)
The bad news? Mastering food and wine pairing does require a little education. The good news? That education isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems. You don’t need to gain a sommelier-like understanding of every varietal on offer. And you don’t need to spend years perfecting your palate, either. All you really need to do is master six basic concepts. With just 20 minutes of education, you’ll be well on your way to impressing anyone you host—and anyone you go to dinner with, too.
1. There are two basic ways to pair food and wine
When most of us talk about food and wine pairings, we’re referring to all the delicious complementary pairings we’ve happened upon. The rosés we’ve sipped while scarfing down seafood pasta. The pinot noirs we’ve gulped alongside decadent gruyere grilled cheeses. The rieslings that, somehow, tasted really, really good with fondue.
What all these examples have in common is that the foods and wines are very different. And that’s how complementary pairings work: You pair a dish with a wine that has a distinct flavor profile, and somehow, those two combine to create something totally magnificent.
But complementary pairings aren’t the only way to do food and wine pairings. In fact, an equally viable—and frankly, easier—strategy is to opt for a congruent pairing. Where complementary pairings emphasize the differences between dishes and wines, congruent pairings focus on their similarities. Eating a creamy pasta? Pair it with a similarly creamy white wine. Considering a super-rich duck confit? Pair it with a similarly bold cabernet sauvignon.
Congruent pairings are just as delightful as complementary pairings, and they’re way easier to figure out. Just pay attention to the flavors in your dish, and find a wine that has similar flavors. (And pro tip: If your entree is cooked in some kind of wine sauce, pair it with the same kind of wine that’s in the sauce. There’s no reason you shouldn’t drink sauvignon blanc with a fish covered in sauvignon blanc sauce—the result would likely be super delicious.)
At this point, you’ve basically already mastered congruent pairings. (Yup, they’re that easy.) But complementary pairings require a bit more thought. Some flavors clash when combined, and keeping track of what pairs well with what can get a little overwhelming. Don’t worry, though—the rest of this piece should render complementary pairings more accessible. Because you deserve to find your own rosé-and-seafood-pasta, your own pinot-noir-and-gruyere-grilled-cheese, and your own riesling-and-fondue, too.
2. Opt for a wine that’s as intense as your food
It doesn’t matter whether you’re opting for a congruent or complementary pairing, you should make sure your wine is as bold as your food (and vice versa). The last thing you want is to overpower a subtle dish with a too-loud red—or to drown out a white wine with a super-intense entree. The point is to make the flavors work together. A pairing is no fun if you can only taste half of it.
Start by considering what you’re about to eat. How intense is it? Remember that red meats (beef, pork, etc.) tend to be bolder, whereas white meats (poultry, fish, etc.) tend to be a little subtler.
Be sure to consider the entire dish, too. Chicken is a pretty delicate dish—unless it’s covered in spicy tikka masala sauce. (Pro tip: Pay attention to the most prominent ingredient in a dish. With the chicken tikka masala example, you’d want to pair to the tikka masala sauce—not the chicken—since the sauce is bound to dominate the dish.)
Once you’ve figured out how intense your food is, find a wine that’s similarly bold. White wines tend to be lighter-bodied, making them great matches for those lower-intensity, white meat dishes. Red wines tend to be larger-bodied, so they should pair well with the louder, red meat dishes.
And remember, there’s a lot of variety within each genre, too. Some red wines are more intense than other red wines, and some white wines are more intense than other white wines. Here’s a quick list to turn to the next time you need a refresher:
- Lighter-bodied (subtler) white wines: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc
- Larger-bodied (bolder) white wines: Chardonnay, Viognier
- Lighter-bodied (subtler) red wines: Pinot Noir, Gamay
- Medium-bodied (in the middle) red wines: Merlot, Zinfandel
- Larger-bodied (bolder) red wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec
3. Opt for a wine that’s more acidic than your food
Acidity can cut through some of the most dominant flavors in a dish—excessive saltiness, tongue-coating fattiness, over-the-top sweetness, and of course, mouth-puckering acidity, too. This makes acidic drinks excellent palate cleansers, and it renders them great for complementary and congruent pairings, alike.
If you have a dish that’s really acidic—or one that’s very salty, fatty, or sweet—you’ll want to opt for a more acidic wine. (Not sure how to tell how acidic a wine is? Pay attention to how much your mouth puckers while drinking a glass of it. If it puckers a lot, the wine’s probably pretty acidic. And while you’re still figuring this acidity thing out, it doesn’t hurt to look up a bottle online to see how acidic it’s supposed to be.)
White wines tend to be more acidic than red wines. But both can be acidic—it just depends on their varietal and where they were grown. Though acidic wines pair well with all kinds of dishes, they tend to clash with anything spicy or bitter. So avoid combining an acidic wine with your favorite super-spicy carne asada or your favorite sweet chocolate.
Fun fact: You can generalize this newfound acidity knowledge to cooking, as well as food and wine pairing. The next time you make a dish that’s too salty—or a cocktail that’s too sweet—try adding a little lemon juice, and see what happens. The same applies in reverse: If you have a dish/drink that’s too acidic, try adding salt, fat, or sugar to balance things out.
4. Opt for a wine that’s sweeter than your food (Yes, even during dessert)
Most of the time, your wine is going to end up being sweeter than the food you’re eating. But when you’re enjoying a particularly sweet dish—or any kind of dessert—it’s worth making sure your wine is as sweet as it needs to be. (If you don’t, you might end up with an overly musty, bitter, or acidic taste in your mouth every time you take a sip of your drink. Not the end of the world—but not ideal, either.)
Thankfully, a wine’s sweetness is easier to detect than just about anything else. You don’t have to pay attention to how much your mouth puckers every time you take a sip—just taste the thing, and you’ll have a sense of how sugary it is.
As a rule, white wines tend to be sweeter than red wines. And some white wines are sweeter than others. If you’re looking for sweeter red, Lambrusco can be an excellent option. And Moscato, Gewurztraminer, and some Rieslings are great examples of sweeter whites.
If you want to take things to the next level—or if you’re about to eat a really, really sweet dish—you might want to opt for a dessert wine, instead. Fortified wines (like Port, Sherry, and Madeira) are often sugary, rich, and indulgent in equal measure. While fortified wines tend to be too intense for casual sipping, they make for magical dessert and wine pairings. (They’re pretty great nightcaps, too.)
5. Avoid pairing bitter wines with bitter foods wherever possible
Wine and chocolate may seem like a perfect pair. But anyone who’s combined pinot noir with dark chocolate knows they’re actually not. The bitterness in the tannic red wine combines with the bitterness in the dark chocolate to create, well, a bunch of bitterness. The result is a combination that drowns out all the sweetness of the chocolate, and all the depth of the pinot, too.
If you have a bitter food, like chocolate, you’re going to want to combine it with a sweeter wine. And if you have a bitter wine, like most reds, you’re going to want to pair it with a dish that’s fatty, salty, or sweet. Bitter on bitter is a bad idea. (And it’s worth noting that bitter doesn’t play very well with spicy or acidic flavors, either.)
6. Be sure to pay attention to sauces and other dominant ingredients
Remember, when you’re pairing wine and food, pay attention to the whole dish. What is it going to taste like? Is there a sauce? Which flavors will be most dominant? Sure, white wines tend to pair well with pasta. But if that pasta is covered in red meat sauce, a red wine might be a better bet.
You’ll be better off if you pay attention to the overall flavor of a meal, rather than the individual ingredients that comprise it.