Food and wine pairing is a very subjective business. Just because a certain variety of wine is known to pair well with the food you’re eating doesn’t mean you are going to like it nor do you have to. Choose wines first and foremost based on what you enjoy drinking.
Take a break with the salad. Many wine experts consider this a hard course to pair with due to the vinegar base of many salads. The vinegar is extremely acidic and with most wines it is hard to be complementary. This does not mean that you have to stop drinking during your salad course. Just be aware that it may not meet the criteria of the perfect combination, depending on the dressing base of the dish.
Match the quality of the food to the quality of the wine. If you are going to your buddy’s barbeque you can still bring an amazing wine, but do those burgers and hot dogs really call for a $50 Napa Cabernet? To each their own but this would probably be much more appreciated at a seven-course gourmet meal. On the other hand, a moderately priced Red Zinfandel would not only be delicious with red meat but also a little kinder on the pocketbook.
Some basic pointers to remember when serving a multi-course meal with numerous wine selections include serving lower alcohol wines (rose) before higher alcohol (chardonnay), drier wines (cabernet) before sweeter wines (port), and lighter wines (pinot noir) before more complex, fuller bodied wines (red zinfandel).
Sometimes matching wine to food feels to me like picking out the perfect paint colors. You’ve got your complimentary flavors or those that have similar flavor profiles; for example, lighter bodied wine goes with lighter food and vice versa. You also want to balance extremes, rich and fatty must be balanced with fat cutting tannins (steak and tannic reds) or crisp fresh whites (fried chicken and sauvignon blanc.) If tannic is an unfamiliar adjective, think of the dry mouth feel of sucking on a tea bag. But then you have the combinations where the opposing flavors can play off each other, creating interesting and distinctive flavor sensations. Spicy Indian and Asian foods are often thought to go well with a sweeter style of wine like a German gewürztraminer or riesling.
You can think of wine as an additional spice or ingredient you are adding to the food. Know your basic flavor profiles of the wines and foods you are cooking and you can come up with some pretty great and even unique combinations.
Wine by itself tastes much different than wine with food, so don’t be surprised if you love the distinctive flavor of a good Spanish tempranillo yet can’t quite get it to go with your dish.
Two of the most difficult wines to pair with food are also two of the most popular wines we drink, New World (non-European) chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Both have a tendency to overpower the food they are paired with. Does that mean we shouldn’t drink them with food? No, it just means we should be aware that this is a possibility, and it may be necessary to simply set your beloved cabernet to the side until you are done eating whatever food it is upstaging.
If you are preparing a dish from a certain area or region, an easy bet is to pick a wine from that region as well. Since the food and wine both come from similar soils and climates, they have probably been developed together over time. Obviously, this tip works especially well with France and Italy and is very effective considering the difficulty that these wines in particular can present to us.
We have all been in a situation where we’re out to eat with a large group and everyone orders something different. In these cases it can be best to pick wines that are really in the middle of the flavor gamut. Light bodied reds such as a burgundy or a light bodied Oregon pinot noir or a fuller bodied rose should offer something for everyone.
A last tip to keep in mind is that a 100 percent perfect food and wine pairing is truly a rarity and you should never feel bad if you do not get it exactly right. If you do happen upon one of them, it can be a truly religious experience, but in the meantime play around with it, experiment and most importantly just enjoy!
---Adapted from "Demystification of Food and Wine" By: Nikki Berglund High Plains Reader 9/16/09