Food and Wine: Art or Science?
Food and wine pairing is a challenging process. However, there are several steps that will help match up food and wine. You know what meal you are going to have with the maturing Bordeaux in the cellar: steak (or just the wine itself). But what about those special, more complex meals? Heck, what about everyday meals?
Define your dish. What is the first thing to come to mind when you eat a certain dish? Savory, salty, smokey, spicy, or sweet? There are limitless descriptors, but the most prominent flavor (or even texture) in your dish will ultimately help you with the pairing.
Know your wine. Lobster and Chardonnay is a classic pairing, but there are so many different styles of Chardonnay; not all of them will work. Knowing your wine is equally important as defining your dish. The more wines you try with a dish the easier it is to find a match.
Look at Alcohol. Rule of thumb: less alcohol, easier pairing. Wine with 15% or more alcohol is tough to find a match with anything that isn't still bleeding off of the grill.
Old World vs. New World. In general, old world wines will pair with food better than wines from the new world. Old world wines will have less acohol, less use of oak and more acidity. Wines high in acidity like Chianti or Cotes du Rhone are food friendly reds. Rieslings from Germany and Austria are low in alcohol and high in acidity as well. They pair well with spicy food or any standard, lighter fare.
Keep an open mind. The single best food and wine pairing I've experienced was lamb loin and a buttery Chardonnay. The loin was seared in clarified butter and served with a taragon and Cointreau cream sauce. Look at the components of the dish aside from the lamb. Butter, taragon, Cointreau and cream. It worked amazingly. An oaky, buttery chardonnay is complemented by the butter and fresh taragon extremely well.
Cooking Method. A chicken can be cooked using nearly every cooking method. How it is cooked can make it easier to pair with a wine. A braised dish like Coq au Vin goes really well with red wine. The same goes for a heavily seasoned grilled chicken. Consider the main cooking method for your wine pairing.
Contrast or Complement? Complementary and contrasting flavors with food and wine need to be defined. Foods that are buttery (butter, shellfish, even popcorn) will usually do well with a buttery Chardonnay. Savory dishes, like grilled red meat play nicely with red wines. Salty or spicy foods are contrasted by light, bone dry white wines and also sweeter white wines as well. Strong and stinky cheeses do extremely well with sweeter wines.
Adjust your dish to find balance. This is where your battle is won. The only things you can do to change your wine are to age it, decant it or chill it. Slightly adjusting your dish by adding salt, acidity or fresh herbs can make a huge difference in your final product. Salt and acidity enhance flavors in a dish, but they also tone down a wine. Bite into a lemon wedge and have a sip of Sauvignon Blanc. It tastes like water, right? This shows that acidity in a wine (and wine in general) is toned down when you add acidity to your dish. It is also extremely important to season your dish as you cook. If you are making a sauce, taste the wine with it as you go. Certain herbs play really well with certain wines. Rosemary and Cabernet are great together. Taragon and Chardonnay is another.
When in doubt, bubbly! Sometimes there are dishes that are too complex for a still red or white wine. Sparkling wine is the food friendliest wine there is. Its bright acidity and lighter style keeps your palate awake and lively. From salads to desserts, sparkling wine is the perfect wine with food, and it's not just for celebrations.
Try the Classics. There are many classic food and wine pairings. Sauternes and foie gras or Roquefort are matches made in Heaven. Lobster or crab with a buttery Chardonnay is a great pairing as well. Shrimp and Fino Sherry is another classic. Not much beats a steak and a bigger red wine, either. There are plenty of others as well.
Play with your food! Get a group of friends together and open a few wines with a meal. Use different cooking methods on your protein of choice. Keep it simple. Use different herbs, make different sauces and test them with different wines. Take notes too, drinking wine affects ones memory.
Don't forget dessert. Your dessert wine needs to be sweeter than your dessert. A Snickers bar followed by a drink of soda is an example of why this needs to happen. When you are making a dessert, tone down the sugar in your recipe a bit, and see how it goes.