This being said, there are a few traditional rules: whites with fish and white poultry, reds with meat and game, rosé or off-dry white wines with spicy food, and dessert wines with dessert and chocolate. The topic can be as complex or simple as you want and a decent pairing of good food and good wine with fun company can often be worth more than the perfect food and wine paring with a wine or food (or company!) you don’t particularly care for.
Obviously the key factor in finding perfect pairings is your personal taste. For instance, you might be quite conservative and only drink whites with fish while your friend might only drink red never white, regardless of the dish. The Norwegians almost always pair white, flaky cod with Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s delicious!
Although tastes are individual, there is a certain scientific basis for these food/wine couplings: fishes and poultry usually have a light taste and therefore should not be overpowered by heavy reds; game and gamy poultry (duck, goose, partridge…) have a kind of bitter taste which complements the relatively soft taste of pinots very well. Spicy food like curries will kill the flavor nuances in most light wines and make tannic, big red wines too alcoholic. They can do well with light, off-dry wines like some rosés, off dry sauvignon blanc, and riesling Verdelho and Semillon. The sweetness in some of these will protect the tongue from the spicy heat too.
Let’s have a closer look at the art of food and wine pairing.
A good idea is to focus on achieving contrasts, exception made for desserts (which call for a sweet wine): e.g. a dry and crisp sauvignon blanc on a creamy risotto; a light and fruity red wine with a spicy or sour meat dish; a sweet white wine with a spicy Asian dish.
Food with bitter or sour taste can be accommodated with sweeter wines.
Or instead of contrast, you can match. Heavy dishes with big reds, light dishes with light, fresh wines. Toasty, buttery flavors with white or sparkling wine with those same flavors.
Some common food and wine pairings
- White fishes and white poultry: white For light tasting dishes, pick light wines: Semillon, Pinot Grigio, Verdelho, Chenin Blanc. For stronger tasting accompaniments, pick more richly flavored wines: Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Marsanne. Shellfish: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Semillon
- Meaty fishes (salmon, tuna, kingfish.. ): Full bodied whites like Chardonnay or Viognier or light reds: young Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Grenache, S
- Game: Light to medium, fruity red wines. With duck, goose, venison, partridge: Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Grenache, M
- Beef, veal, pork, lamb: all full bodied red wines.
- Cheese: against popular belief, fine red wines are not well suited for cheese, because they can’t stand up to the powerful aromas of cheese and the tannins can gain a metallic quality. White wines are much better suited to match most cheeses, such as cheddar and other hard cheeses or white mould cheeses. Dessert/sweet botrytis wines are ideal to match the strong blue-veined cheeses, while oaky chardonnay does well with old cheddar and aromatic gewürztraminer can match well a smelly cheese such as munster. Champagne, especially aged vintage champagne, can be an excellent match with most cheeses save blue cheese. Have to drink tannic red? Pick a high protein cheese like aged parmesan.
- Desserts: sweet flavors and sugar are the enemy of most wines and definitely reds. The wines need some sweetness at a level matching the dish. A fresh, light fruit dish can do well with a “sec” champagne while a very sweet vanilla custard with cooked fruits might need a sauternes or other botrytised sweet wine. A richly sweet chocolate dish is just gorgeous with aged port wine.
You will see that the best combination is left to your personal taste buds.