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There’s probably no question I get asked more than what wine pairs with which food. With years of experience in this, repeatedly, I’ve learned more from what doesn’t work than what does. There’s no magic wand that will help you determine what wine and food are a good fit. There are no rules to this, only guidelines. There’s a fair amount of trial and error involved. In my early days, I remember talking to a very prominent sommelier who told me that he once had to pull the corks on over 70 wines for just one dish in one of the fanciest restaurants in Las Vegas. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to simplify these things for my guests, clients, and you, the newsletter’s readers. Here are a few tried and true concepts.
When pairing food and wine, the first thing to do is match the wine’s weight to the dish—lighter foods pair with lighter wines. Richer foods go better with richer wines. This is the vital first step.
So what does that mean? Let’s take a look at the cooking method of what you are eating. To me, that determines what style of wine I’m going to choose. For a lighter style food—something raw such as salad or sushi, or lightly sauteed fish and meats—I will look for a wine prepared similarly. These wines are grape varieties that are typically lighter but are made freshly without any oak aging, using stainless steel tanks that provide brightness and freshness, much like the food counterparts. Examples of this would be a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with a mixed green salad. Or sushi with a crisp, bright, dry Riesling from New York State.
For richer foods—pan-seared, charred, or braised foods, whether it’s meat or fish—I look towards wines that have oak aging because the oak aging directly mimics the Maillard Reaction. The Maillard Reaction is the scientific term when food starts to brown and become caramelized. This reaction takes place with everything from baked bread to fried dumplings to seared steaks. For example, if you pan-sear scallops, the best choice for a white wine would be a buttery California Chardonnay that has seen some barrel time. If you like your steak charred, the best bet is a Cabernet Sauvignon that has a fair amount of tannin and ample barrel time to match the flavors of the char.
Consider chicken: it can be boiled, sautéed, roasted, or grilled. The preparation intensity will usually dictate the kind of wine paired—unless the sauce or sides on the plate are more intensely flavored.
After considering the weight of the wine, the next step is to try to find complementary flavors. Just like a Fred & Ginger! For example, Sauvignon Blanc has bright citrus and green flavors. When pairing food with Sauvignon Blanc, I see green or citric flavors or a crisp vinaigrette. This is a great example of a complementary pairing. Another home run pairing is when you are using cream sauces; these pair well with a buttery Chardonnay. Or take something like Steak Au Poivre with peppercorns. This is perfect with a peppery Syrah from the Rhone Valley in France. These simple complementary concepts will get you started.
One of my secrets and philosophies for food and wine pairing is the idea of 1 + 1 = 3! When you pair the right food with the right wine, you create an entirely new dimension for your dining experience.
Most commonly, people pick their food first and pair the wine with the food. Here is my pro tip for you. The wine is constant. The food is not. What is in the bottle will not change. But how you prepare the food can.
I will give you an example. The late great chef Charlie Trotter would call his sommeliers into the kitchen to ask what the customers were drinking. If they were drinking a lighter wine, he would, on the spot, change the way he prepared the food for them, creating a lighter dish to give his diners that magical experience.
Think about the wine you want to drink first. From there, try to pair the food to go with that wine. I can almost guarantee that you will have a much greater chance of creating that magical food and wine (or should I say “wine and food”) pairing a magical moment, like the Bow on a Tiffany box.
So what’s the best way to experience the magic moment? The technique is straightforward. I call it Sip, Bite, Sip.
First, take a small sip of the wine and give it a swish around in your mouth. Allow it to get your palate fully primed, then swallow the wine.
Second, take a bite of the food you are looking to pair. It’s a simple bite of cheese; use just the cheese; if it’s a composed dish, try and get all the elements into one fantastic bite.
Third, take the bite and chew until you are about to swallow the food, then TASTE the wine a second time.
Fourth, let the pairing guide your sense of taste and texture. If you do sip, bite, sip, you will know immediately if you’re pairing worked perfectly or needs more work. If you’re smiling, then it works! If not, consider it an experiment not to be repeated!