How to Pair Wine with Food

Last week we touched on the topic of wine and food, and suggested that, while there are pairings that are considered classic, ultimately the choice is yours: Eat what you like and drink what you want, and don’t stress out on the “right” thing to do.

But a funny thing usually happens to people the more they get into wine. They may not notice it at first, because it’s subtle. Where once upon a time you might just have drank anything at all, this time something’s changed. You’ve built up some understanding of wine. You’ve read articles about how wine and food influence each other. It’s tickled some part of your imagination; you knew you were going to take this wine-and-food thing to the next level, but you just didn’t know exactly how or when. Somehow, a tipping point has been reached. You find yourself critiquing the way Chardonnay, say, works—or doesn’t work—with roasted duck. And you decide: it really doesn’t work. There’s a clash there you can’t quite put your finger on. Alone, each component—the wine and the food—is delicious. Together, they’re like a problem marriage. You get up to see what else your have available, and there it is: a bottle of Pinot Noir. You pop the cork, pour a little into the glass, swirl to let it air, then take a sip. Then you return to the roasted duck, take a bite, and let the lingering flavors of the wine do their thing with the flavors of the bird. And you think: Wow. Much better than the Chardonnay. In fact (and here, you sip again, and take another bite of duck), both the wine and the food suddenly taste better than either did alone. What kind of alchemy is that?

Welcome to the wonderful world of wine and food pairing! You’re now on the path for the rest of your life.

Each person will have his or her own favorite pairings, obviously, although there are some that have withstood the test of time: Champagne [or sparkling wine] and caviar; Cabernet Sauvignon and steak; Port and Stilton cheese. Here in California, a classic is Dungeness crab, in season of course, with an oaky, buttery Chardonnay (and don’t forget the sourdough bread and butter!). Another local favorite, at least in my house, is Pinot Noir and grilled salmon. But maybe the greatest California classic of all is barbecue (babyback ribs, chicken, links) with a spicy, fruity Zinfandel. That’s a pairing that proves that—while you can drink any wine with any food—you shouldn’t. Try that same BBQ with an oaky Chardonnay, and it’s just not the same. By the same token, a Pinot Noir, made in a lighter style, will be blown away by all the tomato sauce and spices.

It’s too bad we can’t taste six or eight different wines with each food we’re eating, to see what goes best, but we can’t. If you’re a chef or sommelier at a great restaurant, you can do it, but that eliminates 99% of us. I’ve been able to experimental pairings at restaurants, as the somms try to figure out what to recommend to their customers for chef’s nightly specials and that’s always a great and surprising experience. Surprising, because a wine (or spirit) you might have thought would be awful with something turns out to be just right. This is why it’s inadvisable to rely on overly strict rules, which tend to eliminate the pleasant experience of serendipity.

There is one more thing to say on this topic, and that has to do with older wines, i.e. wines that have been properly aged. Not all wines are capable of aging, but those that are change in the bottle, becoming, in general, more delicate and nuanced, and also less full-bodied, because the tannins in red wine fall out as sediment. Because older wines are more delicate, chefs usually recommend drinking them with simpler fare. Where a young, vigorous Cabernet might pair well with a steak grilled over mesquite, then topped with Gorgonzola cheese and wild mushrooms, a mature Cab will want something like plain roast beef. It’s a far simpler dish, but epitomizes the elegance of a great wine and food pairing.

In the end, you’re your own best discoverer, because it’s your palate. If you’ve been at the wine-and-food pairing game for a while, you already have your favorites, and you’re in a good position to take it from there to newer heights. If you’re just starting out, the Kendall-Jackson blog has some good suggestions. If you find a perfect combo of your own, please let us know. We’d love to hear about it.

Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.