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Wine pairing basics

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Pairing food and wine can be an intimidating affair. And indeed, it is an art – one reason why truly talented sommeliers are paid so well, and are so prized by restaurants and hotels. But even a basic understanding of pairing can lead to an increased enjoyment of both your food and your wine. At advanced levels, food and wine pairings will often seem counter-intuitive, but for beginners a few basic ground rules can help transform your wine experience.


You can pair by starting with a wine, or starting with a dish. But in this case we will assume that you have a meal in mind, and are trying to determine what wine would go best with it.


It is helpful to think about your dish in three different ways: creaminess/acidity, fattiness/leanness, and flavor intensity. A good cut of steak with a cream sauce, for example, would be a very intense, fatty, creamy dish. A salad with an orange dressing, on the other hand, would be a medium intensity, lean, acidic dish. In some cases you will find yourself wanting to match like with like (acidic foods like acidic wines, generally), but occasionally you will find yourself surprised by matching opposites (slightly sweet wines match nicely to spicier dishes).


A richer, fuller dish will want a rich, creamy wine to pair with it. If you do too subtle a wine the food will dominate, and the wine will be drowned out. In contrast, if you have a delicate dish and pair it with a big-bodied zinfandel, you won’t be able to enjoy the food.


Fatty dishes tend to coat the palate so that the wine is dulled, so it’s important to choose a wine that can balance out that fat. Wine does this not by matching its fattiness, but by providing an antidote to it. In the case of white wines, this means wines with ample acidity to cut through the fat. In the case of red wines, this means wines with sturdy enough tannins to balance out the fat on the tongue.


Acidity in food can easily destroy a wine without a strong enough acid profile, making the wine taste flaccid and dull. Instead, choose wines that have plenty of forward acid. Vinegar can be especially problematic – if often makes wines taste like vinegar themselves – which is why many people choose to pair sturdier beverages such as sake or beer with vinegar-heavy fare. On the other hand, pairing an acidic wine with a creamy dish can make the cream seem sour – think of adding vinegar to milk – so these dishes generally call for a richer wine, especially one that has been through malolactic fermentation (such as a Napa chardonnay).


Finally, spice offers a whole range of challenges and opportunities to wine pairing. Spice can easily drown out the fruit in a wine, and leave it tasting like nothing more than tannin or acid. The best balance for this is a wine that is a little bit spicy itself, and maybe even one with some sugar to soften the spice – the classic pairing would be either a riesling or a gewürztraminer.


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