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Matching wine with food

Matching wine with food:
The importance of pairing wine appropriately with a given foodstuff cannot be overlooked – wine has had a long history of being a staple at the dinner table and, especially in the Old World, winemaking and culinary traditions have evolved in tandem. Rather than following a set of complicated rules, local cuisines were paired simply with local wines; the two of them had developed together and were therefore traditionally well-suited.

It is only fairly recently that the modern “art” of food pairings has come to the fore, fostering an industry of books and media with guidelines for pairing certain foods with certain wines.

However, the process remains a subjective affair and a ‘textbook perfect’ pairing might nevertheless be unappealing to a given individual’s palate. Some have instead placed emphasis on pairing wine with people, catering for the subjective nuances of individual palates as opposed to adhering to an objective set of guidelines. Nevertheless, these rules of thumb generally work well for most tasters and are therefore very useful in restaurants or other places where getting to know all customers’ preferences is nigh impossible.

It is important to note that wine and food combine well together on the whole. Mainly wine and food pairing is about striving for an optimal taste combination, rather than avoiding disaster. However, there are a few pairings that are truly baneful and these will be explored below. Finally, pay heed to the wise words of a certain Master Sommelier known as Even Goldstein: “One must listen while the other speaks, or the rest is a muddle.” In any pairing either the wine or food will be dominant, the partner serving to enhance the other – they should not compete on the palate.

Matching wine and people:
Though they may be seen as a pariah to some wine enthusiasts, it is nevertheless the case that some people stick to their guns and have a set style of wine they enjoy to the detriment of all others – perhaps even a set grape variety or blend, no matter how narrow minded this may seem! Wine snobbery aside, it is important to cater for these tastes at a social event. Even though it may not be to your tastes, there is nothing wrong with offering somebody a white wine to go with their steak; more important is that your guest is happy with the wine they have been provided with.

Obviously if you have a more adventurous guest then it is a good idea to push the boat out and arm yourself with a basic awareness of the ‘classic’ food and wine couplings.

Avoid fish and (tannic) red wine:
In particular, avoid matching tannic red wines with fish. Tannins in combination with fish generally give rise to tiny, metallic flavours that taint the whole experience. This is equally true of many tannic red wines and cheeses.

Instead, opt for fresh, biting and unoaked whites for drinking alongside fish. These serve as good foils as they do not have tannins, and their crispness and acidity helps to hack through the oily richness of the dish at hand.

Red wines that are low in tannin can work very well; however, this can be a risky move and it is up to you to build up a framework of experience. Though low in tannins, some sweeter or fruitier red wines may clash with the delicate seafood flavours. Lighter Burgundies or Cabernet Francs from the Loire Valley are good starting points.

Avoid sweet foods and dry wines:
Oily fish and crisp white wine is an example of contrast – the way in which different characters in the food and wine compliment one another. When it comes to pudding, you are looking to compliment the sweetness of the dessert with sweetness in the wine. In this instance a dessert wine is called for – alternatively, it is best to put your table wine to one side until you have finished the pudding and cleared the palate with some coffee. Drinking a table wine with sweet deserts is a grim ordeal; the pudding serves to coat the palate with overwhelming sugary sweetness, which renders a dry wine unpalatable.

Classic pairings:
Firstly, cast your mind back to the way in which local cuisine and wine have developed covalently. If you have to hazard a guess, try and pair a local dish with a local wine. For instance, a simple pasta dish is cause to open a bottle of inexpensive Italian red wine. These tend to have a higher acidity than other reds which, although perhaps unappealing when tasted in isolation, perfectly matches many local foodstuffs.

Generally if a wine and food are to be served together, the same wine can be used to great effect when preparing the dish – it allows the two to marry together.

Red wine with red meat, White wine with white meat:
Again, this is a good rule of thumb. However, you can afford to be more liberal here and shouldn’t really have any qualms about offering a white wine to a stubborn drinker to go alongside their steak. A mature Claret or Rhone with steak or game is a great matching. Don’t get complacent though – a sweet yet acidic fruit sauce, such as cranberry sauce, can tarnish this matching. Bear in mind that some white wines go well with reds; roast turkey perfectly compliments a red.

Sweet wines and blue cheese:
Savoury cheese and a sweet wine is a match made in heaven for many culinary enthusiasts. The idea is that the sweet and luscious features of the wine contrast beautifully with the potent, salty nature of the cheese. Sauternes and blue cheese or Port and Stilton are commonly cited examples.

Difficult foods:
There are some foods that are infuriatingly difficult to pair with any wine imaginable. Chocolate is a prime example, though it is puzzling why people even attempt this feat in the first place. Coffee is a far better substitute here.

Eggs and egg dominated dishes are another wine pairing hazard. Here it is best to opt for a well-balanced white wine, neither too rich nor too acidic.

Acidic foods such as vinaigrette dressings or tomatoes are tackled with the old maxim of “fight fire with fire”. Match the acidity of the food with equally acidic wines. Beaujolais wine can be put to work here, too – the acidity of the food diminishes some of the tartness in the wine, allowing the fruit to become more noticeable.

Finally, world foods, especially spicy dishes, can pose a problem. However, with a bit of detective work you will probably be able to find a pairing that suits you – Alsace wine works very well with many Thai dishes.

In short:
  • Watch out for the bad combinations – otherwise, food and wine generally work well together. Anything else is simply heightening the experience to a new level.
  • Try and cater for your guests; if they do not enjoy a given wine then do not impose it upon them, even if it is a textbook match for the dish at hand.
  • Taste is subjective, though there is some consensus among most people. If you like Riesling with your beef, then stand up for yourself! Some people like peanut butter and ketchup sandwiches, or so I am led to believe.


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