The idea of pairing food and wine can seem both pretentious and unnecessary, but I believe that it can be quite easy (and affordable) and yes, it is absolutely necessary. Food becomes a meal when wine is introduced and wine almost always tastes better with a bite of food (unless we’re talking sparkling wine – which is incredible with food or all on it’s own – and something we think should be enjoyed often)
We’ve laid out the basics for pairing food with wine below and included a couple recommendations that we hope will make this task a little easier and enjoyable for you. If you’re reading this and interested in learning further, you can always contact us for a private wine tasting. Pairing food with wine is a major component to these tastings and it’s a great way to introduce yourself to new wines and flavour combinations you might have never thought of.
Rule Number 1: Wine loves salt and fat loves wine.
This is more of a broad statement than a real pairing lesson. But it is the reason that wine and food work so well together. Now, to break this down… When you’re preparing a meal, any good chef will tell you to season everything as you work through a recipe. They do this because salt brings out the flavour in food and it does the same thing for wine. On the flip side, wine is naturally high in acid, and while this varies in different types and styles of wine, there will almost always be a good dose of acidity in wine.
Similar to salting your food, adding some acidity to a meal will help to brighten the flavours in a dish. When cooking we often add things like a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar to cut through the richness of a dish or to elevate the flavours. A well chosen bottle of wine will help you achieve a similar result. This is not to say, don’t add acid to your food and drink wine instead, but consider the wine as an extension of your dish, a seasoning at the table if you will. If you want to give this a try yourself, grab a bag of plain, salted potato chips next time you have a glass of wine and see how the chips enhance the flavour of the wine and alternately, notice how the oiliness of the chips is cut with the acidity in the wine. Now, any wine will work but our favourite pairing for salted chips is a bottle of gently oaked Chardonnay. Which leads us to our next point…
Rule Number 2: Match body with body.
What do we mean by body? Well, for wine, consider the body of a wine to be akin to the different fat levels in milk. A light bodied wine like Pinot Grigio of Gamay Noir wine will leave you with a similar feeling of drinking skim milk. A fuller bodied wine like an oaked Chardonnay or California Cabernet Sauvignon will coat your mouth much like homo milk. When applying this to food pairings, consider the weight and intensity of the dish.
Are you eating a fatty, rib eye steak with roasted pomme puree and blue cheese? The high level of fat and intense flavours of this dish require something with a significant tannins, high acidity and strong flavours (Tannins are what dries out your palate or causes you to scrape your tongue across the roof of your moth when drinking red wine and they provide the wine with body and texture. Generally speaking, the higher the tannins, the fuller bodied the wine will be.). Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Tempranillo are all great varietals to pair with this type of dish and can be found in a range of price points.
Now, if you have something light like a garden salad with goat cheese, or a grilled piece of fish with a herb salad on the side, you’ll want to choose something with bright, citrus-like acidity and medium body, like Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc.
When we talk about white wine, it’s important to understand that white wine does not have tannins. Tannins occur when the wine (or juice from the grapes) comes into contact with grape skins, something that not only adds tannin but also colour to the wine. And since white wines are created without the grape juice coming into contact with the skins so as to keep them white, they do not have tannin. Certain varietals, like Viognier and Chardonnay or Grenache Blanc have more weight or body than others. Or winemakers will introduce things like oak, amphorae ageing or lees stirring to give the wines texture and more body when consumed.
Rule Number 3: Acidity in wine needs to be higher than acidity in food.
The food we serve at Harling Food Co. tends to lean more towards high acidity. This was not a deliberate choice but more subconscious as we find that keeping the natural acidity of our produce intact and enhancing the flavours through techniques like pickling allow a beautiful depth of flavours to emerge. That being said, we tend to recommend wines with higher acidity when coming up with our food and wine pairings. High acidity in food tends to do the opposite of fat, which we have discussed makes a wine taste incredible. Acidity in food on the other hand can make a less acidic wine (like Viognier or Merlot) taste lifeless as it will appear to have less acidity or freshness in comparison, which is the exact opposite of the affect we hope to achieve when pairing wine with food.
Now, a salad dressed in a light vinaigrette is obviously going to be high in acidity so a natural choice would be something equally high in acidity like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc but acidity can easily hide itself in a dish. Our pickled and roasted beets with crème fraîche and trout roe has complex flavours with high acidity from the pickled beets and crème fraîche. A pairing like this may seem daunting but just keep in mind, look for high acid wines. Something like Barbera or Gamay Noir is perfect with its high acidity and juicy fruit flavours.
Rule Number 4: Fight fire with sugar + acid.
Spicy food engages pain reactors on your palate, leaving you wanting something to extinguish the heat. The beauty of wine is that the natural acidity ignites your saliva glands, bringing much needed moisture to your palate when eating spicy foods with chilli heat. Sweet also acts as a perfect compliment to spicy food, mitigating the level of spice and instead enhancing the flavours. Think of Sweet Chilli Heat Doritos or Hot Chicken drizzled with honey or even our Roasted Carrots served with chilli vinaigrette, each of these dishes would do well paired with an off dry white or rosé wine with a good dose of acidity. Now, when thinking of high acid, sweet wines, Riesling is really the front runner, in particular from the Mosel in Germany or the Canadian wine regions of Niagara or the Okanagan. Other wines you could look to are Moscato (generally produced with a slight effervescence), Chenin Blanc or beautiful bottle of rosé . Now, all of these styles can be produced with some sweetness or completely dry (meaning no sweetness) so it’s important to know how to tell if a wine is off-dry or not by looking at the label. The best indicator is alcohol level. Generally speaking, any wine that is less than 12% abv is going to have some sweetness to it. The reason being is that the sugars found in grape juice that react with yeast to create alcohol have not all been converted into alcohol (which is generally acknowledged to be when a wine hits 12% abv or more) and instead, remain as sweet juice.
Rule Number 5: Pair sweet with sweet.
When it comes time for dessert, make sure that the wine you are serving is as sweet or sweeter than the dessert itself. The reason for this is that the sweetness in a dessert can make a less sweet wine taste bitter and sour, robbing it of it’s beautiful flavour profile and leaving you with the acidity of the wine and little else. Think about what happens if you were to eat some candy or drink a soda and then have a bite of fruit. The normally sweet and delicious piece of fruit would taste sour in comparison.
Now, the most common pairings for sweet chocolate based desserts is Port and Ice Wine goes well with a myriad of sweet confections. If you’re not into the idea of introducing more sweetness to your table, you may want to invest in a good brandy to pour alongside dessert. Brandy has a natural, subtle sweetness to it and also aides in digestion. Historically, it has been consumed following a large meal to assist the production of digestive enzymes, allowing you to feel less full following a large meal. And, it also just happens to taste great with everything. Dried or baked fruit, nuts, cheese, honey, ice cream, chocolate cake, flaky pastries, you name it and brandy will taste good with it – we swear.
Rule Number 5: When in doubt, grab a bottle of bubbles.
Now, we understand that this is quite a proclamation but we truly believe that bubbles make everything better. The sheer magic that hides in a bottle of sparkling wine itself is enough reason to want to open a bottle when hosting a group of people. But beyond that, there are quite practical reasons to serve sparkling wine as well. These wines are naturally high in acidity which we have already learned to be one of the key pairing components of wine.
Further to that, the bubbles from the wine help to scrub the palate and keep it refreshed. The myriad of sparkling wines available can be overwhelming but here are a few key tips. Vintage Champagne is full bodied with a lot more than just bright fruit and acidity. These wines are complex and can pair with more robust foods like roast duck or even a beef wellington. Charmat or tank style sparkling wines like Prosecco are generally fruitier than traditional method styles like Champagne, Cremant or Cava. These wines are great with the most hard to pair foods, think bitter greens like kale or asparagus or umami rich foods like eggs, soy sauce or cooked mushrooms.