One of the questions people ask the most is how to pair wine and food. It can be overwhelming, and actually kind of intimidating. Where do you start? What goes into it? I put together five tips that can make you a wine pairing pro in no time!
1. Learn wine pairing by drinking your favorite wine with as many dishes as possible.
A friend in Toastmasters (a public speaking group) recently encouraged me to compete in speech contests. He told me “You’ll be practicing the same speeches over and over again in different settings. This is really how you achieve mastery.” Soon after he told me that, I came across Patrick O’Connell’s interview in the book What to Drink with What You Eat by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. O’Connell mentions that he encourages his staff to take one of their favorite wines and become an expert on it. Part of this process includes drinking with pretty much everything they eat. As a result, they become more and more perceptive with the different foods they try. When I read this, I realized it’s the same technique I got at Toastmasters! Trying one wine with many different foods gives you, rather quickly, a good idea on what works and what doesn’t.
With this in mind, if you have a wine that’s your go-to, pair it with as many foods as possible. Once you do this, you’ll quickly see how your personal tastes react to different pairings. In particular, you’ll find out which foods taste good with your wine. On the other hand, you’ll also find out which pairings are underwhelming or bad, and why. After that, you can try different wines with your underwhelming or poor pairings and see if they have better results.
Trying one wine with many different foods gives you, rather quickly, a good idea on what works and what doesn’t.
For instance, I had a personal experience with some rosé at my friend’s winery. I drank this rosé every time I visited. One day, I decided to do a pairing. It was a pretty dry rosé, and I also wanted to drink something sweet, so I got a pomegranate soft drink from the refrigerator. A guy next to me noticed and said: “Oh, I bet those are really good together!” Being that they look similar, one would think so, right?
If you want to the basics about what makes a good pairing, take a look at this post.
I tasted the Rosé after drinking the soft drink, and it made the Rosé taste metallic and bitter. All of the strawberry candy notes in the Rosé disappeared and I was just left with a harsh aftertaste in my mouth.
As you can see, I drank this Rosé enough that I knew how it was supposed to taste. I was shocked by the difference the soft drink made. You likely know how your favorite wines are supposed to taste too. Therefore, when you pair it with something else, you will find out if it tastes “off” or good.
2. List your top food preferences to give you a starting point in wine pairing.
So, you are more familiar with your favorite wines, and you want to try some new varieties. With all the choices, how can you discover new wines more easily? Making a list of some of your favorite foods and flavors gives you a resource to research with. Ask yourself these questions and write down the answers:
What are your favorite foods?
What kinds of meat do you eat? (Fish, beef, pork, poultry, none.)
Do you like sweet or savory foods more?
Do you like spicy foods? How spicy?
Is there a pattern? (For example, lots of spicy dishes end up on your list.)
After you make your list, search for wines that pair well with these dishes and flavor profiles.You then can research more on the internet, or take your list to a wine store and ask for advice. Additionally, you may also want to learn if your preferences translate into wine. For example, if you find out that a lot of your favorite foods are on the tangier side, you may like acidic wines. If you drink black tea often, try some bold reds. Both tea and bold red wines have lots of tannins in them.
Furthermore, patterns you discover can be a great starting point. Let’s say that lots of spicy dishes do end up on your list. You’re going to likely love wines like gewurztraminer (pronounced ge-vurts-tra-mee-ner, a white wine that has fruity and honey flavors). Being from New Mexico, where spicy food reigns, I love wines like gewurztraminer.
One thing to consider when wine pairing:
Evan Goldstein mentions in Perfect Pairings that “only one of the two stars can effectively take center stage.” This is my personal opinion, and bear in mind, it may evolve: unless you’re at something like a wine tasting class, the wine does not take the center stage. It is the supporting player to food. There is, however, some irony to this. Rarely do I clearly remember the food I ate. I always remember the wine I drank on a special occasion.
3. Consider the occasion you’re drinking wine.
I also like to say that wines have “moods.” Thus, when and where you’re drinking wine matters. Are you cooking at home or eating out? Are you bringing wine to a party? Is this an everyday occasion or a big event? A nice red Bordeaux blend (Bordeaux is a region in France, known as one of the best wine regions in the world) will better fit an occasion like a special holiday party than say, Vinho Verde (a Portuguese white wine that’s light and fresh). In other words, drink that by the pool!
Furthermore, the type of gathering plays an important part in the wine you bring, too. Champagne and sparkling wines have a strong tradition in hot air ballooning. Recently I went to my brother and his girlfriend’s Halloween party. I made mulled wine with Norton (an American hybrid grape with nutmeg and cinnamon notes) to welcome the colder weather. If I’m going to a potluck, I generally just bring something I like or something that pairs with the food I bring. For instance, my family brings kosher wine to gatherings with my Jewish relatives (this is an absolute must if you know people who keep kosher). All in all, knowing when and where you’ll be drinking wine can give you a clear idea of what best to enjoy.
4. Seek different perspectives on wines others drink and the foods they pair them with.
Talk to friends and family; get their opinions on what they drink. Ask they why they choose a certain wine, what they like pairing with it, and when they drink it. If you’re at a tasting room or a wine festival, the server should give you some basic pairing recommendations right off the bat. Don’t be afraid to ask them! Also, they usually have favorites. Ask if they have any other wines that they personally prefer with certain foods.
If you’re at a restaurant with a sommelier, always get their opinions as well. They can probably nail an ideal pairing down to a specific winery, region, or vintage (the year a wine was made). And if there is no sommelier at the restaurant you’re at, ask the server. They will still have a good idea and can offer suggestions.
By the way, learn how to be a pro at ordering wine with this article from Wine Folly: https://winefolly.com/tips/how-to-order-wine-like-a-sommelier/
I just went out to dinner with a couple of friends at an Italian restaurant. One got a salad, and another got a spicy cream pasta with chicken. I ordered an off-dry (slightly sweet) Riesling and the spicy cream pasta with shrimp. We all tasted a Pinot Noir and loved it. I stuck with my slightly sweet Riesling, and I personally think I went with the best pairing. But, I want to try pairing that particular Pinot sometime in the near future because they both really enjoyed it with their food.
5. Most importantly—DO NOT give yourself too much pressure.
Learning takes time, and there are endless choices for wine and food. The options are overwhelming. But this is a good thing! The key is to just jump in and taste with something you know already. From this, you will build your own conclusions.
Ultimately, what you enjoy is solely up to you. And this is why you must have your own wine pairing journey. Keep tasting a lot, and you’ll learn what you like. You’ll also have a ton to share with others.
Who knew that something as simple as wine makes you take a journey of personal discovery?