Wine and food pairing guide
A wine pairing guide
By Allessandro Menegatti
I am sure that at a certain point in our lives, we have all been in a situation where we had to choose from a long wine menu list or select a wine from the shelves in a store. How do you pick? As with everything, if you do not know where to start and you do not have a method, the challenge can easily become overwhelming. In this short article I will try to cover the basics of successful wine pairings, trying to focus on the reasons behind them and the guiding principles that we should keep in mind when we find ourselves in that same situation again. Let us start with a little bit of theory. Our sense of taste can basically detect five main components:
- Savory (or Umami)
One of the first important things to notice is that there are no receptors for strawberry, steak, fish or apple… Where do these flavors come from then? I’m sure we all agree that a strawberry taste like a strawberry and that even if we blind tasted it, we would still be able to identify it as a strawberry. The aromas that we identify as characteristic of a particular food are actually smell components. Believe it or not approximately 80% of what we taste comes from the sense of smell and not from the sense of taste. I remember being shocked when I read it for the first time. If you have a hard time believing it (as I did to start), try and hold your nose closed when you eat or taste something. You will still be able to identify some of the aromas, because the back part of the palate is connected to the smell receptors in the nose, but you will definitely notice that everything seems toned down dramatically and our strawberry will have more of a dull almost flat taste. Another great example is to think about when you have a cold, I am sure you have all notice how food taste different. Why am I explaining this? If you think that what we taste is actually narrowed down to five main components, it is much easier to approach possible pairings instead of having to think about all the possible smells. Our goal will always be to balance these five components in our food and wine pairings.
Now that we have covered this very basic point, we can start talking about what are the principles behind a successful pairing. I have read a lot of different articles, written by experts in the field, but to be honest with you, I have not found one that is easy to apply in everyday life. They all have a list of rules, charts and pictures, but I have not found one that teaches a method, a simple step by step system to use when we are sitting in front of a menu in a restaurant or choosing a wine from a shelf in a store. I like when things are simple, because if they are too complicated it is more difficult to use them on a regular base. I personally have a two steps approach when it comes down to recommend or select a wine that I call What&How. It simply consists in asking yourself two simple questions:
- What is the most important element of the dish?
- How are we going to pair a wine with that?
It might seem obvious, but a lot of times the “What” is forgotten or not stressed enough. What are we eating? It is important to analyze the different components of the food that we are trying to match with a wine. What are the flavors? What are the most prominent ones? What do you like most in the dish? I will give you an example of how important this first step is and how it can change completely the way we think about pairing. Think about chicken breast. If you research possible pairing with this dish you will find hundred of suggestions very different from each other and if you take each example by itself it will seem to work perfectly, but how is this going to help us choose when we will have to pick one on our own? The answer is that it will not, because all of these pairing are not telling us the secret behind them. We need to focus on the first most important thing: How is that chicken cooked? Is it grilled? Is it coming with a sauce? If yes, what type of sauce? All of these elements can change dramatically what type of wine we should choose. For example, if the chicken is coming with a spicy sauce a nice Gewurztraminer would be a perfect match, while if we are grilling it, a Grenache could be a better choice. As you can see, in one case we are using a white wine, while in the other we are using a red wine, but in both cases, we have a chicken-based dish. If we learn to pay attention to the “What” first, every pairing will be much easier. To make it even easier, think about the intensity. What is the component that has the strongest intensity in the dish? The answer to that questions is almost always the answer to what we have to pay attention to. As you can see, answering one simple question has reduced the complexity of the dish to one specific thing.
Now that we have analyzed our food and we have identified the main component we are going to focus on, we are ready to move on to step number two. This is where we need to add a little bit more of theory. In particular, we need to understand that there are basically three methods to achieve a perfect pairing:
- Complementing flavors
- Contrasting flavors
- Same place of origin
Starting with number one, what we are trying to do when we are complementing flavors, is to match the main component of our dish with a similar component in the wine. In order to select a good wine, we need to know a little bit about it and this is where knowledge and experience can play a key role, but even without having to know the theory, we can still make a successful pairing using these simple rules:
- Intensity first
- Acid with acid
- Sweet with sweet
Red wines are usually more intense in flavors compared to white wines. When using the first rule, we want to keep that in mind. If the main component of our dish, is something delicate and gentle, we do not want to overpower it with a bold red, because that will mask the flavor of the dish. White wines usually have more acidity than reds and in particular Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Grigio have all very good levels of acidity. If we are trying to match the acidity of our dish with a wine, we want the wine to be slightly more acidic that the dish we are pairing it with. That is the same idea also when we are pairing sweet and sweet. The dessert wines always have to be sweeter than the dish itself or they will taste dull.
In this case we are trying to match opposite flavors to create something new and exciting. The three main rules for this method are the following:
- Intensity first
- Spicy with Sweet
- Fat with tannins
Once we have identified the main component of the food, we need to match it in intensity with the wine, but in this case, we are going to find something of opposite intensity. A classic example here is a steak with a bold red wine. The pairing works because the steak has fat and the red wine has tannins. These two flavor characteristics will balance each other, and the resulting flavor will showcase more of the secondary flavors of the wine and the steak. Another great example is spicy and sweet. They work well together because they tone each other down.
Same place of origin:
This is the last method of pairing and it is my personal favorite. While the other two methods are extremely useful and simple, I think that no other method reaches the complexity and balance of this last one. The basic idea behind this method is to match wines and foods that are coming from the same area of origin. It might sound simplistic and obvious, but it works very well. The traditions of cooking and winemaking have always been going hand in hand since the beginning and they have been perfected over centuries, so it is rare not to find a perfect combination of the two. What can possibly be better than bœuf bourguignon paired with a nice Pinot Noir from Burgundy? I’m sure there are many other wines that would go well with it, but the fact that this wine was crafted in the same place where this dish was created, gives it a completely different balance. Once again knowledge and experience are very helpful to use this method of pairing, but in my opinion compared to the other two, this is the easiest one to learn, because it really only requires a bit of curiosity and research.
Now that we have learned the What&How system, it is time to have some fun and try to apply it. As an exercise I have selected a few recipes from Stephane’s YouTube channel and built a restaurant menu. I have then applied the two steps to show you, how it is possible to make different pairings. Let us always remember that at the end of the day, we are talking about eating and drinking so it is important to have some fun with it. It does not need to be too serious and if we make mistakes along the way it is completely ok. Mistakes are the best way to learn and sometime discover new exciting things.
We will start our meal with a nice aperitif to prepare our palate. Remember, looking forward to the pleasure, is also part of the pleasure. We are going to start with a glass of Crémant d’Alsace Brut, a sparkling wine made in the region of Alsace (France). A wine that has beautiful acidity and crisp notes. Perfect wine to start a meal since it will stimulate our salivation preparing our palate for the great experience.
Starter – Bouchée a La Reine
To answer the “What”, I would say that the star of this dish is for sure the delicious creamy veloute with chicken and mushrooms. In order to find a wine to pair with it I will select an element in the dish and use one of the 3 methods. If I decide to focus on the creaminess, I could use the complementing flavor method and choose a Chardonnay from Burgundy that has spent a little time in oak. Meursault is a good example of AoC that offers exactly that style of wine. The richness of the Chardonnay with the notes of oak will go perfectly with the roundness of the sauce. If I decide to focus on the mushrooms, I could use the complementing method and select a Pinot Noir from Burgundy with some earthy undertones that will complement the mushroom flavor of the sauce. A good example could be a Premier Cru Givry. In this case we are also using the contrasting method, since the sauce has butter in it, the tannins of the red wine will contrast that part and amplifying secondary flavors.
Main course option 1 – Trout Meuniere
Let us start with “What”. We have a delicate fish cooked with flour, butter and lemon. If we focus on the lemon, we can use the complementing technique and select a wine that will have that same citrus presence. A great wine that has this element is Sauvignon Blanc. One of the best examples of Sauvignon Blanc is for sure a Sancerre from Loire Valley. These wines have a fantastic balance of lemon and mineral notes that will be a perfect match for this delicate dish. We could also decide to use the second method and select a lightly tannic wine like a Gamay from Beaujolais Villages that will contrast the creaminess of the butter but will not cover the delicate fish with too strong flavors. As you can see in this last example we paired a red wine with fish, which is not common, but I promise taste delicious. The key is always to keep intensity in mind. We do not want to cover any flavor the chef has prepared but elevate them.
Main course option 2 – Magret de Canard au Poivre Vert
As always let us start with “What”. The star of the dish is the combination of pepper, cream and duck flavor of the sauce. Using the complementing and contrasting technique we could select a nice Syrah from northern Rhone Valley that has light peppery notes with medium tannins and good acidity. The pepper will complement the peppery of the sauce, the tannins will contrast the cream in the sauce and the fat of the duck, while the acidity will elevate all the flavors. A good example could be a Croze-Hermitage.
Main course option 3 – Tarte à la tomate, moutarde et herbes de Provence
We have a dish from Provance. We are in this case using the third method of same place of origin and we are going to pair a wine that is originally from the same place. I have selected a Rosé from Provance. Let us explain technically why this would work. This is a fresh dish that has tomatoes and mustard as main components. The acidity of the tomatoes will work perfectly with the acidity of the crisp Rosé, while the spiciness of the mustard will be balanced by the fruit character of the wine. Perfect match!
Dessert – Crêpes Suzette
The key component of this dish is mandarin infused butter with triple sec liqueur. The acidity of the mandarin together with the sweetness of the dessert will be perfect with a nice Sauterne. The citrus notes mixed with the spicy gingery flavor and the sweetness of this wine will complement this dish perfectly. Note that the wine will be sweeter that the dessert. We really need a thick consistency to cut through the richness of this dish.
This was just an example of how you can play with the two steps system I introduced, have some fun and pair wines with some of Stephane’s amazing recipes. Feel free to experiment and if you have questions, it will be my pleasure to try and answer the best I can. I hope you enjoyed this article and that it will help you in your future wine and food pairings!