Do’s and don’ts of food and wine pairings

It’s less about rules and more about taste.

What’s better than eating your favorite foods and enjoying some great wine? Whether you’re out with friends, on a first date or hosting a dinner party, here are some do’s and don’ts of pairing wine with food. These tips may just help you turn an average night into a memorable experience. 

Food and wine pairings don't have to be complicated

With so many varieties of wine and such interesting and complex food options, pairing the two can be tricky. That’s why more and more wine experts are offering basic guidelines that rely on individual preferences rather than predetermined rules.

When it comes to food and wine pairings today, practically anything goes. 

“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you there are hard rules,” sommelier Caroline Conner says. “Drink what you like.”  

Conner is a wine educator with CaroVin Lyon Wine Tastings. Her best advice for a successful pairing? Have fun and enjoy yourself.

“Play and learn, and see what works for you,” she says.

Matt Stamp, a master sommelier and co-founder of Compline Wine Bar in Napa Valley, agrees. The focus, he says, should be on flavor combinations and simplicity.

“It isn’t about the price tag when it comes to great wine to pair with food,” Stamp says, suggesting the focus should be on acidity. “Much as a spritz of lemon juice can enliven a dish, acid-driven wines tend to lift food and increase taste.” 

Most people just want to enjoy good food with wines they like. 

“If you want a perfect wine pairing at your next dinner party, don’t serve syrah to the couple that only drinks cabernet sauvignon, even if it’s perfect for that peppercorn-crusted steak,” Stamp says.

Wines paired with an assortment of cheeses and meats

Decide who's the star—the food or the wine

While having fun is key, you obviously want a great taste experience as well. You may love sea bass. And your favorite wine may be a cabernet sauvignon. But that doesn’t mean the two will blend well together.

Jörn Kleinhans, a professional sommelier with The Sommelier Company in Huntington Beach, California, cautions that not everything goes together. Bad pairings could diminish both elements. 

“If you want to drink heavy red wine with delicate white fish, no one can stop you—but you will probably enjoy it more if the flavors don’t fight each other,” Kleinhans says. 

He adds that the first step to planning a food and wine pairing is to decide who is the star of the evening. Quality should dictate intensity. 

“If the food is of exceptionally high quality, choose a lower-intensity wine,” he says. 

On the other hand, if you’re at an establishment known for its wine, you should think of the food as a complement. He advises matching the complexity and avoiding extremes.

“Understand the marriage between the food and wine. Define the purpose of the occasion. And then fine-tune the intensities,” Kleinhans says. “Choose a simple wine with simple food and a complex wine with complex food.”

Experiment with a DIY wine pairing menu

Successful wine pairings come down to a few basic considerations: intensity, complexity, harmony and balance. For a perfect pairing, Kleinhans recommends serving two similar wines with each course. 

“Try each wine separately with a bite of the food,” he says. “Notice the taste and discuss the difference. It’s a great way to make conversation and experiment with your taste choices.”

Use Kleinhans’s sample menu as a guideline. But remember, it’s just a starting point. Don’t consider it to be written in stone. Be creative, and mix and match tastes you like. Make notes of your favorites and tweak for next time.

First course: Mild intensity

  • Sparkling wine
  • Prosecco
  • Salty potato chips

Second course: Light intensity

  • California chardonnay
  • New Zealand sauvignon blanc
  • Small bites of white seafood

Third course: Medium intensity

  • Oregon pinot noir
  • Italian Chianti Classico
  • Aged Gouda and Spanish manchego

Fourth course: Heavy intensity

  • Australian shiraz
  • Argentine malbec
  • Beef with pepper sauce

Fifth course: Sweet

  • Portuguese tawny port
  • Hungarian Tokaji
  • Dark chocolate

What vinotype are you?

Master of Wine and chef Tim Hanni has developed four vinotypes to represent wine tastes based on personality. The theory is that wine drinkers fall into four categories: 

  1. Sweet—fairly picky and like sweet, fruity whites.
  2. Hypersensitive—sensitive and prefer clean, crisp wines.
  3. Sensitive—free-spirited and enjoy a wide variety of wines.
  4. Tolerant—straightforward and decisive and enjoy bold, strong reds.

Your vinotype, according to the theory, predetermines what kinds of wine you’ll enjoy drinking most. It’s yet another example of how some modern wine experts are tossing traditional wine rules aside for a more individualized approach.

Whatever you do, make it fun

For most people, a night out or a dinner party at home is meant to be fun. So when it comes to pairing food and wine, the goal should always be to enjoy yourself. 

Stamp sums it up nicely: “Less than one-quarter of guests come in and want an educational experience. Most people just want to enjoy good food with wines they like.”

So grab a glass of your favorite wine and a snack, and start planning your next food and wine adventure. Cheers!

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