Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a first timer, if you are planning to serve wine with a fine meal, serving the right type of wine can’t be overstated. Below, we’ve provided some general terms and guidelines along with some handy links that are good to have at your fingertips.
Once you’ve read through this, check out our next three posts that describe more details for paring wines with:
- Main Courses
Know These Terms and You Are On Your Way…
Acid – If you taste a wine and it’s tart, the wine has a higher acid content. Well-balanced white wines with good acid are often called crisp; like a green apple. If your wine tastes like vinegar, it’s due to the acid (and a really badly made or very old wine that aged badly). These wines are only occasionally worthwhile for cooking but rarely worth drinking although most chefs will not cook with a wine that they wouldn’t drink.
Fruit – The sweetness that you taste in wine is usually attributed to the fruit. Fruit in wine usually comes from being produced with riper grapes. Unripe fruit usually produce wines that are more acidic. With most wine grape Varietals, as the fruit ripens, the sugar content rises but the acid content drops. It’s rare to get a wine that is both high in fruit and acid without resorting to additives.
Tannins – These are key to what is often described as “Mouth feel.” Wines high in tannins are often described as having a “feel” of leather or fur. They are also the component that can leave your mouth feeling dry. They come from the skins, seeds, and stems from the grape bunches. They also come from new barrels in which a wine is aged. Wines aged in used oak add less tannins. Used oak (often erroneously referred to as neutral oak) refers to a barrel that has been used, so many of the flavors have been leached out of it by previous batches of wine. Excessive tannins can make a wine bitter and are often prevalent in young wines that are meant to age. Age will usually soften the tannins and round out the wine.
The comments below are a couple of general guidelines to use when considering food and wine pairings this holiday season:
- Never serve a dish that is sweeter than the accompanying wine. If you want to know why, find a sweet white wine like a US Gewurztraminer, most of the US Rieslings, or even a White Zinfandel (I can’t believe I just typed White Zinfandel without a gun held to my head – I think I need to sit down for a bit and drink a glass of Cab to clear my head). Take a couple of sips of the wine and then eat a sweet cookie or a bite of cake. Now take another sip of the wine. Odds are, the wine that just tasted very sweet just moments ago will now taste tart and not very appealing. The sugar in the dessert has swamped the sugars and fruit in the wine.
- Generally, fattier meats do well with wines that have more tannins and can also stand up to higher alcohol levels. The fat in the meats coats your mouth in the same way that snow accumulates on a road. Tannins act like road plows on a snowy day, clearing away fat deposits in your mouth so your next bite of meat will taste much like your first bite. Conversely, the fat coating your mouth softens the tannins in the wine by only allowing some of them to hit your pallet.
- Match flavor intensities. Bold tasting meals should be paired with bold tasting wines. Subtle flavors in food require subtle flavors in wine. It’s probably not really a surprise by this point but acidic food should be paired with acidic wine. The key is choosing what is the most prevalent flavor in a dish and then choosing a wine to pair with that flavor.
- Don’t drink an acidic wine with a cream based sauce. Just don’t do it – put the bottle down and walk away. If you want to know why, try this experiment (aka joke) on a friend. Be sure to stay far enough away so that when they take a swing at you, you have a chance to duck. Have you friend take a shot of any cream based liquor like Bailey’s Irish Cream, keep it in their mouth, and the take a shot of Roses Lime Juice with the Bailey’s still in their mouth. What you’ve created is a drink called a “Cement Mixer.” The Roses Lime Juice causes the cream to curdle and solidify, which is great fun for those watching but not so much for the one with the newly formed glue in their mouth. Albeit to a lesser degree, this is why acidic wines and cream based sauces don’t get along.
- Don’t try and pair a wine with a side dish unless you are serving your meal one course at a time. Match the main course instead. Finding a wine that complements something sweet (maple-baked beans for example) will likely ruin the flavor of your other savory dishes. If you want to plan your food and wine offering together, then try and avoid sweet and savory dishes in the same meal. Dishes with subtle flavors and dishes with bold flavors are easier to pair with wine if you are looking for a contrast in taste. Also look at contrasting textures of food rather than just tastes if you want more variety in your meal.
Winery-Sage Tools for Great Food and Wine Parings
If you are trying to find the right meal to accompany a specific type of wine, we can help with that. Earlier in the year, we added a couple of features that are focused on the wine and food parings. If you want to find the right food to serve with a specific wine, you can hints find it here. If you’re looking for ideas on what wine to pair with your meal, you can find our wizard here.
Now that you have mastered the basics and learned a few helpful sites, be on the look out for our upcoming, specific suggestions for pairing wine and appetizers. We also provide a list of unusual wines that go great with food but offer up a little more variety than the standard fair. If you have a favorite yourself, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.