How To Put Together The Perfect Wine Menu For Your Next Meal, Party, Or Event
Wine pairing is a real skill that takes time to master.
That being said, sharpening your skills and developing your palate will never be a waste of time. The right combination of food and wine can transform a meal and take it to another level.
When you start learning how to pair food and wine, the most important thing you can do is to experiment. There is no way to know if something will work for sure unless you try it.
Wine pairing is a skill that others always find fascinating and it will help you to start lots of conversations with new and interesting people. It has a reputation for being an elitist skill, but it is something everyone can enjoy – even if you don’t know very much about wine.
We have put together this guide to help you dive into the world of wine pairing. Now, you can make the pairing choices yourself, rather than relying on notes on the bottle or stranger’s recommendations on the internet.
Before we take a deep dive into the rules of wine pairing, let’s cover some of the basics.
We also have different taste buds and different taste pallets, so what one person finds delicious, another person might not enjoy. It is important to bear this in mind when you first start learning to pair wine and food.
The more pairs you try, the more you will learn about your personal tastes and the preferences of the people around you.
You may find it helpful to keep notes on your journey to becoming a wine tasting master.
Pair Low-Alcohol Wines With Spicy Dishes
If you are eating a spicy meal, the last thing you want to do is pair it with a bottle of strong wine. And not just because there will be too many flavors.
Alcohol actually makes the experience of eating spicy food a lot more intense. It won’t dampen down the burning in your mouth – if anything it will make the sensation harder to bear.
If you still want to pair a wine with your spicy food, then we suggest picking out something with lower alcohol content.
Look for something between 9% and 11%.
Play A Game Of Matchmaking
When you first start wine pairing, start by looking for food and wines that are considered by most to be a good match.
These pairs will often share characteristics. For example, you might want to pair a light and citrusy fish dish with an airy white wine with notes of lemon.
Or you may want to pair a rich, dark dessert with a red wine that has notes of dates and cocoa.
As you are getting used to flavor profiles, start by pairing robust wines with bold and flavorsome meals. And pair white wines with light meals you might want to enjoy on a summer’s day.
Pair Red Meats With Red Wines
Some people consider this to be a cardinal rule of wine pairing – but trust us, red meats can pair well with many types of wine.
However, this is a good place to start when you are first getting used to pairing dishes and bottles.
Red meat has a high-fat content, which is what gives it a lot of flavors. If you want a wine that is going to stand up to those flavors, you can’t go wrong with a bottle of red wine. The tannin in the red wine gives it a bold flavor profile.
For Desserts, Look Toward The Light
Another rule of thumb (which we believe should be broken often) is to pair lighter, mostly white wines, with dessert.
If a dessert is full of fruit then you are going to find that many sweet and fruity white wines will pair really well with the dish. You don’t want to pick a wine that is going to change the way the dessert tastes in your mouth.
That being said, a chocolate-based dessert might pair well with something a little richer. Or you might even be tempted to serve your dish with a dessert wine.
It is best to try these combinations before serving them to guests.
Earthy Foods Go Best With Earthy Wines
Many people struggle to find wines that compliment foods with earthy flavors. This can be a little difficult for us in the West, as umami is much less common in our dishes than the other seven components (more on these later) of flavor are.
So, pairing earthy foods with a bottle of wine often requires a little practice.
The best thing you can do is to taste the dish first, and write down the key flavor notes – this guide can help you explain what you are tasting. Then start looking for wines that contain similar flavors.
Test the pairing, and if that doesn’t work start looking for a new wine.
Acidic Wines Cut Through Fattier Dishes
If you are serving a dish with a high-fat content then you are going to want to look for a wine that is going to cut through that – rather than make the flavors more intense.
An easy way to find a wine to do this is to get one with acidic notes.
Most red wines will have acidic notes because of their high tannin content. But, you will also find that some of the dryer white wines can do the job just as well.
You can use the other rules on this list to help guide you toward the right wine.
Acidic Wines Do Not Go With Dairy
There is a sugar in dairy called lactose.
This sugar does not mix well with acidic flavors. Mixing acid into a cup of milk would cause it to curdle. This is why you do not want to mix acidic wines with dairy-heavy dishes. It will create a strange and unpleasant mix of tastes and textures in your mouth.
If you are trying to find a wine to pair with a dairy-filled dish then look for something on the sweeter side – with notes of stone fruits or something similar.
Do Not Mix Bitter With Bitter
If you wanted paint to be less red, you wouldn’t mix another red paint into it. So, if you are looking to make a dish less bitter overall then you are not going to want to pair it with a glass of bitter wine.
If you are cooking up a dish with lots of tannins in it then you are not going to want to pair it with a red wine. Instead, you will want to look for something light, sweet, and fresh to pair with it. A wine that will almost act like a palate cleanser that allows you to enjoy your meal more.
Pair Wines And Foods From The Same Region
Our final piece of advice is to choose your wine based on the type of cuisine you are cooking.
Are you serving up a Japanese dish? Then pair it with sake. Are you enjoying an Italian fish dish, then pair it with a glass of Italian white wine? A traditional, heavy French dish might pair with a rich Bordeaux wine.
Using this method to pick the wine will give you a more authentic dining experience. It will allow you to enjoy the meal in the way the locals would.
Now, let’s move on to the wine tasting guide proper.
Different Wine And Food Taste Profiles
To be able to pair wine and food you need to learn about the theory of flavor and flavor combinations. This will give you a good basis of knowledge from which you can start to experiment with pairings.
We will start by looking at the six components of flavor – acidic, bitter, fatty, salty, spicy, and sweet. Then we will look at how they relate to wine and what wines contain them.
Something that you should always bear in mind while tasting wine, is that there is no “one way” for wines to taste. Not every wine tastes the same, not every white wine tastes the same, not every Sauvignon Blanc tastes the same even!
Prepare to be constantly surprised by wines.
The Seven Components Of Taste – Sour, Bitter, Umami, Fatty, Salty, Spicy, And Sweet
Since the early 20th century, scientists have known that different parts of our tongue are responsible for registering each of the different flavors.
When this was first learned, they only believed they were four flavors – bitter, salty, sweet, and sour.
In this article, we are going to talk about seven components of taste – these will be essential words in your wine and food tasting vocabulary – bitter, fatty, salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and umami.
A Quick Guide To The Flavors
Sour – (tart, acidic) lemons
Bitter – (earthy, burnt) coffee
Fatty – (rich, buttery) bacon
Salty – (oceanic) seaweed
Spicy – (hot, piquant) chili peppers
Sweet – (sugary, honeyed) maple syrup
Umami – (savory, earthy) soy sauce
Red Wines Possess More Bitterness
The three components of taste that you are most likely to pick up in a glass of red wine are sour, bitter, and umami. But you will occasionally get hints of sweet, spicy, and salty.
Generally, red wines offer the most flavor. They are bold and robust and need to be paired with food that they won’t drown out.
White, Sparkling, And Rosé Wines Possess More Acidity
Sometimes it can be hard to draw the distinction between bitterness and sourness, especially for beginners.
When you don’t have a slight tolerance for either bitterness or sourness they can both taste very similar on the tongue. And when we say taste, what we really mean is that they completely overwhelm the palate.
Learning how to spot the difference between the bitterness of red wine – is it earthy, burnt, sulfurous – and the sourness of white wine – is it tart, citrus, acidic – will improve your ability to pair foods.
When you are first starting out, reading up about a wine before you start tasting it comes to make picking out flavors a lot easier.
Dessert Wines Naturally Possess More Sweetness
At the complete opposite end of the taste spectrum are dessert wines. You will find that these wines are as intense as they are sweet. They also tend to have quite a high alcohol content which can make pairing even more tricky for beginners.
When you are developing your palate, you will also need to work on being able to taste more than just the sweetness.
Dessert wines cover a wide range of flavors but are most often paired with desserts purely because their flavors are so intense.
Dessert wines can be red, white, rose, sparkling, and fortified.
Consider The Wine And Food Intensity
Now, we are going to look at the eight most common foods that people like to pair wine with.
As we mentioned above, the pairing of food and wine can be incredibly personal. So, feel free to use this section as a guide to help you explore and discover your personal taste.
It is not an explicit set of instructions that you must follow when you are pairing foods and wines together.
In this section, we will talk about how to pick out flavors in the food and pair them with wines.
Wine And Cheese Pairing
Cheese flavor components – salty, umami, fatty
We’re starting with our favorite ever combination – wine and cheese. Nothing beats these two together.
Cheese is one of the very few dishes that is made all over the world. Much like wine. When it comes to pairing wine and cheese many experts suggest pairing a cheese that was made in the same country as it.
So, pair French cheeses with French wines. Greek cheeses with Greek wine. This is a great rule of thumb and will work well for most cheeses.
If you are trying to put together a cheese board then the wine pairing gets a little more tricky.
If you are offering a selection of cheeses then you will want to think about what flavors are most common on the board and which ones you want to highlight with the wine the most.
Salty cheeses will pair well with wines that have citrus notes and fatty cheese pairs well with rich, tannic wines.
Very strong cheeses also pair well with dessert wines like Sherry.
Cheese And Wine Pairing Suggestions
|Edam (Dutch)||Zinfandel OR Pinot Blanc|
|Cheddar (English)||Gewürztraminer OR Oaky Chardonnay|
|Mozzarella (Italian)||Sauvignon Blanc OR Pinot Grigio|
|Brie (French)||Prosecco OR Fruity Pinot Noir|
|Camembert (French)||Champagne OR Merlot|
|Stilton (English)||Shiraz OR Muscat|
|Feta (Greek)||Fruity Pinot Noir OR Maratheftiko|
|Goats Cheese (Varies)||Merlot, Malbec OR Chenin Blanc|
|Parmesan (Italy)||Valpolicella OR Prosecco|
|Jarlsberg (Norwegian)||Cabernet Sauvignon OR Riesling Spätlese|
|Hallumi (Greek)||Maratheftiko OR Muscat|
|Gouda (Dutch)||Merlot OR Zinfandel|
|Gorgonzola (Italian)||Orvieto Classico OR Riesling|
|Monterey Jack (American)||Zinfandel OR Cabernet Sauvignon|
Wine And Salmon Pairings
Salmon flavor components – umami, salty, fatty
Salmon is one of the most complicated fish dishes to pair wine with, and it just happens to be one of the most common fish dishes. However, if you can master wine pairing for salmon then you pair wine with everything.
Some people suggest that red meat should be paired with red wine, white meat with white wine, and pink meat with rose wine. However, many people would find rose too sweet to pair with salmon.
To make the process easier, we recommend pairing your wine with the sauce you are using on the fish.
Salmon And Wine Pairing Suggestions
For example, smoked salmon with a creamy sauce could be paired with an oaky Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir.
A salmon seasoned with just salt and lemon could be paired with a Riesling or a Malbec.
Some people would argue that salmon and Champagne are always a good combination.
Wine And Lamb Pairings
Lamb flavor components – umami, salty, fatty
One of the foods on this list that you might feel most comfortable with trying to find a pairing is probably lamb. Lamb is a meat with a distinct taste – one that doesn’t really change, no matter what you cook it in.
This is great news for anyone who is looking to pair the meat with a glass of wine because you can use the same bottle of wine with most lamb dishes.
Lamb is a fatty red meat that has a salty yet earthy flavor. It is not mild like fish or white meat and because of this, it needs to be paired with a robust wine.
Lamb is typically paired with a tannin heavy red wine. We would avoid white and rose wines, as well as many sweet reds.
The only exception to this rule is when you are eating a spicy lamb dish. In this case, you may want to opt for a wine with a lower alcohol count – like a Gewürztraminer.
Lamb And Wine Pairing Suggestions
Here is a list of wines that pair well with lamb:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine And Seafood Pairings
Seafood flavor components – salty, umami, fatty
Seafood is a huge category of food, so you will not be surprised to hear that there is no one wine that suits all types of seafood.
Like with other dishes, you might want to pick a wine that comes from the same area your seafood recipe does. For example, you might want to pair Calamari with Italian white wine.
Or, you might want to choose a wine that compliments the specific fish in your dish or the sauce being used in it. Remember if you are serving fish with a creamy sauce then you will want to avoid acidic wines.
Sommeliers often chose to pair white fish with wines with citrus notes. While they pair spicy seafood dishes with something a little sweeter.
There is no rule against pairing seafood with red wine. But you will want to make sure that you choose red wine that isn’t too robust.
Seafood And Wine Pairing Suggestions
|Prawns||Prosecco OR Torrontés,|
|Calamari||Chardonnay OR Pinot Noir|
|Sushi||Sake OR Muscat|
|White Fish||Cabernet Sauvignon OR Pinot Gris|
Wine And Salad Pairings
Salad flavor components – sweet, salty, bitter
If your salad is topped with seafood, meat, or cheese, then you might want to keep the advice from that section in mind while you are thinking about pairings. Especially if the topping is providing the main flavor of the salad.
You do not want to pick a wine based on the vegetables in the salad only to have it clash with the salad’s toppings.
Because salads are made up of a range of often contracting ingredients it can be hard to find a wine that pairs with every flavor. People will often pair these types of salads with an inoffensive and mild white wine.
When you are trying to pair a wine with a salad, it is best to try the salad first. This will allow you to pick out the key flavor of the salad. Do you want a wine to bring out the dressing, the leaves, the topping? These are choices you need to make before you start looking for the wine.
If in doubt, pick a wine that comes from the same part of the world as the salad’s key ingredient.
Wine And Salad Pairing Suggestions
Here are some wines that will pair well with salads:
- Oaked Chardonnay
- Sauvignon Blanc
Wine And Pork Pairings
Pork flavor components – umami, salty, fatty
Instead of assuming that pink meats only pair well with pink wines, you should assume that pink meats work well with both red and white wines.
What you should be thinking about is how the meat is prepared and served.
Pork And Wine Pairing Suggestions
When cooked quickly at a high temperature pork can take on the characteristics of red meat. It becomes earthy and rich. A dish like this should be served with red wine. A wine that is on the lighter side – as the flavors won’t be as intense as lamb or beef.
If the pork is cooked slowly (pulled pork, barbeque, pork ribs) then it becomes saltier and has more umami. This type of pork could be paired with anything you like – red, white, or rose.
If you are serving pork that has been based in something sweet then you might want to pair it with a light or sparkling white wine. You will want something with citrus notes to cut through the sweetness of the dish.
On the other hand, if the pork is seasoned with something savory like rosemary then you might want to pair it with a heavier red wine.
Wine And Chicken Pairings
Chicken flavor components – fatty, (sometimes) sweet
Chicken and most other white meats should be paired with wine based on the sauce that is being used with them. The meat is high in protein and is therefore good at taking on the flavors that it is marinated in.
This is one of the reasons why chicken is such a popular meat around the world.
If you are having chicken served in the style of a particular cuisine, you might want to take that location into consideration. Could you serve a green chicken curry with Thai wine or Sweet and Sour chicken with wine from China?
Your other option is to consider the key flavors of the sauce. If it is a spicy sauce then you will want to use a low-alcohol wine. If it is a sweet sauce then you will want to pair it with something dry.
Chicken And Wine Pairing Suggestions
|Pesto||Pinot Noir OR Malbec|
|Cream and Garlic||Prosecco OR Assyrtiko|
|Spicy (Indian or Thai curry)||Gewürztraminer OR Pinot Noir|
|Tomato||Sauvignon Blanc OR Shiraz|
|Sweet and Sour||Malbec Or Pinot Gris|
Wine And Red Meat Pairings
Red meat flavor components – umami, fatty, salty, (sometimes) bitter
Finally, let’s talk about pairing wine with red meat.
Typically, you will find that red meat is paired with red wine. Like lamb, most red meats retain their signature flavor no matter how they are prepared or what sauce they are served in.
Each red meat has a different flavor profile and through experimentation, you will find which wines you think suits each meat.
Traditionally, red wine is served with red meat. However, this doesn’t always have to be the case – there are many white wines that can stand up to and complement red meat.
If the dish is really rich then you may want to serve the dish with a really crisp white wine that will help to cut through the fat of the dish.
Red Meat And Wine Pairing Suggestions
Red wines to pair with red meat:
White wines to pair with red meat:
- Pinot Grigio
- Sauvignon Blanc
Again, you will want to be wary of pairing spicy red meat dishes with wines that are too heavy. You may want to pair a red meat curry with a little, white wine with a small amount of sweetness.
Food Theory 101 – Congruent Pairing Vs Contrasting Pairing
Before we leave you, we want to take a look at another part of food theory- the difference between congruent pairing and contrasting pairing.
When you are choosing a wine to pair with a meal you will need to make the choice between intensifying the flavors of the dish or picking a wine that will contrast them.
Most dishes suit both types of pairing – with the expectations maybe being very salty and very sweet meals. But rules are made to be broken. So, don’t be afraid to experiment.
Congruent Wine-Food Pairing Methodology
Congruent pairing is when you choose a wine that is going to compliment the flavors of the meal and make them more intense.
When you are cooking with wine, you will typically pick out a congruent pairing.
An example of this type of pairing is serving sweet dessert wines with dessert. The sweetness of the wine and the dessert combine in your mouth to make a more intense flavor.
Another example of this type of pairing is picking a creamy white wine to serve with a creamy seafood dish like muscles.
Beginners often lean towards congruent pairings because they are easier to put together. Sweet foods go with sweet wines, earthy foods go with earth wines, etc.
This pairing method allows the food to be the star of the show. It is often used when the food is more expensive than the wine and you don’t mind the wine being outshone.
Contrasting Wine-Food Pairing Methodology
Contrasting pairing is the opposite.
This is when you pick a wine that has contrasting or complementary flavors to the food to highlight something unexpected about the pairing.
You could pair a dry, white wine with a creamy dish. The dryness of the wine would cut through the creaminess leaving the diner feeling refreshed.
Another example of this type of pairing would be to pair a sweet sherry with blue cheese. The two items only intensify the flavors of each other the more you eat.
This type of pairing is about the unexpected contrast.
If you have an expensive wine, you might want to pair it with contrasting food that is going to make the drink sing. For example, you might want to pair light, citrusy fish with a glass of rich red wine.
Wine pairing is a skill that can help you to improve every evening meal you eat – or lunch if you like a glass of wine at midday.
It is a skill you can use to impress your friends and to make new ones.
Now that you have learned how to pair wines with food – it’s time for you to head out to your local wine shop and grab yourself a couple of bottles. For research purposes of course.