Food and Wine Pairing: The Ultimate Guide

Two people toasting with their wine glasses at dinner.
Good wine paired with good food is one of life's great joys!

Almost since civilization began, human beings have been pairing wine with food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more that civilization has progressed over time, the more complex our wine and food have become– which means that it’s also become important to pair them properly. It’s no secret that a great wine and food pairing can set both on fire (in a good way), whereas a bad pairing can completely ruin both- no matter the price tag.

Knowing the basics of food and wine pairing can really help you out when deciding what wine you would like to accompany your meal. While usually in wine there are no hard and fast rules, there are a couple of rules that you should get a good hold of, and understanding the basics of food and wine pairing will really help you for when you’re ready to spread your wings and fly.

A glass of wine with several snacks and finger foods.
A glass of wine with several snacks at a wine and food event.

Basic Concepts of Wine Pairing

When you first begin to pair wines with food, start by following a few simple rules. In terms of proteins, match the wine with the color and texture of the meat. For example, more delicate meats and dishes (such as fish and chicken) typically are whiter in color and should be paired with a bottle of white wine as white wine is commonly more delicate on the palate, and should be matched with lighter meals.

In contrast to this, heavier dishes, typically those that have beef or other red meats would pair better with a nice red wine. This is because red wines tend to pair much better with fatty foods. This is because the tannins in the wine are neutralized by the grease in the food and the bitterness of the wine adds to the flavor of the fat in the food.

It’s a good idea to ensure that whatever the base flavor of the dish, the wine should be more. For example, if you are pairing it with a dessert, the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. If you are pairing it with a savory dish, it should be more acidic. If you’re unsure about the components, aim to pair with the sauce, not the meat.

A glass of red wine shown with a plate of food and a couple gourds.
Red wine served in a Gran Ultima with a plate of food and a pair of gourds.

Rules For Pairing Different Flavors

While many wine experts will tell you that wine pairing is simply down to personal taste, this isn’t necessarily true. There are some pretty hard and fast rules to follow, at least as you begin to pair food and wine, to ensure that you get a good pairing.

If you are a true beginner at pairing, then it can be helpful to bear in mind that pairing can make the wine taste better, make the food taste better, or it can bring out a harmonious pairing between them. We will mostly be focusing on the harmonious pairing, as it seems to be the most useful and universal choice.

You would use the wine to make the food taste better in something like a tasting menu, and the food to make the wine taste better if you were supplying nibbles or hor devours at a wine tasting. A harmonious couple is best used for the main meal, either in a restaurant or at home.

Below is a list of rules which you can use as a guideline while you learn how to pair food and wine. You don’t need to (and won’t be able to) follow all of the rules, just choose one and work with it according to your tastes.

1. Match your Flavor Pairings (Congruent Pairing)

When we talk about matching flavor pairings, we are not talking about every item on the plate. While matching food and wine, it’s important to think of the dominant flavor of a dish and match that with the wine. More often than not, this is not the protein on the plate, but in fact, the sauce that the protein is bathed in.

Generally speaking, you want to try and match up the flavors that you are consuming. So for example, if you are eating something that has quite an acidic base to it, for example, a salad with a tart dressing, perhaps a lemon and pepper dressing, would go very well with a wine that has a crisp or tart primary aroma.

It’s worth knowing that when we speak about ‘acidity’ with food and wine pairings, what is meant is the way your mouth waters when you drink/eat the food.

Matching flavor profiles is a great way to ensure that the dish and the wine complement each other. However, be aware when opting for this method you should try and make sure that the wine is more of what the dish is. If a dish’s main flavor is tart then you need a tarter wine. If the dish’s main flavor is sweet (for example with a dessert) then the wine should be sweeter.

This is a pretty solid basis for you as a beginner in the world of food and wine pairing, but once you get a little more confident you can stretch your wings and try out some contrasting pairings.

Example Pairings:

Pinot Grigio with a fish & lemon sauce (both tart & fresh)
Chardonnay with Chicken Alfredo (both creamy)

2. If You’re Eating a Regional Dish, Drink Regional Wine

Wine has been cultivated in Europe for literally thousands of years (there is evidence of wine being made in France from as early as 6BC). Because of this, the wine and the food in the region grew together. It’s the same for much of Europe- Spain, Portugal, and Italy all grew their cuisines and their wines alongside each other.

Because of this, if you are eating an Italian dish, for example, a pizza or some pasta, the very best wine to go for with this dish is a wine that was made in Italy. From here, you can play around- a tomato heavy dish is more likely to pair well with a bottle of red wine, but if you prefer a white it will also taste fantastic. Experimentation and personal preference are key to a successful pair.

You can also take this a step further, thinking more about the typical foods of a region and applying that to your dish. For example, a lot of Spanish cuisines are seafood, so if you are eating seafood, then you can be pretty confident that a Spanish wine will suit you very well.

Example Pairings:

Godello with Paella (Both from the Spanish Coast)
Zinfandel with tomato basil pasta (Both from Italian regions)

A wine decanter and a few plates of food.
A Royal Glass Graal decanter at a dinner table with plates of food.

3. Match the Density & Texture of the Food

This one has been said time and time again, with professionals almost screaming it from the rooftops. If your meal is light and playful, pairing it with a full-bodied red is probably the fastest way to ruin both the wine and the food you’re eating. Equally so, if you’re eating something heavy and full of fat, pairing it with a zesty white will probably not do you or the meal any favors.

This also applies to texture. The texture of Pinot will find it very difficult to stand up to a steak, whereas a Cabernet Sauvignon will steam roller any fish you put in front of it.

This rule may seem as though I am saying ‘White wine with fish, red wine with beef’, and while this is a pretty consistent rule with food and wine pairing, it is not always the case. For example, a stronger fish such as tuna or salmon could run the risk of overpowering a lighter white, and could indeed go beautifully with a light-bodied red such as a Pinot Noir. Wine pairing is a delicate experiment into your personal tastes, these are just guideline ideas.

Example Pairings:

Cabernet Sauvignon with Steak (Both Heavy)
Pinot Noir with Tuna Steak (Both Medium)
Pinot Grigio with White Fish (Both Light)

4. Pair with the Season

It’s pretty common that there are some wines that you don’t like. However, wine is a drink that has a time and a place. It’s this time and place that can also help you to decide what to pair your wine with. It’s possible that if you strongly dislike a particular type of wine, it’s just that you had it at the wrong time, or the wrong season.

For example, a full-bodied red is not going to be enjoyed as best as it should be if drunk at lunchtime on a hot summer’s day. Equally, a crisp and fresh white drunk on a cold winter evening does not have the same appeal as it would if it were drunk in the earlier scenario. Both of these scenarios give an idea that you should be pairing along with the time of day as well. The earlier in the day it is, the lighter the drink.

It’s the same with food, you wouldn’t enjoy a thick heavy stew for summer brunch any more than you would enjoy an almond peach salad on a cold evening. If you already pair your food along with the weather (even subconsciously) then this will make a lot of sense to you. If not, then give it a go! You’ll probably really enjoy it.

As with all things to do with food and wine pairing, it takes practice and experimentation to find your feet, so if you get it wrong a few times don’t lose hope.

Example Pairings:

Pinot Grigio and a Sandwich (Both Lunchtime)
Shiraz and a Roast Lamb (Both Evening Meals)

An appetizer served with a glass of white wine.
An appetizer served with white wine.

5. Try a Contrasting flavor (Complementary Pairing)

In contrast to rule #1, this rule is all about contrasting flavours that go well together. For example, something that is both spicy and sweet has contrasting flavors, but the flavors work very well together. To properly work with this rule, you have to understand the six primary taste points, which are:

Salt
Acid
Sweet
Fat
Bitter
Umami

There are certain combinations of these things that will never go well together. Congruent pairings look to match the same with the same (such as acid with acid, sweet with sweet), whereas complementary pairings look to compliment the other flavor.

In accordance with this, we can broadly assign each wine to a taste point.

Red Wine – Bitter
White Wine – Acid
Sweet Wine – Sweet

Of these taste points, many go together (and you can play around with what works with what for you), but some do not, and probably never will. Specifically:

Bitter – Spicy – Acid

Think about the last time you had something that was spicy and sour. You probably haven’t, and if you did, you didn’t enjoy it. This carries over into wine as well. If you are having something acidic, such as a salad with a balsamic dressing, this is going to go very badly with a glass of red wine, as a red wine’s primary taste point is bitter.

Equally speaking, having a glass of white along with your dish of olives or walnuts will leave an (unpleasant) bitter taste in your mouth and is something to be avoided.

This triangle of no’s is the major reason why it’s so difficult to pair spicy food with wine. The acidity of white wine makes the spice sting, and the tannins (or bitterness) of the red intensifies the spice of the dish.

It’s also helpful to remember that salty food can make a tannin heavy wine more tannic, so you would benefit from a fruitier wine. This is why it can be difficult to match a wine with a cheese board. Something with an umami flavor to it, such as a mushroom risotto, begs for a rich and savoury wine to accompany it- think a merlot or a shiraz.

So which wine do you pair with your chicken marsala?

The third that remains- sweet. Ideally a sweet with a lot of flavor and fruit to it, so that it can hold its own against the strong flavors of spice.

Example Pairings:

Riesling and Chicken Tikka Masala (or any Curry) (Spicy and sweet)
Sauvignon Blanc and Chicken Alfredo (Crisp and creamy)

6. Hard Rules

As much as food and wine pairing is very much a process of experimentation to find what you like and what works for you, there are a few hard rules to stick to.

If you are matching an acidic wine and acidic food, the less acidic of the two will taste even less. This is because of your perception and the comparison of the two. A fun experiment you can try at home for this is if you have a glass of white wine with a crisp or fresh flavor, and a lemon. Take a sip of the wine and then a bite of the lemon. Then take another sip of the wine, and you will find that the wine tastes significantly more mellow than it did the first time around.

Tannin (or the bitterness of red wine) reacts with protein and fat. The two components (protein + tannin or fat + tannin) bind together and mute the perceived bitterness of tannin. Consider how fatty the dish you are preparing is and that should help you to decide how much tannic the wine you are pairing it with should have. Tannin has the remarkable quality of being able to stand up for itself against fattier dishes.

Think about what you like. If the article is telling you that you should pair a red wine with steak, but you only really like white wines, then follow your own instincts. If you choose a wine that you don’t like then it will ruin both the wine and the meal for you, as well as being a waste of money.

Think about the lasting impression of the wine and the dish. You want a combination that is memorable for the right reasons.

When in doubt, sparkling wine and champagne go with just about everything. The acidity plays around with the food, and the bubbles lift up the flavor profile. Sparkling wine is a great choice if you want something that will complement three courses of food, including a desert, and taste just as good with each course.

If you’re planning a dinner party and you’re really feeling stuck about what to serve and you want to impress your guests, don’t be afraid to go to a specialized wine shop and ask the person working there for their opinion and input. If you already know what you want to serve then they should be able to help you. Likewise, if you want to build your menu around the wine, they will be able to help you with a selection of wines and ideas for what will pair well with them.

Wine pairing is generally a two step process of finding harmony and common ground between elements of the dish, particularly the prime flavors- which as we discussed earlier is usually not the meat but the sauce.

A plate of food with great presentation and two wine glasses visible.
A plate with excellent presentation, along with two Royal Glass Polymaster glasses.

How to Identify the Flavors of a Dish

Identifying the flavors of a dish is another thing that will become easier as time goes on and you have a better understanding of what flavor is what. Equally, the more that you pair your wine with food the more you will be able to say ‘the dish is predominantly sweet, and I like to have my sweet food with a sweet wine’.

When you are creating a dish, it’s common to use complementary flavor profiles in order to create a harmonious dish. It’s your job to identify what those flavor profiles are. For example, things such as Southern Barbeque have hints of the bitter (smokey flavor) and of the spicy, but overwhelming flavor is the sweetness.

Tomato sauce also has a natural sweetness to it. This is a flavor profile which is often dressed up with herbs and spices, but it is still undeniably sweet- because the tomato is a fruit. Likewise, something such as mac & cheese has a flavor profile of salt and fat. Mushroom risotto? Umami.

Note: If you have trouble identifying Umami in foods then remember that the flavor is there to help you to distinguish foods that have amino acids (and protein) in them. They are a savory flavor that can be described as meaty or brothy.

The reason why it is important to be able to identify the flavor profiles of a dish is because you can use it to your advantage when choosing your wine pairing. Natural sweetness in food will increase the existing angular characteristics in a wine, and can make the drink seem much more sour or bitter than it was before.

However, if you opt for a wine that has a high level of natural sweetness in it, good examples being a Riesling or a Malbec, this can help to overwhelm the naturally occurring sourness or bitterness that is in the wine, and complement the food nicely.

It’s very important to consider whether the food (and wine) you are consuming has a subtle sweetness or an overt sweetness. The same goes for whichever flavor profile that you have identified. This is important because the overwhelming profile of flavor- let’s use sour as an example- will overwhelm that flavor in the wine.

This means that if you have a dish that very sour, such as citrus foods, and you have a wine that you thought would pair excellently- this wine is a little zesty but generally light on the palette, the sourness of the food will decrease the sourness (or the zestiness) of the wine. This isn’t really a good thing- if you want a wine that is sweetened, get a sweet wine.

If the flavor of the food overwhelms the flavor of the wine then the wine falls flat, and loses the vibrancy that was intentionally created. For the sake of both the wine and the food, it’s much better that the wine has a bigger flavor impact than the food if you are opting for a congruent pairing. If you prefer a complementary pairing, then you can play around a little more with intensities and preferences.

Wine served with some light snacks.

Examples of Good Pairings with Common Wines

The information above may be all well and good, but sometimes you just want to be told what will work with what. This is a very brief guide that will outline some of the most popular wines and good, reliable dishes that you can pair them with.

This does work off the idea that you are beginning your pairing choice with the choice of wine. This isn’t exactly common, particularly for beginners in the world of pairing, but there is nothing wrong with it, and in fact is a good way to go about it especially if you know you only like specific types of wine.

Riesling

Properties: A riesling is a sweet wine (also comes in red but more commonly found in white). It is a light-bodied white wine and has a lot of residual sugar.

Pair it with: Riesling goes fantastically with spicy food, as the natural sugars in it cut through the spice and complement it very well. It also goes very well with asian dishes across the board, whether you like a noodle stir-fry or a hot curry.

You can also pair with rich, heavy and fatty meats, like pork with crackling or bacon. It also goes great with shellfish which is not heavy or particularly fatty in calories, but has a very distinct flavor that may not match very well with other wines.

Serve it: On a hot summer afternoon. It has a lovely flavor profile which is light and refreshing- perfect for the hot days of July. Goes very well with asian dishes, spicy food. Light refreshing sweet flavor profile.

What does it taste like?: As mentioned, Riesling is a very light and sweet wine, with fresh and herby aromatics such as jasmine, lemon, and even basil.

Sauvignon Blanc

Properties: A Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular wines in the world, and you can find it in almost every place that serves wine. It’s a tart, smooth, and refreshing, and is usually a dry wine (though it can be made to be sweet).

Pair it With: Sauvignon Blanc goes great with things such as seafood plates, foods that are heavy in herbs (think a pesto pasta) and things such as fruits and cheese plates. If you have a chartreuse board that is adorned with apples, peaches, and a selection of beautiful cheeses then a sauvignon blanc is an absolutely perfect choice.

It’s also a great wine to have with lunch, as it goes very well with sandwiches and salads. If you prefer your salad with a vinaigrette dressing, then a sauvignon will complement it congruently, whereas if you prefer a creamy dressing then a sauvignon will be very complimentary, cutting through the creaminess and complementing the bitterness of the greens.

Serve it: For a summertime meal. Sauvignon blanc goes so well with dishes that are traditionally served during summer (such as fish) and it’s so refreshing and crisp, it’s perfect for a late lunch on a hot afternoon.

What does it taste like?: Working in perfect harmony with its crisp notes, you can also taste citrus and herb notes as you drink it. (If you notice, this works very congruently with the recommended dishes).

Glasses of wine with a plate of salad and a plate of seafood.
Wine served with seafood and a salad.

Chardonnay

Properties: Chardonnay is just as well known as sauvignon blanc, but it differs in some pretty key characteristics. Chardonnay varies a little depending on where and how it was made (sometimes it is barrel aged, and other times not). Generally speaking, Chardonnay is a creamy and heavy wine, it’s very rich and boasts a full-bodied white wine flavor profile.

Pair it with: It goes very well with the heavier side of ‘typically white wine dishes’. Think along the lines of chicken alfredo, butter and cheese based sauces with chicken. It also goes great with creamier cheeses like brie, and anything with a heavier flavor.

Serve it: Chardonnay is a wine that is popular around christmas time- unsurprising as it is the most popular full-bodied white, and perfect suitable for the colder times if you’re a fan of white wine.

What does it taste like?: If aged in oak barrels, then chardonnay will begin to display similar qualities to other oak aged alcohol, like whisky and bourbon (with a similar texture as well) such as vanilla and perhaps tobacco. However, if it is not oak-aged, then you can expect fruitier flavors like apples, lemons, or even pineapples.

Pinot Noir

Properties: The most famous light bodied red wine, Pinot Noir is a wine with light and delicate flavors. It is not heavy in tannins, so it does not hold the bitterness of other wines. This can make it an attractive prospect for those who are white wine fans who wish to begin to explore the world of reds.

Pair it with: Pinot Noir goes great with lighter meat. Dishes such as chicken, lean pork, and turkey. It also goes very well with mushroom based dishes and sauces.

Serve it: Pinot Noir is very versatile, and is one of the few wines that is just as good at all times of the year. This makes it a great alternative for white wine drinkers who don’t particularly like the body of Chardonnay.

What does it taste like?: Pinot Noir can have notes from a lovely jammy flavor, and progress to a more spiced and dried fruits hint. It can taste very nice if it is slightly chilled. As mentioned, it doesn’t have the tannins that can put white wine drinkers off other traditional reds.

Merlot

Properties: Classically a medium bodied red wine, with fruity primary aromas, and depending on how it has been aged, can also have aromas of vanilla, mocha, and cedar.

Pair it with: Because of its medium tannins and acid levels, merlot pairs quite well with many things, but it goes best with lightly spiced meats and chicken dishes, as well as roasted dishes, both veggies and meat. It’s a great option if your family has a roast dinner on Sundays.

It also goes very well with more ‘everyday’ dishes, like pizza, burgers, and spaghetti.

Serve it: Merlot is quite versatile, but it goes very well with autumnal and fall months just as the weather is starting to get cooler but there is still sunshine through the day.

What does it taste like?: Merlot has notes of cherries and chocolate. It can be fruity, but again, depending on how it was aged, it can have more flavors like graphite and oak.

A couple of gentlemen toasting an excellent food and wine pairing.
A couple of gentlemen toasting a great food and wine pairing.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Properties: Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular wines and its grapes are grown all over the world. It is very full bodied, brimming over with tannins, with stronger flavors.

Pair it with: Since Cabernet Sauvignon has such a strong flavor it needs to be paired with an equally strong flavor. Very fatty meats, black pepper, and gamey meats. As we discussed earlier, tannins and fat bind together very well, neutralizing each other’s taste. This means that Cabernet Sauvignon is the perfect choice for very fatty meats.

Serve it: In the evening with food. If you are drinking Cabernet Sauvignon on its own then you will only enjoy it if you have a very high tolerance for tannins and its natural bitterness or else you will simply not enjoy it the way that you could.

What does it taste like?: Cabernet Sauvignon has very specific flavors, and they are the stronger side of what you normally find in wine. You can expect flavors like black cherry, cedar, and tobacco.

Which Wine to Pair With Chocolate

Chocolate and wine have very romantic connotations together, but unfortunately they don’t pair very well, as chocolate has a very sweet flavor palette, with bitter undertones. The best wine to pair with chocolate is an extremely sweet wine, usually a port wine, though a very sweet dessert wine would also pair quite nicely.

Unfortunately, the romance of chocolates and red wine will not allow either flavor to celebrate itself properly.

Which Wine to Pair with Cheese

An exceptionally classic, but extremely complex pairing. The best way to be sure that the wine you are getting will go well with the cheese is to get a white wine. The white should be a young wine as a young wine tends to be more naturally sweet. It’s also a general rule of thumb that white wines go much better with cheeses than red wines do.

If you enjoy a hard cheese, or a variety of cheeses, then a Pinot Grigio is a good option for you. However, if you are a fan of creamy cheeses then a Chardonnay will likely be a good match for your cheese board.

Blue cheese is very difficult to pair, and much like chocolate, it suits extremely sweet wines like a port, or a dessert wine.

White wine served with a couple of pastries
Wine paired with pastries.

Concluding Thoughts

Food and wine pairing is a large topic that can be very overwhelming when you are starting out. If you are unsure then there is absolutely no shame in asking in your local wine store for their recommendations about what would go with the dish that you have prepared. It can be useful for you to know whether you prefer a complementary or congruent flavor, but if you have no idea they can help make sense of the dark for you.

It can be a long road to be able to confidently and accurately make food and wine pairings, but it is something that once you understand how to do it, and the science behind it, it will become almost second nature to you. You will be able to begin to bend and adjust the rules to your own personal taste, until eventually your friends and family are coming to you for recommendations about everything. Remember, the most important rule about food and wine pairing is that it tastes good to you.

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