A Cook’s Guide to Creating Perfect Food-and-Wine Matches

Food & Wine: Mexican Spice-Rubbed Rib Eyes with Lime Butter, great with a young, tannic red. Photo © Cedric Angeles.
Mexican Spice-Rubbed Rib Eyes with Lime Butter, great with a young, tannic red. Photo © Cedric Angeles.
People often worry about which wine to serve with which dish—but what happens when you're trying to create a dish to complement a special bottle? F&W's Kristin Donnelly shares five of her best tips.

1. Cook simple food to serve with older wines

Certain wines become more complex, yet mellower, with age. When I'm lucky enough to open a wine that should be great after several years in the cellar, I keep my menu simple—I let the wine, instead of the food, be the star. Herb-roasted chicken is nearly foolproof, because it doesn't distract from an older wine's nuances. If I plan to open an especially earthy wine, like a red Burgundy or a Barolo, I might opt to cook something equally earthy, like a mushroom risotto.

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2. Prepare fatty meats to show off young, tannic reds

There's a reason California Cabernet is thought to be the perfect steak-house match: A rich cut of beef can do great things for a burly red wine, which could taste too overwhelming or harsh on its own. I've found that meaty dishes—beef, lamb or even certain game, like venison or duck—make the most sense with young, tannic reds, especially those from a warm climate like California, Spain or southern France.

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3. Serve fried foods with Champagne

When I first heard that fried chicken was an amazing match for Champagne, I wrinkled my nose. Then I tried it: The lemony acidity and prickly bubbles cut right through the chicken's crispy skin. Since then, I've found that fizzy wines taste especially refreshing with golden fried foods, or anything salty that leaves an oily slick—even Chinese noodles and hot dogs.

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Delicious Fried Foods

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4. Turn to cream and butter when pouring oaky whites

Oaky white wines have a luscious, toasty, often vanilla-like quality that pairs well with richer foods, like scallops, salmon or pasta in cream sauces. The principle: Lavish wine can call for opulent food.

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5. Let wines be sweeter than the dessert

Since I only open sweet wines on special occasions, I don't want them to compete with the dessert. With lighter dessert wines, like a peachy, frothy Moscato d'Asti, I opt for a not-too-sugary apple tart. More syrupy bottles, like Sauternes, can work well with a buttery cake or creamy custard, like crème brûlée. Sometimes, I just let the sweet wine be the dessert on its own and serve it simply, with lightly candied nuts and bits of cheese.

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