Train Yourself to Pair Wine and Food
What’s the importance of matching body?
If there’s one near-universal truth to food-and-wine pairings, says Laura Maniec, it’s that the body of each—which she defines as weight and intensity—should always match. “It’s like boxing,” she says. “You’d never let a skinny guy fight a heavyweight, because one will always overpower the other.”
Workout: Matching Body
In this workout, Maniec serves linguine in different sauces, one light and one heavy. She pairs them with two examples of Chardonnay: a lighter French Chablis and a bigger, oakier one from California. Taste each pasta with each wine to see which pairing you like best.
What You Need
- Linguine in a light, bright white-wine sauce with lemon
- Linguine in a rich, decadent butter-and-cheese sauce
- Light-bodied white wine
- Full-bodied white wine
Light-Bodied Chardonnay Pairings
Wine Picks: 2010 Val de Mer Chablis, 2010 Christian Moreau Chablis
Light Pasta Tasting Note: The wine brings out the refreshing, clean flavors of the pasta; at the same time, you can still taste the wine.
Rich Pasta Tasting Note: The crisp wine cuts through some of the fat in the pasta, but the wine’s delicate flavors are overpowered.
Full-Bodied Chardonnay Pairings
Wine Picks: 2010 Ironhorse Sonoma Estate, 2009 Flowers Sonoma Coast
Light Pasta Tasting Note: The light pasta loses its nuances when paired with a big Chardonnay—it’s clobbered by the intense, oaky wine.
Rich Pasta Tasting Note: Combining the heavier, buttery wine with the rich, cheesy pasta makes each taste more luscious.
Why do tannic wines and rich foods make such a great pairing?
“Tannins and fatty dishes go well together because they are so different—it’s a study in contrasts,” says Maniec. Tannins (found in wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah that are aged with their stems and skins) create a drying sensation in the mouth. The silky, buttery texture of fat acts like a tannin eraser, alleviating that drying sensation. The tannins, meanwhile, help break up the richness of the fat. “It’s a game of tug-of-war,” says Maniec.
Workout: Contrasting Texture
“People think that tannic red wine and steak go well together because of the red meat, but it only works when the meat has lots of fat in it,” says Maniec. The truth is, tannic reds pair well with all kinds of fatty foods. She loves tasting a tannic wine with a variety of rich foods—like avocado, butter and cheese—to show that the magic is in the tannin-meets-fat combination.
What You Need
- Rib eye steak, cooked
- Buttered bread
- Fresh ricotta cheese
- Mac and cheese Tannic red wine
Tannic Red Paired with Rich Foods
Wine Pick: 2010 Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Tasting Note: “I love using a rich ingredient like avocado to connect a big, tannic red with a food it wouldn’t otherwise go with. Grilled chicken by itself, for example, doesn’t pair well with a tannic wine, but adding avocado to the dish will make it work,” says Maniec.
Which wines pair with tangy foods?
Supertangy foods can make wine taste flat. When eating dishes made with vinegar or lots of citrus, like some salad dressings or sauces, look for wines that have a similar or higher level of acidity. White wines from cooler growing areas, like northern Italy, France or coastal California, are good bets.
Workout: Considering Acidity
Make a simple green salad with a bright, citrusy vinaigrette. Taste each of the wines on their own, then taste them with the salad. “You should notice that the acidity of the vinaigrette overpowers the wine that has less acid and makes it taste flat,” says Maniec.
What You Need
- Salad with a citrusy vinaigrette
- High-acid white, like Muscadet
- Low-acid white, like Gewürztraminer
Wines to Try:
2010 Navarro Estate Bottled Dry Gewürztraminer
2011 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine
Sweet & Spicy
Why do sweet wines go well with spicy food?
“Sweetness in wine takes away some of the heat in a spicy dish,” says Maniec. “It’s similar to how chefs often put something sweet in a fiery dish to cool off the palate, like duck sauce with spicy Chinese food. It’s almost like a cooling gel.”
Workout: Tempering Heat
Order a bucket of your favorite spicy buffalo chicken wings and taste them with the three wines. “You can probably eat more wings with the sweet, lower-alcohol wine because your palate’s refreshed with each sip,” says Maniec, adding “and maybe because you’ve forgotten how hot the wings were.” Many sweet whites are low in alcohol, which helps. “High-alcohol wine will make a spicy dish taste more fiery.”
What You Need
- Spicy buffalo chicken wings
- Sweet, low-alcohol sparkling wine
- Off-dry, low-alcohol Riesling
- Tannic, high-alcohol Shiraz
Best Pairing: Low-Alcohol, Sweet Wine
Wine Pick: 2011 Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui
“The sweetness of the wine cuts the spice and matches the sweet flavors in the wings,” says Maniec.
OK Pairing: Low-Alcohol, Off-Dry Wine
Wine Pick: 2011 Willi Schaefer Estate Riesling
This pairing works, but the sweetness of the wings may make the wine seem a little sour.
Bad Pairing: High-Alcohol, Tannic Wine
Wine Pick: 2008 Henry’s Drive Dead Letter Office Shiraz
“The wine is great on its own, but all you’ll taste with the wings is alcohol and intense heat,” says Maniec.
Five All-Purpose Wines
Dishes with extreme or unusual flavors—like superspicy curries or raw oysters—sometimes require a careful pairing. But for less particular dishes, Maniec relies on five styles of wine. They work with a broad range of foods because they are not too complex: None are too low or high in alcohol, body or tannin, making them very versatile.
NV Louis Roederer Brut Premier
NV Laherte Frères Brut Tradition
2010 Lagler Federspiel Burgberg
2011 Wimmer-Czerny Fumberg
2011 Donkey & Goat Helluva Vineyard
2009 Scott Paul La Paulée
2005 Beronia Gran Reserva
2004 Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva