Matching wine and food – an introduction

With its relatively low alcoholic strength, appetising acidity and lack of sickly artificial flavours, wine is the perfect accompaniment to food. Am I kidding myself that a well-chosen wine makes food taste better? Surely not... The most important rule about food and wine matching is that there are no rules. You can drink any wine at all with any food – even red wine with fish! – and the world will continue to revolve. Anyone who thinks worse of you for serving the 'wrong' wine is stuffy, prejudiced and probably ill-informed. There are, however, some very simple guidelines for getting the most out of particular foods and bottles.

  • The single most important aspect of a wine for food matching is not colour but body or weight (which corresponds closely with alcoholic strength).
  • The second most important aspects are tannins for reds and sweetness for whites.
  • Try to match a wine's body to the power of the strongest ingredient in the food. Serve delicate-flavoured foods such as simple white fish or poached chicken with lighter bodied wines and stronger, more robust foods such as grilled tuna with spiced lentils or osso buco with full-bodied wines. Many white wines will do jobs which are conventionally regarded as red wine jobs, and vice versa.
  • A tannic wine such as one made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and most Portuguese reds, can taste softer when served with chewy foods, notably unsauced red meat. (Sauces are almost invariably more powerful than what they are saucing and are usually a better guide to the ideal wine accompaniment.)
  • All wines taste horribly acid if served with sweet food, unless they are sweeter than the food itself – which seriously limits the choice of wines to be served with most sweet courses to wines such as Vouvray moelleux, Alsace SGN, Sauternes, German Trockenbeerenauslese and Beerenauslese and some sweet sherries. It also makes wine purists wary of sweet relishes. (But sweetish wines can go surprisingly well with savoury food – a Vouvray demi-sec can taste gorgeous with a savoury creamy sauce, for example – while sweet wines can go well with cheeses on the sweet and salt principle, as in melon and prosciutto.) Very acid foods such as citrus fruits and vinegar can do funny things to seriously fine, perfectly balanced wine, but can flatter a slightly acid wine (from a particularly cool climate or year) by making it taste less sour. Similarly, freshly ground black pepper might distort our impression of a complex, venerable wine but acts as a sensitising agent on most palates and flatters young, light wines by making them taste fuller and richer.

Those interested in delving deeper into the complex subject of matching specific wines and specific foods might like to see some concrete suggestions in our food then wine or, if you have chosen the wine first, wine then food sections.

Difficult Foods For Wine

There are very few foods that destroy wine, but very hot spices tend to stun the taste buds so that you could still smell a wine but would find it impossible to experience its dimensions because the palate's sensory equipment is ablaze. Globe artichokes and, to a lesser extent, asparagus tend to make wine taste oddly metallic, and dense chocolate is so sweet and so mouth-coating that it too can be difficult (but not impossible) to match with wine. A far greater enemy to wine than any food, however, is toothpaste. Also, don't forget how wine styles can be manipulated by care with serving temperatures.The increasing importance of vegetables and salads has had its own sunny influence on food and wine matching. Their direct flavours can seem better suited for New World wines than the dusty complexity of many an Old World classic.

Cooking With Wine

There is a school of thought that any wine used in cooking should be top quality and/or of the same region as the dish. As a mean Northerner, I find this hard to accept, particularly as so little research has been done on exactly what happens to wine when you cook with it. I am sure that if the wine in the dish (as in steeped strawberries, for example) is never heated, then it is worth choosing one that tastes as delicious as you can afford. If you want to reduce a sauce using wine, however, I would have thought you wanted one with as much body as possible – and that the wine's components may go through so many transformations that the initial flavour could not possibly be preserved. More research, please! Meanwhile, in our household we will continue to see cooking as a particularly satisfying way of using up wine leftovers.