Wine: The Big Picture

Wine & Food Pairing

Most of us have excellent instincts on finding wine and food combinations that will suit our individual tastes. Check out Marnie’s restaurant-inspired insights into pairing.

Most food and most wine are marvelous together.¬†Wine’s food-flattering characteristics are found in most styles, and vice versa.¬† Experimenting with new combinations is delicious fun, but fear of ordering the ‘wrong wine’ prevents many people from trying something new.¬†We’ve all heard a few of those old school wine rules, like ‘white with fish, red with meat’ and are leery of making a mistake.¬†While there are sound principles behind the old adages, they should be taken as friendly advice rather than as restrictions.¬†Learning about the way wine and food flavors interact can help build the confidence you need to explore wine and food pairing on your own.

rom Champagne with caviar to Barolo with truffles, the culinary world teems with classic wine and food pairings. But, tastes in wine are not universal.¬†There is no definitive list of the perfect combinations of wine and food that will suit every taster’s subjective preferences.¬†However, every bite or sip we take changes the way we perceive the next flavor in predictable ways.¬†There are objective patterns to the sensory interaction of wine and food.¬†A few simple guidelines and a little sensory science can help us improve our odds of finding one of those transcendently delicious pairings that leave your palate singing.¬†

Match the intensity of the wine to the intensity of the dish.

Keeping the two in the same ‘weight class’ improves the odds.

Remember the effects of salt, fat and spicy heat on wine.

It’s useful to know how these 3 react, as it’s not what you might expect.

Factor in the basics of how the senses operate.

Sensations follow clear patterns when two flavor sources interact.

Choose a strategy – compare or contrast.

Both approaches can be delicious, but one is easier to succeed with.

Don’t stress about it! Relax and have some fun with it.

After all, if you can’t relax and have fun drinking wine, why bother?

Matching Intensity

When we scan a menu, we instinctively classify the items by weight and intensity; salads and fish seem ‘lighter’ than poultry and red meat.¬†The difference is not one of calories or protein, but of fat content, which boosts textural richness and perception of flavor.¬†In cooking, we match the of strength our sauces to the weight of the central ingredient, using more delicate flavors for light dishes and stronger flavors for heavier ones.¬†Selecting a wine to match a dish is much like choosing a sauce.

First, we must asses the flavor intensity of the dish. The weight of the main ingredient contributes to overall intensity, but is not the sole consideration.  Wine should be matched to the strongest flavors on the plate, and sauce and preparation are often the dominant features.

Next, we need to choose a wine style that is similar in intensity to our dish.¬†Overall intensity in wine is based primarily on a wine‚Äôs body and the power of its ‘olfactory’ flavor components; fruit and oak.¬† However, high levels of tannin and sweetness can make wines seem stronger, while high levels of acidity can make wine seem lighter.¬†The three flavor factors influence wine intensity; grape variety, region of origin and human influence.

First, do no harm.

When in doubt about the question of intensity, wine professionals err on the side of lighter wines. Wine flavors that are overpowering will always be the least versatile. This is especially important in restaurants, where a single table might choose entrées ranging from pasta to seafood to steak.

When wine and food flavors are mismatched in intensity, the result is like a fight between featherweight and a heavyweight boxers; the biggest, strongest contender holds an unfair advantage.¬†Most diners visit restaurants for delectable cuisine they can’t prepare at home, whereas wines can be found at other establishments and even retail stores.¬†Restaurateurs would always prefer to let the food shine through, rather than see it overwhelmed by a wine that is too strong.


Salt, Fat & Spicy Heat

These three food components have special importance in wine and food pairing, because:

  • Their impact on wine perception is dramatic.
  • Their interaction with wine differs from the standard sensory pattern.

SALT has a strong effect on our wine sensations, it neutralizes the perception of acidity in wine.¬†Salt is tasted with the tongue, and can overwhelm the tastebuds that perceive sourness, or acidity.¬†Since all food is salty to some degree, wine always seems less acidic with food than it does alone.¬†This helps explain why so many of the world’s classic food-oriented wines can seem too thin and sharp on the first sip.¬†Most are high acid styles, designed to be ‘balanced’ by the presence of salt in the foods we eat.¬†For lower acid styles that may seem delicious alone, this effect is less flattering.¬†Such wines can lose their refreshing edge when tasted with food.¬†In general, when pairing wine and food, sommeliers choose styles that seems a little too sharp alone, knowing the perceptions of salt and acidity will balance out.

FAT makes food taste delicious.¬†Fats and oils have a special relationship to red wines in particular; they minimize the astringent effect of tannin.¬†By drying the mouth of saliva, tannin can limit the sensations perceived by the tastebuds and the olfactory center.¬†The fat in cheeses and meats softens red wine’s harshness, and tannic wines will cut through the oily mouthfeel of rich foods and cleanse the palate.

SPICY HEAT in food is difficult to pair with wine because the combination can create a painful sensation.¬†The fundamental problem in pairing wine with spicy food is wine’s high alcohol content.¬†Beer often works better than wine with the spiciest cuisines because it has lower alcohol content.¬†

The fiery heat chili peppers creates a mildly painful burning sensation on the lips and tongue that cannot be wiped or rinsed away.¬†Alcohol intensifies the burn, in the same way that alcohol burns when poured over a cut or scrape.¬†The higher a wine’s alcohol, the more painful and lingering the spicy heat appears to be.¬†Two strategies are useful in pairing wines with spicy food; choosing light bodied wines and choosing wines with noticeable sweetness.¬†While alcohol will inflame the burning sensation of hot foods, sugar will tame it.


How The Senses Operate

Perceptions of taste and smell follow clear patterns when two sources interact. Similar sensations do not build intensity, they mute each other.  When similar elements are present in the flavor of both wine and food, they tend to balance each other. This is generally a flattering effect, creating a perception of harmony.

The tastes perceived by the tongue have the strongest and most noticeable impact:

  • Sweet foods and sweet wines taste less sweet together.¬†
  • Acidic foods and acidic wines seem less sour together.

Olfactory sensations and physical sensations interact in a similar, but more muted, fashion:

  • Smoked or grilled foods and oaky wines seem less ‘woody’ together.
  • Rich foods and full bodied wines feel less thick together.


Choosing a Strategy

The two most successful approaches to pairing food and wine are to compare similar flavors or to contrast different ones.

Comparing Similar Flavors is the simplest route to wine and food harmony.

Balancing like with like creates synergy. Many of the classic matches combine foods with wines that have similar flavors, like:

  • Rich Chardonnay with rich butter-based sauces
  • Sweet-tart German Riesling with sweet and sour Asian sauces
  • Earthy Pinot Noir with earthy wild mushrooms

This wine and food pairing strategy is easy to learn.¬†When we remember to factor in the effects of salt, fat and spicy heat mentioned earlier, it’s even harder to go far wrong.

Contrasting opposing flavors juxtaposes very different flavors to dramatic effect.
This approach is more risky, and requires the wisdom of experience to avoid pitfalls. The best of these matches pair a lighter wine with a stronger food in a way that flatters both:

  • Sharp Champagne with oily smoked salmon
  • Sweet Sauternes with a salty bleu cheese, like Roquefort

Patterns of Wine & Food Interaction

Some of the most important influences that wine and food have on each other overall are summarized below:

If the FOOD is…

The WINE will seem…


Less sour


Less sweet (or drier)


More alcoholic (increases burning sensation)


Less acidic


Less tannic (red wines)
and lighter in body

Smoky or Toasty

Less oaky


If the WINE is…

The FOOD will seem…



Less sweet

High in acid

Less salty and less sour

Subtle in flavor

More intense

Bold in flavor

Less intense


Less oily (fatty foods)

Less flavorful (low-fat foods)

And remember, don’t stress about it! Relax and have some fun with it.