Deconstructing Wine and Food Matching

Donald Dibbern

I suppose it is inevitable, really. Eventually, every wine writer must get around to contributing a few (thousand?) words on the subject of food and wine matching.

Given the ocean of ink that has been spilled on this subject already, I will try to keep my thoughts relatively brief and make no effort to be comprehensive or systematic. For that Herculean task, I would encourage you to consult the 356 pages of the excellent, if ambitiously subtitled, tome What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page (Bulfinch Press 2006).

So, starting with the basics, let's answer the question as to why wine and food need to be "paired" at all. The simple reply is, of course, that they don't. Rule number one (wine writers are infamous for making up rules for situations like this) is to drink what you like, with what you like.

Still, that said, most people find rather quickly that certain combinations of particular foods and wines please most palates better or worse than others. Below, I'll outline a couple of thoughts and ideas that I have had on this topic.

At its most fundamental level, wine is a combination of fruit, alcohol, and acidity, sometimes also with sugar, wood-flavor, and/or tannin, depending on the particular type or style. Cuisine can similarly be deconstructed into component parts and flavors such as, for example, a main component - chicken; a sauce - mushroom cream, and seasonings - rosemary and thyme.

Although cuisine can have almost infinite complexity, given the enormous numbers of ingredients, types of preparation methods, and nearly endless combinations thereof, dishes can be broken down relatively easily into basic flavors such as salty, spicy, sour, bitter, or sweet. There are more complex flavors as well, such as meaty (savory) and creamy (fatty), and also textural components of weight or density. The latter may be correlated with preparation method, such as heavier fried, stewed, or braised foods, in contrast to lighter steamed, boiled, or seared dishes.

By now, most realize that the old saw of matching red wines with red meats and white wines with white meats, is hopelessly simplistic at best and can be mistaken at worst. In fact, a typical Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and an oaked California Chardonnay will be closer to each other, overall, for food matching purposes than either that Cab and a red Beaujolais, or that Chard and a white Pinot Grigio.

This gets to my main point, that the most important factor to approximate in the food and the wine is what I call the intensity of flavor. It is not exactly just the amount of body or concentration (extract) of the wine, although that does contribute much to its intensity, but it is also be affected by the varietal flavor, acid and alcohol levels, balance, complexity, and other factors.

Rich, heavy, creamy, meaty, fatty, decadent foods taste best with dense and intense wines. The flavors of the latter type of wine would overwhelm a light and delicate dish. While drinking a light and elegant wine with a rich and heavy meal would certainly be innocuous, it would be unlikely to flatter either the food or the drink.

We now turn to a discussion of the major components of wine and their particular food affinities. Although, perhaps surprisingly, I find that most wines and most cheeses are not particularly good matches for each other, wines with more prominent fruit, such as Beaujolais, many New World Pinot Noirs, Italian Moscatos, or German Rieslings often match cheese better than most.

With regard to alcohol level, this is a contributor to what I consider intensity and thus, in general, higher alcohol wines favor richer, heavier dishes. I do suggest avoiding wines high in alcohol when eating particularly spicy foods, such as in Thai, Korean, Sichuan, and Indian cuisines, as this seems to augment the "burn."

Acidity in wine is primarily what refreshes the palate, and is particularly useful for cutting through cream sauces and buttery or fatty foods. Within reason, the higher the acidity of a wine, the better it will be at the table with food of almost any type. This is one reason that wines such as Champagne and Riesling go so well with nearly any food they are paired with.

Higher acid wines consumed alone and without food, however, can seem austere, especially if low in fruit. Conversely, low-acid so-called "fruit bombs" are difficult to providentially match with food, and I find these better enjoyed before or after the meal, as one of the few types of wine I would drink unaccompanied by food.

Rather tannic wines, such as young Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Petite Sirah, and such, markedly benefit from fatty foods which coat the palate and soften their bitterness and drying effects, thereby unmasking the underlying fruit.

Heavily tannic wines usually interact poorly with fish, resulting in a metallic taste, but low-tannin reds such as Pinot Noir or Gamay can work just as well or better than whites with a wide variety of seafood, particularly "meatier" fish such as salmon, swordfish, or rare tuna.

Finally, there actually is one virtually immutable food-wine rule, for sweet wines the wine must be (much) sweeter than the dessert. Otherwise, the wine will become rather unpleasant, quite harshly bitter-sour to taste. It is an interesting, and often accidental, education of the palate when you first happen to try a bite or two of dessert before returning to finish the last sip of your dry table wine.

How do I match food and wine, you might ask? Well, mostly by trial and error (or hopefully trial and success!), in fact. If one has not actually tried the exact wine and the exact dish before, it's really no better than just an educated guess, informed by experience.

Sometimes, there does seem to be an unpredictable alchemy between a particular wine and a certain dish, where individually they each may be fine, if ordinary, but together they both seem somehow boosted in flavor.

The first episode of this phenomenon I personally witnessed involved pairing a simple dish of chicken sautéed with sweet green chilies and a modest dry German Riesling Kabinett, both of which seemed somehow amplified on the palate by the other.

Although the range of wines that are acceptable or even good matches for a particular dish is broader than many imagine, these singular magical combinations remain disappointingly elusive in my experience. To cite just one other particular combination that surprised me with its effect of this sort, a rack of tender slow-cooked barbequed pork ribs with a classic Kansas City-style sauce (thick and tangy, with a bit of molasses sweetness) paired with a medium-bodied and relatively fruit-forward New World Pinot Noir burst forth with a delightful mélange of smoky meat and sweet fruit.

One technique to food and wine matching which continues to work reasonably well, at least for relatively traditionally-styled wines from Old World regions, is based on the famous saying among chefs that "what grows together, goes together."

Whether it reflects centuries of culinary and vinicultural evolution or simply happy coincidence, higher acid wines from cooler climate France cut nicely through classic heavy and creamy French sauces, earthy traditional Spanish wines pair well with their savory and salty tapas, and flavorful Italian wines compliment the unfussy preparation and hearty ingredients emphasized in much of Italian cooking.

Of course in each of these regions, one can now find examples of heavily extracted, high alcohol, low acid, fruit-forward, internationally-styled wines, as well as nouvelle cuisine too, I suppose. Taking my own local region of Oregon, we see yet another stellar example of this maxim. What better match for dishes that include wild salmon, berries, hazelnuts, mushrooms, and truffles, than our own acclaimed Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris?

Finally, let us conclude with a brief discussion of "problem foods" and "solution wines." There are certain foods that are just tough to match with any wine.

Probably at the top of this list must be any dish that tastes of vinegar. Whether it involves salad dressing or sauerbraten, wine and its sour-tasting relative just don't mix well. The word vinegar is actually derived from the French term vin aigre, literally meaning "sour wine." This would similarly apply to any other high-acid food such as, say, grapefruit.

Although some spicy dishes can work with certain wines, such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer (especially if they are at least a bit off-dry), dishes with a tactile component to the heat are rather problematic. This would include those with horseradish, wasabi, substantial white or black pepper, or significant amounts of any of the potent capsicums, such as chilli, jalapeno, cayenne, tabasco, habanero, and other hot peppers.

Other commonly cited problem foods fall into a group with strong green vegetal flavors, such as green bean, broccoli, artichoke, and perhaps most difficult, asparagus. This situation is perhaps best solved with a quality Austrian Gruner Veltliner. Gruner is nearly unique in its distinctive and complementary flavor profile that often includes a floral aroma with flavors of white pepper, peas and lentils on the palate. Also, some Sauvignon Blancs may work with these foods, too.

What I call solution wines are those that work well with a huge variety of foods of different ingredients, sauces, and styles. The absolute best of these must be Champagne. And by Champagne, I mean from France, not Cava, Prosecco, or California sparklers. Although those other sparkling wines may be quite enjoyable and match well with a number of dishes, true French Champagne has towering acidity (largely due to the very cool climate in the Champagne region) combined with the extract and complexity to balance that structure.

This acidity, perhaps in conjunction with the textural component of the "bubbly," results in my choice of this for most food-friendly wine of all. It goes well with light dishes, heavy dishes, buttery sauces, fried or fatty foods, fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, even spicy foods. Recently I tried it with a gourmet Wagyu beef hamburger with cheese and all of the traditional fixings, no less, and it matched fabulously.

My choices for more affordable, and less dramatic, solution wines would be Riesling among the whites (you could almost pick any style, from any region, and still have a decent chance at a great match with most dishes), or Pinot Noir from the reds. The pinot is just a little trickier, since these can vary widely in style (earthy versus fruity) and intensity (they can nearly cover the spectrum from rather light to full-bodied and dense), so the right pinot can be found for most any dish, although not really at random.

© copyright 2008 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved

To contact Donald A. Dibbern Jr. directly, write him at

Back to the Dibbern on Wine index page