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Wine Pairing Basics

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

A great food and wine pairing creates a balance between the components of a dish and the characteristics of a wine.

Learn food and wine pairing basics so you can create your own pairings. This guide will show you the steps on how to pair. You’ll also learn what to look for in a recipe in order to make great wine matches.

As much as pairing food and wine is complex, the basics are simple to grasp.

Congruent Pairings vs Contrasting Pairings

A contrasting pairing creates balance by contrasting tastes and flavors.

A congruent pairing creates balance by amplifying shared flavor compounds.

Identify The Basics Tastes

In this day and age, we’ve learned that there are over 20 different tastes found in food – from the basic, including sweet, sour and fat, to the extreme, including spicy, umami and electric. Fortunately you only need to focus on 6 tastes when pairing food and wine: Salt, Acid, Sweet, Bitter, Fat and Spice (Piquant).

Basic Taste Components in Wine

For the most part, wine lacks the 3 tastes of fatness, spiciness and saltiness but does contain acidity, sweetness and bitterness in varying degrees. Generally speaking, you can group wines into 3 different categories:

  1. Red wines have more bitterness.

  2. White, rosé and sparkling wines have more acidity.

  3. Sweet wines have more sweetness.

Consider the Intensity

FOOD: Is the food super light or super rich? A salad may seem lighter, but perhaps the dressing is balsamic vinaigrette with high acidity. If the intensity of the dish isn’t obvious at first, just focus on the power of each taste component (acidity, fat, sweet, etc).

WINE: Is the wine light or bold? Here are a few examples:

  • Sauvignon Blanc is light-bodied, but it has higher acidity

  • Chardonnay has more body, but it’s usually not too acidic

  • Pinot Noir is lighter bodied (for a red wine) and it doesn’t have too much tannin (bitterness).

  • Cabernet Sauvignon is more full-bodied and has high tannin (more bitterness)

Find Contrasting or Congruent Pairings

Now that you’ve identified all the basic taste components in your dish, you can start playing around with pairing options. The simple example of the baked macaroni will offer up several possible pairings:

  • COMPLEMENTARY PAIRING: A white wine with high acidity will complement the fat in the macaroni. So, for example, a traditional mac and cheese recipe with a creamy béchamel sauce matched with zesty white wine such as Pinot Grigio, Assyrtiko or Sauvignon Blanc would create a Complementary Pairing.

  • CONGRUENT PAIRING: A white wine with creaminess will add to the creaminess in the dish. So, for example, a traditional mac and cheese recipe with a creamy béchamel sauce matched with a creamy white wine such as Viognier or Chardonnay would create a Congruent Pairing.

Getting Creative

Once you create balance with the major taste components in both the wine and the dish, you can get creative by pairing the more subtle flavors. Here are some examples using variants of mac and cheese:

  • BOLD RED WINE: The ideology behind this pairing is that the high bitterness (tannin) will be balanced out by the salt and fat in the macaroni. This balancing will leave you with the remaining subtle flavors to pair with in the cheese and wine. So, for example, if your baked macaroni has smoked gouda in it, you might choose a Shiraz which also has smokiness in it (on the finish). The smoky flavors combine to create a Congruent Pairing while the tannin in the wine creates a Complementary Pairing with the fat in the dish.

  • SWEET WHITE WINE: The ideology behind this pairing is to bring out the sweet and salty flavors with a pairing. For example, mac and cheese with ham would match well with a zesty white wine with some sweetness like Riesling. The acidity would create a Complementary Pairing to the fat and the sweetness would act as a Congruent Pairing to the ham.

Have you made an amazing dish and wine pairing? Let’s hear about it! Leave a message in the comments below.

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