We have all heard the saying “meats go with red, and fish goes with white,” or some variation of it. Although this is a rule of thumb, the best food and wine pairings are those where a single thing is achieved…. Balance.
When choosing what wine to pair with food, the key is to find the balance between flavors. What do I mean by that? That when you take a bite of food and a sip of wine, the flavors don’t compete against each other, or mask each other, but rather enhance and come together to create a desire for more.
Let me start by defining the 5 flavor profiles: sweet, salty, bitter, acidic, and umami. (Umami is this savory flavor that is found mainly in mushrooms, miso, seaweed, Parmesan cheese, etc.). These are important to know and recognize because they affect how a wine tastes. Therefore a salmon with a buttery, cream-based sauce would be paired with a different wine than a grilled yellowtail snapper with lemon and herbs.
We can divide the flavors into two: the ones that benefit wines, and those that can hinder wines. Acidity and saltiness are wine friendly flavors that will make a wine seem less bitter and acidic, but richer, smoother, and fruitier. On the other hand, sweetness, bitterness (also spiciness), and Umami, will make a wine seem more bitter and drying, amplifying the alcohol burn, but will also make it feel less fruity and sweet.
Lastly, we have to talk about tannins in wine. These are key because they act as a palate cleanser when a dish is high in fat (hence, why people almost always pair fatty red meats with red wines). The tannins in the wine and the fat in the food actually form bonds that will clean your palate, but at the same time make the wine feel less astringent.
When you have food, there is not a single flavor, but rather many that fuse and combine in your mouth, therefore, I cannot stress enough the importance of looking at the overall dish, rather than the ‘protein’ of the dish. What type of sauce does it have? What are the side dishes? What is the strongest or most present flavor? All of these are important factors that will let you get creative and achieve the best food and wine pairing ever.
To go back to the example of the seafood mentioned above, I would pair an oaked chardonnay, or even a light red with light tannins, such as Pinot Noir or Gamay, with the salmon with a buttery, cream-based sauce. Salmon is a fatty fish with a strong enough flavor to match the flavor of a light red wine with light tannins. Or if you think about the buttery, creamy sauce, an oaked chardonnay, with the same flavor profile would be the most obvious choice. On the other hand, the light flavored, flaky snapper, with herbs and lemon juice bursts with acidity and freshness, so I would pair this with a high acid white wine that has citrus aromas, such as a Sancerre, Sauvignon Blanc, or a Dry Riesling. If there were some spiciness to the dish, I would choose an off-dry, or medium-sweet Riesling that will balance out the heat.
Just remember that it is important to have fun, try new things, and find what you enjoy the most. Get curious and creative, and you will be surprised on how a wine can enhance your overall meal experience.