The Perfect Pair

When I say I love wine and food, I don't mean I love them as separate entities. I love them together. WineandFood might as well be a new word in my own personal dictionary. It's why I became a sommelier and why I cherish the part of my job that allows me to trespass in chefs' kitchens and collaborate on wine and food pairings.

My favourite kitchen is the place I spent the past 18 months of my restaurant career, working with the most talented and creative chefs in Toronto at Bacchanal (sadly, now closed). Some of my best memories are with those chefs, discovering surprising and unexpected pairings that enhanced the experience of both wine and food in ways I wouldn't have predicted. As often the case, happy accidents are the best discoveries and with wineandfood the sum is usually greater than its parts.

Even in our everyday, often non-gourmet lives, the experience of a well-paired meal can be immensely satisfying. Whether you are cooking for family or friends or just trying to use up what's in your fridge, the right pairing can elevate your experience. Conversely, if you have a special wine (not necessarily expensive or rare, but unique enough to deserve some thought), planning the right meal is essential to ensure you don't detract from that wine.

Here's a quick primer on wine and food pairing.

What grows together goes together

One of the easiest ways to think about wine and food pairing is regionally. This holds most true in Europe, where traditional, regional foods and wines have been part of life and culture for generations and where regulations (appellation laws) actually tell farmers what they can grow where in order to preserve that tradition.

It makes sense that coastal areas like Rias Baixas in Spain, the Loire Valley in France and Le Marche in Italy are known for crisp, bright white wines that pair beautifully with seafood from those regions. It also makes sense that you would drink Tuscan Chianti with pasta and tomato sauce and high acid, mineral driven Riesling in Germany, the home of Bratwurst, schnitzel and sauerkraut.

This principle doesn't work quite as well in the new world, where grapes brought from Europe to North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand now make up most of the wines of those regions, so there is not really indigeneity in the same way. However, there are some exceptions: Australian Shiraz and Argentinian Malbec are definitely made for barbeque, a style of cooking popular in both places. In countries like China and India where food culture is ancient but wine culture much newer, we need to work a bit harder to find perfect pairings. 

Some General Principles

Sweet with Spicy

Try Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris with spicy Indian or Asian food (note, not all of these wines will have residual sugar, so make sure to check the LCBO sugar code or ask a Vintages rep). The sweet helps to balance the heat in these cuisines. If you prefer red wine, chose a more fruit forward red, like Beaujolais or new world Merlot. What you don't want is a highly tannic red like Cabernet Sauvignon or Barolo as tannin amplifies spice and will just set your mouth on fire.

Sweet with Salty

Serve dessert wines or port with strong, salty cheese. Also, Sauternes or other late harvest wines with Foie Gras or other type of pâté. It's the same principle behind Chicago style popcorn...

Sweet with Sweet

It seems like common sense to serve dessert wines with dessert. Just remember that the wine always needs to be sweeter than the dessert or both will taste more tart. You can serve a semi-sweet late harvest wine with a Tarte Tatin or other fruit-based dessert or a much sweeter vintage Ruby Port with chocolate.

Acid with Fat

Champagne and potato chips. Full stop. It's my favourite pairing. Also, Riesling and schnitzel or Choucroute, Pinot Noir and Vacherin (or other creamy, rich cheeses), simple risotto with Soave Classico. Acid cleans fat off your palate, making a dish feel lighter. Add bubbles to that and you have a veritable vacuum cleaner for fat. A big white or red wine without enough acid with a meal rich in fat will make your food and wine both seem heavy and you won't enjoy either for long.

Acid with Acid

It doesn't feel intuitive to serve a high acid wine with acidic foods, but the acids actually cancel each other out making the whole experience tastier. As mentioned above, Chianti Classico with tomato-based sauce, as the wine and tomatoes are high in acid. Similarly, Sauvignon Blanc with young goat cheese and Provençal rosé with a summer salad dressed in a vinaigrette.

Tannin with Protein

This one feels easy: big red wines with big red meat. But remember to pay attention to how the meat is cooked. For example, a silky, smooth Chateauneuf-du-Pape will pair better with braised meats or an elegant Beef Wellington while a more rustic Primitivo or Etna Rosso will be more appropriate with grilled meats.

Body with Body (or Weight with Weight)

You never want to pair a big wine with a delicate dish as your food will just get lost in the power of the wine. Think about the weight of your dish when choosing your wine. Full-bodied oaked Chardonnay pairs beautifully with lobster or crab or salmon in butter sauce; lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay are better with roast chicken versus a hefty Cabernet Sauvignon with grilled steak.

Flavour with Flavour

Chablis (mineral, salty) with oysters; Shiraz (toasty, meaty) with barbequed ribs; Assyrtiko (lemony, smoky) with grilled octopus; Fino sherry (nutty, briny) with any kind of salty, savoury tapas. You want a match here, not a competition.

Complexity with Complexity

Simple wine goes with simple food. Beaujolais Village pairs well with a burger. Gewurztraminer, a very complex and layered wine, supports the complexity of flavours, spices and textures in many Asian dishes. A Gran Reserva Rioja (aged 5+ years), with layers of dried fruit, herbs and earth, is a beautiful pairing for Paella with its multitude of ingredients and flavours.

But don't take just my word for it. As luck would have it I have two chefs on hand to give you more ideas. :)

Chef Luke Donato, formerly of Bacchanal

What do you think is the most important element to consider when pairing wine with food?

"I always look for weight. I don’t really agree with the basic pairings of white wine food and red wine food. In my chef-ee way I think there are only two ways to pair anything: similarity or contrast. Typically, the food style dictates this. Asian food by nature is high contrast and in turn the wine pairing is usually higher contrast. French food and wine pairing almost never conflict. I definitely lean to finding the similarities; it is so interesting how nature provides the same flavour compounds in seemingly diverse places."

What is your favourite wine and food pairing - high and low?

"Personally, I love duck. I think it’s so versatile. My favourite part is how in balance it is. Lean bloody, bitter meat with the most luxurious fat. The versatility also lends itself to wine pairing. Oxidative whites like Arbois or Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes if your splurging with the liver. Riesling with confit leg, and for the magret (breast) I like red from the Rhône Valley."

Quick translation: Arbois white is an oxidative style of white, often Chardonnay, which pairs well with the earthiness of liver, so flavour with flavour. Sauternes is arguably the world's greatest sweet wine and an iconic pairing with Foie Gras - sweet with salty, acid with fat. Riesling with confit duck for acid with fat and Rhône Valley red with duck breast for both flavour and body.

Chef Damon Clements, formerly of Bacchanal

What do you think is the most important element to consider when pairing wine with food?

"I'll always go with weight and texture first as they are the least subjective for me. However, it is really a cyclical thing and many elements affect one another. I think it's best to cook food to match the wine you like rather than try and match wine to the food ."

What is your favourite wine and food pairing - high and low?

"High end has to be Vin Jaune and morels. For a little something in the middle, I'd say Vouvray (sparkling, sweet or dry) with a good assortment of goat cheese. Any good Chenin Blanc will do here. Finally, Riesling or Sylvaner with pig parts and sauerkraut.”

Quick translation: Vin Jaune is a wine from the Jura region of France, highly oxidized, quite like Sherry, so the nutty, earthy flavours would be amazing with morel mushrooms, flavour with flavour. Vouvray is high acid, many with residual sugar and goat cheese is salty and tends to higher acid, so this is sweet with salty and acid with acid. Riesling or Sylvaner with pork and sauerkraut is acid with fat.

Learn more

If you want to read more about this topic, I would suggest Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page's What to Drink with What You Eat. Aptly-named, it is a straightforward and comprehensive guide to wine and food pairing (including many cheeses). Even though I've studied this stuff for years, I often pull it off my shelf when I'm planning dinner.

I've only scratched the surface of this complex undertaking, which I've already stated is equal parts art, science and luck as I learned through my forays into Bacchanal's kitchen. I'd suggest the best way to start is to use some of the simple principles I've outlined above and then branch out. There are myriad ways to look at wine and food pairing and what works best for you might be a lucky discovery along the way.

Dinner's almost ready

I'll finish by telling you about a recent text exchange I had with my good friend Julia, a fellow lover of all things food and wine. We chatted about the stress of juggling a now home-based full-time job with two kids at home and the energy it takes for her to be employee, entertainer, educator and cook - a similar story for many people these days. She told me she was drinking a Riesling-Gewurztraminer blend with her dinner, which after a particularly busy day was PC Butter Chicken from the freezer. Rather than agreeing with her statement that it was not a pairing for my blog, I geeked out for a moment at her awesome choice, which she confirmed was delicious. Indeed, I consider that a pretty perfect pairing and blog-worthy material for all of us non-chefs who don't always have enough time to attempt to cook like one!

Ultimately, if you choose to cook something you like and to drink something you like, you really can't go wrong. But spending a bit of time considering how your wine and food fit together can make a gourmet adventure or a hectic weekday stop in your freezer much more special. Now more than ever it feels like we need to have and share these moments of joy.

Until next time, please stay safe and healthy and enjoy your wine.