Editor’s note: Dan Berger is taking some time off.
The key to matching wine and food isn’t merely “red wine with red meat” or pairing wine with food from the same region (pizza with Chianti, for example). The key isn’t to be found in so many of the rules that we’ve inherited about pairing wine with food.
The key to matching wine and food is about what’s already in the wine and in the food.
Wine and food pairings work (or not) because elements in the food or wine — things such as acidity, sugar, fat, alcohol, salt and tannin — work well together or don’t.
There’s a reason beyond “because it tastes good” when you squeeze lemon on an oyster or grate Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese atop a marinara sauce. These combinations appeal because of the interaction of the lemon’s acidity and the oyster’s saltiness, or the fat in the cheese and the acidity in the sauce.
And so it goes with wines and what’s in them and the foods with which they’re paired.
When we prepare food, we choose or set the dominant elements. For example, if chicken breasts are seasoned with capers and olives, the dominant factor is salt. If a grilled swordfish filet is covered in a mango salsa, the primary element is sweetness.
Foods high in acidity require a wine with the same degree of acidity. For instance, the perfect match for an acidic salad dressing is an acidic wine like a German or Austrian riesling. You’ll be surprised how both the dressing and the wine tame each other down, each acidity, as it were, canceling out the other.
Contrariwise, the flavors in wines low in acidity (many an American or Australian chardonnay, for example) get washed away when paired with foods high in acid (citrus salsas; tomato preparations; sauces using lemon juice, capers or vinegar). These wines will taste much better by themselves or when paired with low-acid food preparations.
Foods high in salt require either a wine with marked acidity or a wine that’s sweet or off dry. That’s why oysters and Chablis work, or olives and fino sherry. Or, that’s why salty blue cheese paired with a sweet dessert wine is so ethereal.
A sparkling wine is a great match for salty food (it’s the same principle behind that all-time delicious pairing of beer and potato chips). Tannic reds, oaky whites and low-acid whites are disastrous with salt.
It’s amazing how much sugar we eat, even while we think that we are not. Many prepared foods contain sweeteners (in the list of ingredients, look for words that end in “-ose”), and contemporary cooking is replete with sweet things such as fruit salsas, balsamic reductions and meats stewed with dried fruits.
Sweetness in food requires the same level of sweetness in wine. That has always made sense with desserts, such as pairing an apple tart with a medium-sweet muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, but it also holds for main courses.
Off-dry white wines (again, many an American or Australian chardonnay; some albarinos from Spain; some German rieslings, just to give three examples) pair very well with sweet foods such as roast chicken with caramelized onions.