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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.

ACIDITY

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.

SALT

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.

SWEET

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.

If red, a wine should be low in tannin and alcohol and very fruity (or, looked at another way, “sweet” with fruit). Beaujolais is a perfect example. So are some young pinot noirs, some reds from Portugal’s Dao region, Chinon and Bourgueil from the Loire, or any young, fresh, fruity, low tannin red.

On a final note: Keep in mind that sweetness in wine can tame the fire of spicy foods.

FAT

It’s fat that tannin is after. They’re made for each other. An astringent cabernet sauvignon works extremely well with the fat that wraps or marbles a beefsteak. In addition, cooking the steak either medium rare or rare is a good idea because blood proteins also tame tannin.

Like sugar, fat is ubiquitous in modern eating, from cheeses to meats to deep-fried food. Hit it with tannin. But also watch out for salt in fatty foods. Tannin aggravates the flavor of salt, and salt makes tannin more “tannic.” If serving a tannic wine, don’t oversalt the food.

ALCOHOL

Wines high in alcohol also exaggerate salty flavors (they make salt “saltier”). Also, high-alcohol wines overwhelm delicate or finely etched flavors in food. Many a sauce, deftly made, is wiped off the palate by a wine high in alcohol.

That said, remember that, like sugar and fat, high alcohol content is very common at the American table. Many contemporary California red wines routinely weigh in at 15-16 percent alcohol. These kinds of wine generally taste best with foods low in salt.

In short, the wines that work best with most any food or food preparation are low in alcohol, high in acidity and off-dry. Of all these elements, the most important is having a wine high in acidity, such as German riesling; northern Italian whites such as arneis or Soave; Spanish albarino; dry and medium-dry Vouvray or Muscadet from the Loire; some pinot noirs from cooler climates (Oregon, Burgundy); South African chenin blanc; top-notch Italian Verdicchio or barbera; unoaked gamay from Beaujolais; many Italian aglianicos; and many Rioja reds.

And well-made sparkling wine works with nearly everything.

Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years. He is based in Chicago.