Food and wine pairing is something that some people take very seriously. While the perfect combination of a particular dish with a particular wine can be a marriage made in heaven, with the flavors of each perfectly complementary and highlighting the other, a poor pairing can be a disaster, clashing, bringing out awkward flavors and just simply making each suffer. If you are serious about your food and wine, as I am, then risking destroying a dinner course or the enjoyment of a fine wine is serious business!
That being said, should you be afraid of wine and food pairing? No. The fact of the matter is that there is rarely any one perfect combination of food and wine. For any one dish there may be dozens of wines that would pair very nicely with it. With a little practice, experience and know-how you can pretty easily predict which wines will highlight a dish and which will detract from it.
To begin with, drink what you like to drink with what you like to eat. Do not force yourself to drink a wine you would not normally like to drink just because it is theoretically supposedly to be best for a given cuisine. Also, in general it is best to try to pair wines with foods that have a similar level of flavor intensity. In other words, a richly flavored red wine may not be the best match for a delicate filet of sole. Try to pair wines in such a way that the flavors of the wine or the dish are not completely dominating so that the other suffers in comparison. Beyond these basics, experiment a bit. It helps to make some educated guesses about what will work and what will not. That is where this article comes in. I hope it will give you some ideas as a starting ground to make wise food and wine pairing choices.
Here are a few classic and very basic food and wine pairings for red wines. Understanding these basics, along with some experience with them, will help you to learn why certain wines work well with certain foods so that you can start to make your own pairings that make sense. For white wine pairings, see the companion article "Five Classic White Wine and Food Pairings".
Steak and Cabernet Sauvignon:
Steak is about as hearty a flavor as you can get! Wimpy wines will not stand up to a good steak very well. Likewise, Cabernet Sauvignon based wines, such as California Cabernets and Bordeaux are generally full-bodied wines, with ample power, structure and tannin. These powerful wines can overpower less dishes. A well-marbled, simply grilled steak has an abundance of fat and protein to buffer the power of the wine, cutting and softening the hard tannins of a young red. This allows the fruit and other complexes to stand out. This is a classic combination that rarely disappoints!
Lamb and Bordeaux
Lamb is another red meat which can have bold flavors, often a big gamier than beef. Bordeaux and lamb can be an outstanding combination for this reason. However, there are many different cuts of lamb and different ways to prepare it. Some cuts and preparations are not ideal for Bordeaux or other Cabernet-based wines (see below). For pairing with Bordeaux, look for the more refined and simply prepared cuts such as loin chops, rib chops and a rack of lamb. These classic dishes can be a divine pairing with Bordeaux. More aromatic, rustic and spicy preparations of lamb often call for a wine with a bit more of a chewy, rustic and herbal character.
Lamb and Provençal Red Wines
The other face of lamb is a bit more rustic, less refined. Grilled loin chops or leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary, cayenne and other Southern French seasonings can be wonderful. They are warming, rich and hearty. Less "refined" than a roasted rack of lamb, but they are so soul satisfying that they can be sublime dishes in their own right. However, some of these spicier and more rustic flavors and textures can be a bit much for a more refined full-bodied wine like fine Bordeaux. These Provençal flavors and aromas call for similar gamey, aromatic and spicy flavors in the wine. A perfect combination is wines from the same region. In fact, most cuisines in Europe have grown up over the ages to accompany the wines made nearby, or visa versa. Provençal red wines, in particular Bandol and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, are generally meaty, rich, chewy and also aromatic, infused with the scents of the hillsides of the south of France. Most of the scents of wild rosemary, lavender, thyme and other local herbs and spices. The flavors in the wine can mirror and stand up to the aromas and flavors in these rich lamb dishes.
Stilton and Port
Stilton is one of the classic blue cheeses. Coming from England, Stilton has a rich, creamy texture and a pungent, salty flavor. Port is a red fortified dessert wine from Portugal's Douro Valley. At first glance, it does not sound like a pungent, salty blue cheese should have anything to do with a sweet red wine. However, Port and Stilton is one of the most classic wine and food pairings you can find! The sweet, richness of the wine perfectly balances the salty, creaminess of the cheese. This pairing is often served towards the end of a dinner, either just before the dessert course or in its place. And for an even better pairing, enjoy this combination in the winter, sitting next to a warm toasty fire in your fireplace!
Chocolate and Dessert Wine
I include this as a "classic" wine and food pairing because it is a much talked about one. However, this pairing tends to cause much more controversies than many others. Traditionally it has been felt that a dark, rich and sweet red wine like Port, which can have coffee and chocolate-like nuances to its flavor on its own, is the only wine that can stand up to the dark, rich flavor of chocolate. However, many wine lovers will argue that chocolate is really too strong a flavor for any wine, that chocolate bests speaks for itself and should not be paired with any wine, or maybe just with a small cup of rich coffee as an accompaniment. However, this can vary depending on the type of chocolate and the type of dish. Even some full-bodied, dry red wines have been known to pair well with less-sweet versions of dark chocolates. A much lesser known pairing is a wine from the south of France called Banyuls. Banyuls is a beautiful appellation which produces a fortified wine which is similar to Port in many respects. Different grapes are used but it produces a somewhat similar rich, alcoholic, sweet red wine which is often served after dinner. Something about the more roasted quality to the fruit and the fruitiness that comes from Grenache and other other grapes employed seems to stand up to chocolate quite well.
Well there you have it, five classic food and wine pairings to get you started. Try them out. Try to identify what it is about the wine and food that compliments each other. Pay attention to what the wine does to the flavors of the food and visa versa. By building your palate's experience with food and wine you will be better able to come up with new wine and food pairings in the future. Enjoy!