It’s all very well to pick a wine when you’re in a restaurant and the waiter tells you what to do – but what about when you’re enjoying a quick home-cooked meal or perhaps sitting on the sofa with a take away? As you read the back of a wine bottle, you’ll be bamboozled with adjectives and details of the wine’s aroma, acidity, undertones and tannins – but will it taste good with what you’ve got in the oven?!
You can think of the flavours in wine as a different type of food; when you’re reading the bottle description, try to imagine those flavours on the plate with your dinner. Certain fruits taste good with meat, for example, or anything citrusy might work with fish. If you think the combination sounds good – then give it a taste. The basic principle of wine pairing is that you either contrast your wine and food (e.g. a sweet wine with spicy food), or match you them (e.g. a heavier wine with fatty, protein-rich food like red meats).
Wine pairing is a fun way to extend your appreciation of flavours. As you become more sensitive to how wine enhances or celebrates the flavour of the food you’re eating, you’ll soon be discovering taste buds you didn’t know you had. Think of wine pairing like adding subtle lighting to a romantic evening, or playing just the right kind of music – it’s not essential, but it can really make a meal.
Understanding a few basic wino terms is a good place to start your ventures into the vineyards – it makes decoding wine labels a lot easier too:
What’s in a name?
A wine will usually be referred to by the grape that produces it. Several different companies will therefore all produce a ‘Pinot Grigio’ for example – you’ll just have to find out which version you like best.
All wines are slightly acidic because of natural acids present in grapes; warmer climates produce low acidity grapes, whereas cooler climates make more acidic grapes. Highly acidic wines tend to be quite lively and refreshing between mouthfuls – that’s why Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir or dry sparkling wines are food-friendly. These more acidic wines can also balance saltiness.
Sweet or dry?
It might not sound like it, but a dry wine is sort of the opposite of a sweet one. Again, all grapes contain natural sugar levels, and these increase with the amount of time the grapes are left on the vine. Not everyone has the same sweet tooth, however, so this distinction can get a little blurry.
Red wine gets its tannins from a fermentation process that incorporates the seeds, skins and often pieces of the stem; wine aged in oak can also develop a secondary source of tannin, or bitterness. Tannins do taste a bit like an over-stewed cup of black tea or create a sensation akin to rubbing a piece of cotton wool over your tongue (don’t you often do that?). Tannins actually bond to the protein and fat in foods – which is why tannin-rich reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz go so well with red meats and cheese.
OK – so enough of the complicated stuff. How does this work when we get down to eating?
Fish and Chips
You might try a light, dry wine to cut through that delicious grease – bubbles also help. A more acidic wine to like Spanish Txakoli or the Austrian Gruner Veltliner would work; and if there is a touch of citrus in there, that would make the fish happy too.
The wine would depend on the style of curry; a madras, tikka masala, a balti or biryani all differ wildly before we’ve even begun to consider whether you’re eating meat, fish or vegetables. A sure bet, however, is to aim for something slightly sweeter, like a Riesling, which would compliment the spiciness of the curry. (An ice-cold Cobra also works a treat, but this is about wine – not beer.)
Take out pizza
Pizza is the fail-safe takeout – so make sure you have your standard wines on hand to accompany it. Vegetarian pizza works with an apply white to cut through the cheese and compliment the veg: [Yellow Tail] Pinot Grigio gets my vote every time. If you were to go for the classic pepperoni pizza, then you’d want a heavier red wine; try their Cabernet Sauvignon, where the hint of cherries and blackcurrants compliment the meat.
As a rule, the wine should be as sweet or sweeter than the food, otherwise it tastes funny. Port and Sherry are essentially very sweet wines which pair well with desserts – and I love them with cheese too! Which goes to show that there are no hard and fast rules.
Whilst drinking responsibly, wine pairing is really about having fun: open a bottle, share it with a friend, and get tasting!
This article is also available on Running in Heels online women’s magazine.