Some advice for pairing food and wine can be overly strict. The truth is, there is only one rule for pairing wine with food: Drink whatever wine you enjoy drinking with whatever food you have chosen to eat. There are, however, time-tested guidelines to help you plan meals and parties and go through life as an educated food-lover. It’s basically a “you should know the rules before you break them” situation. Here are 15 tips for pairing food with wines.

  1. ‘Great with great, humble with humble’

This might seem like the most elemental of ideas, but for me, the first important principle is simply: Pair great with great, humble with humble. A hot turkey sandwich doesn’t need a pricey Merlot to accompany it. On the other hand, an expensive crown rib roast may just present the perfect moment for opening that powerful, opulent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon you’ve been saving.

  • ‘Delicate to delicate, bold to bold’

Second, match delicate to delicate, bold to bold. It only makes sense that a delicate wine like a red Burgundy will end up tasting like water if you serve it with a dramatically bold dish like curry. Dishes with bold, piquant, spicy, and hot flavors are perfectly cut out for bold, spicy, big-flavored wines. Which is why various shirazes are terrific with many “hot and spicy” cuisines.

  • Pinot Noir: Pai with earthy flavors

Recipes made with earthy ingredients like mushrooms and truffles taste great with reds like Pinot Noir and Dolcetto, which are light-bodied but full of savory depth.

  • Mirror the food

Chardonnay: great with fatty fish or fish in a rich sauce

Silky whites—like Chardonnay are delicious with fish like lobster or salmon or any kind of seafood in a rich sauce. Both the lobster and the Chardonnay are opulent, rich, and creamy. 

  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Fabulous with juicy red meat

California Cabernet, Bordeaux, and Bordeaux-style blends are terrific with steaks and dishes like lamb chops with frizzled herbs. The firm tannins in these wines refresh the palate after each bite.

  • Choose a flexible wine

For maximum flexibility, go with a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling, both of which have cleansing acidity. Wines with high acidity leave you wanting to take a bite of food, and after taking a bite of food, you’ll want a sip of wine. The perfect seesaw. The most flexible red wines either have good acidity or they have loads of fruit and not a lot of tannin. For the latter reason, zinfandel, lots of simple Italian reds, and southern Rhône wines, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, are naturals with a wide range of dishes, from such simple comfort foods as grilled chicken to more complex dishes like pasta Bolognese.

  • Dry Rose: For rich cheesy dishes

Some cheeses go better with white wine, some with red; yet almost all pair well with dry rosé, which has the acidity of white wine and the fruit character of red. For an indulgent cheese dish, try these Triple-Decker Baked Italian Cheese Sandwiches.

  • Pinot Gris: Pairs with light fish dishes

Light seafood dishes, like seafood tostada bites, seem to take on more flavor when matched with equally delicate white wines, such as Pinot Grigio or Arneis from Italy or Chablis from France.

  • Think about weight.

In the summer, we eat lighter foods; in the winter, the dishes get heavier. The same philosophy can apply to pairing wines with those foods. Certain grapes and styles of wine will be weightier, and others will be lighter. 

  1. Preparation influences a dish just as much as ingredients.  

Don’t just think about what is on the dish—the way it is prepared and cooked can often make a bigger difference than the accompaniments. Think about chicken, the overall flavor is going to be completely different if you roast, grill, smoke, or pan sear it and the resulting pairings will change.

When it comes to pairing wine with food, it can seem like an intricate choreography, where each flavor component has a precise accompaniment. In other words, it’s overwhelming. Anytime something becomes that intricate, the immediate effect is that it becomes stressful, rather than enjoyable.

A good pairing is meant to be pleasurable, so it’s time to remove the stressful aspects. Pairing is an art, it’s true, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

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