Credit: seanmfreese

We all think we know the rules: White meat and fish go with white wines; red meats, game, red sauces and stews go with red wines, right? But what to do if you order a spicy Thai dish or a vegetarian chili or even quinoa or quince? As a fish-and-egg-eating vegetarian, gluten-free, no-corn-syrup-or-soda, salt-free foodie, I can attest that the options can get awfully narrow at times. Still, some foods actually do not go well with wine because of a sinister chemical reaction.

Why would the nectar of the gods play such an unfair trick on us? The answer is that some foods contain chemical compounds that actually clash with those in wine. For instance, artichokes contain the compound cynarin, which tricks people’s taste buds into perceiving flavors that are tart. A nice fresh wine like a French Sancerre will taste strangely, even unpleasantly sweet. Others note the reaction is reversed and artichokes with wine make foods taste peculiarly bitter.  You would honestly be better off drinking a….beer. Did I say that out loud?

Also, asparagus contains methyl mercaptan, a sulfur compound, which tends to give wine a vegetal character. Asparagus packs a punch all its own and does not need to be enhanced with wine. Also not good are certain fish—cod, haddock and mackerel are good examples, as are shellfish—as they are high in iodine, which is why red wines do not pair well with them. The iodine content reacts with the tannins in red wine and makes both the fish and the wine taste metallic and, generally, awful. Fish oils react harshly with tannins, so don't, for instance, serve mackerel with Cabernet—unless you enjoy the taste you get from licking a roll of pennies. With oily fish, skip the reds entirely and go white. Any crisp, minerally wine: Albarino from Spain, Vermentino from Italy, or Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand make good options. The only exception is with Salmon. I prefer it with a nice Oregon Pinot Noir.

Egg yolks are also difficult to pair with wine, because they tend to coat the palate and kill flavor (not to mention wine is not offered at breakfast in most countries). Heavy egg dishes like quiche, frittatas and custard served at brunch, however, tend to pair best with a Pinot Bianco, Gris or Grigio.

Strangely, olives are a tough one to pair because they tend to be over barring as they are soaked in vinegar, not a particularly easy flavor to pair, it is more like driving a tractor to a picnic. Anything pickled can draw astringent properties out of the wine and not give it a pleasant flavor.

General Guidelines in Pairing

When in doubt, try to follow these simple suggestions. Whenever possible, try to match the wine of a region with the foods of the region. For example, Italian sausage and spaghetti with red sauce with a good Sangiovese (Chianti) from Italy or a BBQ ribs with a Chilean red. Over time, these pairings will come to mind more easily. Start with simple cheese and wine pairings and then expand to entrees and desserts.

Try buttery with buttery. Yes, a butter sauce on chicken or with a light cream sauce over pasta marries well with a buttery Chardonnay or a Spatlese Riesling. Feeling like a little comfort food but without the high calorie count? This is the way to go. It’s all about portion control anyhow, right?

Contrast spicy with sweet. Thai peppers or heavy garlic dishes often associated with Asian cuisine go well with Rieslings or Gewürztraminers. The contrast allows you to enjoy both the dish and wine’s flavors independently yet in perfect harmony. A sweet red is best with spicy Mexican due to the use of chilies and peppers in the dishes this is why sangria (made with fruits and red wine) is often so good with Mexican cuisine. Germany makes some nice, well balanced sweet reds that would be a good choice as well.

Try tannic reds with high fats. This is why Cabernets go so well with a sirloin or hunk of fatty bacon and a side of brisket... The tannins actually cut the fats in the meat and make for another terrific pairing. Similarly a heavy cream or parmesan sauce can pair nicely with a bold red like a Cabernet….again tannins cut fat and that will make the meal more satisfying to your palate. 

Although, general rules of thumb are good concerning what foods to avoid when seeking a wine pairing, try not to carry the unabridged wine bible with you at all times. Keep in mind, it is actually more important to match your friends and the occasion with the wine than worry too much about the food/wine pairing. Besides—overthinking anything causes wrinkles and an unhappy host. Cheers! 

Tags: Wine, Food, Pairings

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