Picking a great wine is challenging enough but then add pairing it with the perfect dish and you have an even more daunting task. While pairing seems complex, it's actually fairly intuitive when you follow the fundamentals and appreciate a few notable nuances.
The most important thing to understand about food and wine is "proper pairing" versus "artful pairing". That is to say, there are inarguable good and bad pairings based on palate, so these are the things you should know and follow. As for the latter, artful pairing is a matter of preference based on the culinary experience you wish to achieve.
For example, if you're eating lobster with drawn butter, proper pairing would avoid a big leathery cabernet, as it will overpower shellfish and you might as well be eating foam packing peanuts. As for artful pairing, one might want to "mirror" the dish with a Chardonnay to play up butter on the palate, whereas, you could also choose a wine higher in acid like a Sauvignon Blanc to cut butter and add some floral notes. Again, all in what you're wishing to experience. So, the goal here is to make sure your pairing skill is always proper but encourages you to be artful as well.
Side note on the "chardonyay", those who often wince at the thought of drinking this varietal (to the dismay of its diehard fans) may discover a new respect for it when enjoyed with food versus drinking alone, as that oaky buttery profile will be mitigated by proper pairing. Give it a try with your next meal of lobster, crab or shrimp. Also, avoiding chardonnay with malolactic fermentation (MLF) will greatly reduce the buttery flavor profile. For more on MLF, explore here.
In order to simplify pairing fundamentals and commit them to memory, we created an acronym called: W.A.T.C.H.A., as in everyone will "watcha" pair wine effortlessly after reading this piece.
Let's break it down...
W - Weight
A - Acidity
T - Tannins
C - Character
H - Heat
A - Alcohol
WEIGHT - This is probably the most intuitive part of pairing which simply means matching lighter foods with lighter wines, and heavier foods with heavier wines. Hence, from where the infamous rule of "white wine with fish and red wine with steak" comes. While logical in general, it doesn't hold true in all cases since wine color is not always an accurate indicator of weight given the vast range in red/white varietals. In short, strive to keep weight balanced to ensure neither the wine nor food overpowers the other.
ACIDITY - Acid is a major consideration with pairing, as its the primary way to compliment fat in foods by cutting through it on your palate but also brightening flavors. Whether present in dairy or literally on protein, fat coats the tongue and can end up muting flavor if allowed to build up. So, choosing white wines higher in acid, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio will greatly enhance your enjoyment of fat-driven food like oily fish or those with cream preparations.
TANNINS - Like acidity in white wine, tannins in red varietals (most notably cabernet) compliment fat and heavy foods. Tannins work differently than acid but have a similar result by coating the tongue which then physically blocks fat from building up as you indulge. On the flip side, this battle on the palate also helps soften big tannins, so the interaction is harmonious in helping the wine as well. Hence why steak houses and cabernet are big lovers of one another.
CHARACTER - Character is a catch-all term, maybe even cheating a bit, but it's a very important fundamental of pairing where nuance is key. Because "light" and "heavy" must be further defined and even fat as well. For example, is the meal light and delicate? Or light and savory? In other words, halibut crudo and seared tuna can both be considered "light" but the former is more delicate and complex than the latter. Hence, you might choose a Sancerre for the crudo and potentially a light pinot for the tuna. Likewise, a lightly seasoned filet mignon topped with porcini mushrooms is going to be much different than a peppercorn-crusted NY sirloin with béarnaise sauce - both heavy but different.
Weight and complexity aside, the real drivers of character in food are the five core tastes of the human palate: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. While you will experience multiple in any dish, typically a single flavor will dominate. So, identify the primary character of your dish and pair appropriately. While the combinations can be complex, here are the basics:
Sweet + Acid - Like fat and dairy, having some acid to cut sweetness is typically a good route
Sweet dessert + Sweeter wine - Always pair a wine that is sweeter than the dessert, otherwise your wine will taste off.
Salty + Sweet/Soft - No meal should be too salty but having some sweetness to offset or more forward fruit will balance the meal - avoid highly acidic or tannic wine.
Bitter/Sour + Sweet/Soft - Like with salt, sour (most likely citrus) is a strong flavor that needs to be balanced out and not exaggerated, so avoid highly acidic or tannic wine and opt for more rounded varietals like Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah.
Umami + Savory - Umami doesn't have a direct translation to English but many refer to it as savory or literally "yummy". The goal here would be to mirror the taste, for example, an earthy pinot could well accentuate shichimi togarashi spice - avoid highly acidic or tannic wine (notice a theme here?).
In short, always consider the character of a dish and appreciate delicate complexity or accommodate the more robust.
HEAT - We chose to call out heat, as its a hot trend right now (sorry, bad pun) with so many jalapeño/Siracha dishes it presents one of the biggest potential pairing fails - the "cabtastrophe". Tannins technically irritate the palate as do spicy foods, so by combining the two you're creating a flavor riot in your mouth. Now you might say, "hotter the better!" but you're just wasting money on a good cab, as you won't be able to appreciate the food or wine. What's the solution? Go German! Many German varietals will make perfect bedfellows with heat-centric dishes. Slightly sweet wine like a Riesling or Gewürztraminer (actually from Alsace), or more neutral, floral like Silvaner or Grüner Veltliner are ideal. All of these wines will work magic by cooling the heat and allowing you to enjoy the full range of flavors in the dish. Likewise, the heat will counter balance the sweetness of these varietals and make them drink more neutral than you'd expect.
Side note: These varietals are often overlooked by consumers in favor of go-to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, so next time pick-up a bottle and enjoy - whether with spice, cheese or just an empty glass.
ALCOHOL - Alcohol may seem like a peculiar pairing fundamental (since all wine has it) but the percentage varies greatly across varietals from <10% for whites to well over 16% for big reds (especially from California, whereas, the French frown upon "fruit bombs"). Consideration of alcohol in pairing is not particularly complex but similar to the rationale with weight and character. Higher alcohol content comes from bigger wines, as you need the sugar to convert, so just avoid pairing "hot" wines with lighter, delicate fare. This pairing fundamental is truly about avoiding the annihilation of a meal, as alcohol in itself doesn't enhance flavors on the palate.
Okay, there you have it. May seem like a lot at first pass but it will become muscle-memory soon and everyone will WATCHA pair like a pro. Final thought, wine and food is your personal canvas, so have fun with it and experiment!
- Mike Casey | The 29 Napa