10 Wine Pairing Tips

By: Linda C. Brinson

Pairing wine and food well takes some skill, but it isn't nearly as hard as you'd think.
Eric Raptosh Photography/Getty Images

Remember when all we needed to know about matching food and wine was that red wine went with beef and white wine went with chicken or fish? Well, times have changed -- and in more ways than one. Even that basic rule no longer holds true.

There are several reasons for this shift. Most people have a lot more wine choices than they did a couple of decades ago. Because of the rising number of states that house vineyards, Americans have more access to wine. If that isn't enough, wine is imported from around the world. Even your local supermarket is likely to have a dizzying array of wines from South America, Australia and New Zealand, as well as from Western European countries and heavy wine-producing states like California. The labels on most of those bottles will boast a variety of flavors -- berries, green apples, jasmine, spice, cherries, roses, chocolate, oak and many, many more.


The abundant choices make many people even more fearful about pairing the right wine with food. That may be partly because wine and food pairing is a hot topic for foodies and a focus of trendy restaurants.

There are lots of choices out there, but pairing doesn't have to be difficult. If you're ordering the wine for a special occasion or taking a bottle to a friend's for dinner, and you want to avoid a major misstep, ask a good wine merchant. Or visit one of many Web sites (Gallo.com is one) with a pairing tool. Otherwise, learn a few good tips and enjoy yourself.

Keep reading to learn some basic suggestions.

10: Think Body

Forget color. When pairing wine with food, body is the first consideration. Body refers to the texture or substance of the wine and the way it feels in your mouth. It often correlates with the alcohol content; heavy-bodied wines tend to have more alcohol. Generally, the darker the color, the fuller the body. A light-bodied wine will feel thinner or lighter in your mouth. Usually, a full-bodied wine will overwhelm a delicately flavored food. A light-bodied wine such as Riesling may taste like water when paired with a steak or roast. On the other hand, you don’t want a medium full-bodied wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon or a heavy wine such as port with a delicate fish dish. But Beaujolais, a relatively light-bodied red wine, can match fish well. Rose, an often overlooked wine that's between red and white, also pairs well with seafood.

It may help you to think of wine as another type of food on your menu. You instinctively know that you don’t want to pair potatoes with pasta, and you like mint jelly with lamb. Try to learn which wine helps make a particular meal more enjoyable.


Keep reading for more ways to accomplish that goal.

9: Try Pinot Noir

If you're looking for a good red wine, Pinot Noir makes a safe but excellent choice.
If you're looking for a good red wine, Pinot Noir makes a safe but excellent choice.
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If you want a safe wine choice, make friends with Pinot Noir. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, a noted author of books and magazine articles about wine, says in her book, "Drink This: Wine Made Simple," that if you want to make wine pairing really easy, then always go with a Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is a red wine, but it has a light-medium body. It's sort of in the middle on the light white to heavy red spectrum, which helps it go with many foods.

Of course, not every Pinot Noir is the same. As with most wines, its body and flavor will vary depending on its region or age. Experiment with different Pinot Noirs if you want to widen your pairing choices. But when dining at a restaurant with limited wine offerings, for example, you're likely to be fine if you order a Pinot Noir.


Must of us don't want just to be safe, though. Read on for tips to consider when you're feeling more adventurous.

8: It's All About the Sauce

Food and wine pairing isn't really as esoteric an art as most people think. Success is the result of common sense. The problem comes when people either are intimidated by the whole process or don't know enough to apply common sense.

The basic idea is to choose a wine and a food that will enhance the other to give a complete dining experience. There are some possibly unfortunate interactions. The iodine in fish and the strong tannin in some red wines can combine to produce an unpleasant metallic taste. That's one of the reasons for the old "rule" that prohibits red wine paired with fish.


Beyond such unfortunate pairings, the main idea is to get a good balance, through either complementary or contrasting elements in the food and wine.

When you're trying to decide on the type of wine to serve, think about the most noticeable characteristic of the food. Often, the dominant taste isn't the meat or other sides -- it's the sauce. If the main dish is in a peppery or spicy sauce, an herb sauce, or a sauce with heavy cream, keep that element in mind.

Read on for more pairing insights.

7: The Bubbly Isn't Just for Weddings

People love to drink champagne at special occasions, but it works surprisingly well with meals.
People love to drink champagne at special occasions, but it works surprisingly well with meals.
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Too many people drink champagne for one reason: to wash down wedding cake. It may surprise many of these revelers to learn that champagne and wedding cake don't make a good pair. Champagne can be a good wine to serve with appetizers or a meal because it goes well with many things, but sweet desserts is one of the main things that it doesn't match.

Champagne is generally light and acidic, with varying degrees of dryness. The bubbles in champagne help cleanse the palate, another characteristic that makes it go well with a meal. Champagne goes especially well with salty snacks.


Other people drink champagne mainly at special occasions like New Year's Eve. Too much of it without food can lead to a hangover. It also tastes acidic on its own, so it works better as a meal accompaniment.

If you're new to wine tasting, there's something you should know: Only wines made in the Champagne region of France can bear the name. Some sparkling wines made in the United States and elsewhere are similar, but they aren't champagne.

6: Keep Things Simple

Usually, the goal of pairing food and wine is to come up with the ideal, complete dining experience. The food and wine are equal stars on the stage that is your table. The goal is to have the two reach a pleasing balance, without one overwhelming or clashing with the other.

Sometimes, though, you may be fortunate enough to have a really outstanding bottle of wine. You still want the food and wine to complement each other, but you also want to let the wine be the star of the show.


If you have a fine, well-aged wine whose complexity you want to appreciate fully, the best approach is to make the food simple and basic. Choose a food with enough substance and taste to stand up to the body of the wine. At the same time, though, try to keep things simple. Go with roasted meat and light seasonings. Keep the side dishes as basic as boiled or steamed vegetables with a little butter or oil. Avoid rich sauces completely, or serve them on the side.

Have good food, but not food that will compete for attention with the special wine you want to savor.

5: Look for Similarities

When it comes to pairing wine with food, look for common ground.
When it comes to pairing wine with food, look for common ground.
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One popular approach is to look for similarities in food and wine, and match like to like. Then, the wine and food will complement each other. You can do this by matching various characteristics. Ask your wine merchant, or read the descriptions on the bottle's label. Here are some things to look for:

  • Body or heaviness. If the food is rich and heavy, choose a full-bodied wine that won't be overwhelmed. If the food is light and delicate, go with a light, delicate wine.
  • Acidity. If you have an acidic food, maybe with a lemon sauce, choose an acidic wine.
  • Sweetness. Serve a sweet dessert wine with dessert – but make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert, or it may taste bitter in comparison.
  • Taste. Serve a smoky wine with grilled foods. Try an earthy wine with mushrooms. A fruity wine can go with citrus or other fruits.
  • Intense flavor. Serve a strongly-flavored wine with spicy foods.
  • Color. A writer in Forbes magazine described a sweetbreads dish with yellowish-orange color paired with a California Chardonnay with similar hues [source: LeDraoulec].
  • Texture. A rich lobster dish can pair with a rich, creamy wine.

There are more precise ways to match similar wines. Read on to learn how.


4: Keep It Local

Long ago, people drank wines made in their region with foods grown in their region. That system worked pretty well.

If you're stumped about which wine to have with a meal, look for something from the same general area as the food. Something that's part of the same cuisine is a good approach. If you're having pasta or another kind of Italian food, choose Chianti or a similar Italian wine. French food calls for French wine. With Wiener schnitzel, an Austrian veal dish, try an Austrian white wine such as Gruner Veltliner. If that's unavailable, a close neighbor such as a German Riesling should work.


Of course, you may enjoy foods from a country not known for its wines. Many people think that the best choice with spicy Mexican or Oriental foods is not wine at all, but beer. It may be easier to find a beer from same area as the food. Even that isn't simple, however. With the rise of microbreweries, beer and food pairing also has became a popular art.

Read on for another tip that plays on similarities.

3: Double Duty

Never cook anything in a wine you wouldn't drink.
Never cook anything in a wine you wouldn't drink.
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If you cook using wine in a marinade, soup, stew or sauce, serve the same wine when you eat the meal. What could be simpler than that? Your recipe wouldn't call for the wine if it didn't go well with the food you're cooking. Even though the alcohol in the wine will evaporate during preparation, the flavor will remain. Serving the dish with the same wine is the perfect way to make sure the food and wine combine in a pleasing way.

This means, of course, that you should cook with a good wine that you will enjoy drinking. But that's a good rule of thumb anyway. If you don't like the wine, the food you cooked with it probably won't please you either. This also means avoiding so-called cooking wines, which have salt and other additives and aren't intended for drinking.


The common wisdom on which wines to add to which foods is similar to that of which wines to drink with various dishes: Full-bodied reds go well with red meat dishes and in red sauces. Dry whites are good ingredients for seafood dishes and light cream sauces. Sherry goes well with poultry and in soups. Sweet wines are good in desserts. Add regional wines to regional dishes.

Want to be more daring? Keep reading.

2: Mix It Up

Many wine pairings focus on complementary characteristics, finding something -- body, flavor, color or region -- shared by both the food and the wine. But another approach that can work well is to focus on contrast. Find something in the wine that's different from the food in a way that will make both taste better. What you're aiming for is not a horrible clash of elements, but balance.

Pair a wine with high acid content with very hot, spicy food, for example. The wine will make you salivate and help cool your mouth. If you're serving a fish or poultry dish with a rich, creamy sauce, serve a wine that's crisp and highly acidic.


Wines high in tannins taste softer and less bitter when served with fatty, protein-rich foods. Think red meat and cheese. If a wine is almost too sweet, drink it with salty foods. The wine will taste less sweet, and the salty food will taste better. Sour wines such as Sauvignon Blanc can cut the richness in fatty foods.

Do you like cranberries with turkey, a relatively bland meat? Then serve a wine with red berry flavors, maybe a Pinot Noir, with your turkey.

Keep reading for the single most important rule in pairing food with wine.

1: There Are No Rules

When in doubt, just go with a wine you enjoy.
When in doubt, just go with a wine you enjoy.
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The most important thing to remember when pairing wine with food is that there are no absolute rules. Matching food and wine is not some sort of test you have to pass. After all, who are you trying to please? Yourself, for the most part.

Sure, if you're choosing the wine for a group or event, you'll probably want to go with a conventional, safe selection that won't shock anyone's palate. In such cases, it's good to consult a wine merchant, book or Web site.

But if you’re choosing for yourself and maybe a few people to whom you’re close, go with what you like. If you’re tried Pinot Noir with lobster and thought it was great, go for it. If you like rose with your pasta, don’t let someone tell you that’s an inferior choice. If you’re afraid of making an embarrassing mistake, consider this: Surveys show that California Chardonnay is the biggest selling domestic wine. But connoisseurs think Chardonnay doesn't pair well with most foods [source: Orlin]. From their perspective, it sounds like a lot of people are making pairing mistakes.

Just remember that wine and food pairing pointers are just that: tips, hints and some basic information that might help you make good choices if you don't know which wine you want with a particular meal. The whole point of taking time to savor good food with good wine is enjoyment. These tips might enhance your gustatory pleasure, but don't be intimidated by strict rules.

Raise a glass and toast good times!

Lots More Information

Related Articles


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