User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Wine and Food Wednesday
Give Me Three Minutes—I’ll Give You The World of Wine and Food Pairings

By Stephen Eliot

I know what works for me. And I can tell you in three minutes. Whether these guidelines will work for you is a different kettle of fish. It can’t hurt you to listen, however.

My favorite comfort food, Spaghetti Bolognese, was on the menu last night here at home, and as the pasta was boiling, I figured that it was high time to think about which of the several dozen bottles strewn about the kitchen would be the right one for dinner. Barbera? Dolcetto? Zinfandel? All looked appealing, but this night, the new Gary Farrell 2009 Sonoma County Selection Zinfandel got the call, and a most tasty match it turned out to be.

While I stood and considered the options, my twenty-something daughter who is developing a keen interest in things vinous asked the simple question, “how do you know which wine to pick?” Now, my simple answer would be “experience”, but I knew that her question was serious one, so rather than earn a dyspeptic look and a sarcastic comment along the lines of “yeah, that does me a lot of good”, I thought it would be wiser to choose my words with care. At the same time, I also knew that I could easily put a damper on the evening by turning into Professor Eliot. I mean, it was pasta night, after all!

“It’s not all that hard to find something that will work, if you start with a few basic principles,” I began and followed with what I hoped were a few quick and useful words about what I call the “quantifiables” in wine that I consider when making an educated guess about which wine will comfortably accompany which food. They are tannin, acidity, sugar and alcohol.

Tannin, the compound responsible for red-wine astringency is amplified and made particularly puckery by acidity in foods, and it takes on a bitter, medicinal aspect when matched up with fish oils. It is, however, tamed by meat fats and proteins.

High acid wines do a nice job in cleansing the palate and cutting through fats and creamy sauces, but I have never found much pleasure in pairing acid with acid and so avoid such wines with tangy dishes.

Sweetness is easy. You either like it or not, but beware of combining very dry, tannic reds with sugary dishes. It can make for a most bitter and acrimonious marriage.

Alcohol is a tougher call, and, while elevated alcohol does not necessarily mean a wine is hot and out of balance, it does signal that plenty of substance and body are to be expected and that delicate dishes might be best avoided.

Other than these simple concerns, common sense compels that you should try to keep things balanced as far as the relative intensities of any given food and wine go, and that ideally neither should overpower the other.

I cannot say that by working within these very wide lines I have had what I would call a bad food-and-wine match in a very long time. Perfect matches? Well, that is subjective stuff and will always depend on the eye of the beholder. Some have been better that others, and, on occasion, there have been some really stunning combinations that I can recall with clarity for years. It is easy enough to steer clear of disaster, but just how good a match might be is ultimately discovered only in the doing. And, that, after all, is the fun of food and wine pairings.

The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


No Subject
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:11/2/2011 2:29:58 PM


Thank you so much for this: "I have never found much pleasure in pairing acid with acid..."

For years I've tried to get the point across that the deep, rich southern Italian tomato sauces are often too acidic for a northern wine like, say, Chianti. I hate that pairing.

by Paul Wagner
Posted on:11/3/2011 10:49:20 AM

Hi Stephen:  nice article, and a good answer for your daughter.  But it pre-supposes that you KNOW what the tannin, acidity and sugar levels of the wines are.  (You an read the alcohol on the label---if you can believe it.)  So while you gave your daughter a good also stayed true to your initial reaction.  Because with the experience you have in wine, pairings are still difficult for most consumers!

And Thomas:  Chianti Classico is for beef!



wine pairing
by Joanne
Posted on:11/3/2011 11:52:14 AM

And here I am, liking an acidic wine with acidic foods. But I like acidic wines in own personal taste. Haven't had a Gary Farrel Zin, but had others with some acid showing. It all boils down to that one word, experience. All kinds of guidelines can be set down for food and wine pairings, but it really takes personal experience to help determine which pairings work best for each person.

Experience and "knowing"
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:11/3/2011 5:51:33 PM

Yes, is where you start, isn't it? I must presuppose some very basic knowledge, i.e., Cabernet Suavignon is generally tannic, Sauvignon Blanc is genrally acidic, if I am to posit a quick and simple primer. If we are talking about starting with a knowledge base of "zero" then quick answers are not possible, and the toipic of food-and-wine pairing must be accompanied by a lengthy tutorial about varietal/regional basics. That, of course, takes more time and explanation, and I think that is the reason that we are too often left with useless recommendations to "drink whatever you like".

And, yes, Bistecca Fiorentina with Classico is the way to go!


Wine Pairing
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:11/3/2011 6:11:01 PM

Joanne, I agree that experience is key, and I am not about criticize anyone for liking high-acid wines with high-acid foods. My experience is that that most folks are not going to enjoy the match of two or more really acidic components. I happen to enjoy brisk and lively wines as well, but a really tart wine with an especially tangy dish can set my teeth to buzzing.

I like Champagne, and I like ceviche...but not together, and as both Thomas and Paul have commented, a zesty Chianti teamed up with tomato sauce often comes across as being acid on top of acid, and the flavors of both become secondary to unbridled tartness. If acid in and of itself is the prize to be pursued, howvever, then I would not argue. 

"Guidelines" are not "laws", and the ones listed above are simply those that have worked for me.

by Sherman
Posted on:11/4/2011 7:46:37 AM

Your Mileage May Vary -- seems I find that little phrase has wide application in so manhy areas of life. As you say, guidelines are just that -- some signposts that might help guide someone along in their journey. Maybe it works for them, maybe it doesn't -- but we hope they had fun trying, learned a bit about the food, the wine and maybe themselves. It then helps them further fine tune their senses and make a little progress along the wine trail.

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.