A couple of weeks ago, I talked about going wine tasting. This week, I want to talk about pairing wines and food. After all, surrounded by so many great wines, how do I know what I should serve with a meal? I mean, white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat is so old-school. What do I serve with tuna? Does it matter if the tuna is sashimi (and therefore red) or grilled (and therefore white)? What if I'm not serving meat?
Let me start by saying, I'm not an expert. My use of wine terminology isn't necessarily what other people would use, but it's how I think about the wine and what its flavors are. It's also honest. I've come at pairing food and wine primarily from a cook's point of view -- the food is paramount. However, this isn't to say that I haven't built a meal around an interesting bottle of wine.
No matter how much you read about wines and pairing wines and food, there is no substitute for just getting out there and tasting the wines yourself. Everyone's palate is a little different; only you know what you like and why.
Pairing wine and food has two primary strategies: contrast and complement. In theory, these strategies are simple to apply. You either pair a wine and a food with contrasting qualities, such as pairing a sweet dessert wine with a bitter dark chocolate dessert, or with complementary qualities, such as pairing a Szechuan beef stir-fry with a spicy Barberi red wine. The reality of wine pairing is a little trickier.
In general, I tend to pair food and wine by which complements the flavor of the other. So, if I braise a chicken breast in a Chardonnay, I'm likely to serve a Chardonnay with it, sometimes from the same vintner, sometimes from another. For example, I brined two game hens in an oaked Chardonnay for Thanksgiving and served an unoaked Chardonnay with the meal. There was a risk that the Chardonnay in the brine would overwhelm what I served with dinner (due to the oakiness), but I expected the unoaked Chardonnay to help highlight the lightness and sweetness of the meat (which it did admirably).
However, you don't always cook with wine. Complementing the flavors of the wine and food is somewhat less obvious. I like to pair Merlot and Zinfandel wines with strongly spiced beef; I prefer Merlot when beef has heavier spicing (read: lots of spices, but not necessarily hot) and Zinfandel when I have a creamier/fattier sauce. However, when the food is spicy (read: hot), I really like to pair with a Syrah; the Syrah quenches the flames without washing away all the heat like a heavier red would. Sangiovese and Barberi are other varietals that are nice to pair with a spicy dish as the wine highlights the spicy flavor but controls the heat well.
Vegetarian dishes can pair well with red or white wines. In general, the preparation serves as a nice guide. Grilled or roasted vegetables tend to go better with Pinot Noir, Petit Syrah, or a Cabernet Franc, especially when spiced with basil or rosemary. When put in a tomato sauce, such as a ragout or a parmesian, I like Cabernet Sauvignon; the sharpness of the wine plays well with the tomato sauce. However, in cream sauces or cheese sauces, such as a broccoli rice casserole, whites generally work best. Which white works best depends on the effect I want. If the sauce is rich, I might pair it with a Chardonnay to highlight the voluptuousness of the sauce or pair it with a Pinot Gris to refresh the palate during the meal, allowing you to explore the intricacies of the cheese as you eat.
Cream sauces can be fun to pair with a meal. For a cream sauce built around mushrooms or beef, I like a nice red, usually a Pinot Noir or Petit Syrah. For a cream sauce with chicken, veal, or fish, Pinot Gris can be nice, unless the cream sauce is strongly flavored, such as a lemon beurre blanc. Then I would tend to go with a Chardonnay. Grilled chicken pairs wonderfully with a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, but barbecued chicken is better with a Pinot Noir or a Petit Syrah.
Sushi is an interesting meal to pair a wine with. I tend to go with a white, not because sushi is fish, but because the flavors are a bit lighter overall (even unagi/eel). I like a Pinot Gris with sushi because it cleanses and refreshes the palate nicely. The lightness of the wine highlights the lightness and freshness of the fish.
Another interesting dish to pair a wine with is dessert. Most desserts are sweet, so pairing a sweet wine with it runs the risk of creating an cloyingly sweet end of a meal. I prefer to contrast my wine with dessert, serving a sweet Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or even an ice wine with a dark, bitter chocolate, for instance. Dry Rieslings work well with sweeter desserts. I'm still exploring dessert wines, mostly because I am not overly fond of sweet wines (unless I'm planning to mull it).
I haven't discussed blends here. The specific characteristics of a blend depends on which wines are used in the blend and the proportions of the wines. As a result, familiarity with a given vintner's blend is the best guide for pairing.
In the end, the best way to determine what wine to pair a food with is your own taste. You need to taste wines to learn their characters, both of the variety of wine and of the vintner. Like I said at the beginning, these are only my opinions at this time. As I explore new varietals, such as Lembergers and Vignoiers, I may change my opinions about best pairings.