Wine and Food Pairings Guide for Beginners

a couple enjoying wine and food together

Wine and food pairings can be complicated, but for the beginners, it doesn’t have to be hard. You can break it down to the basics, and that will get you far enough. That’s what this guide and chart are here for; to show you how to break things down to the basics so you can start experimenting on your own without running into major disasters.

Basic Rules for Pairing Wine with Food

Let’s start off with six basic rules to keep in mind when selecting a wine, the pair with our food. Keep in mind that rules are meant to be broken. These are more like guidelines to help guide you in the general direction. Once you get the basics down, feel free to break and bend them as you see fit. Let’s get to these rules then.

  1. Red wines go better with red meat. If you only had to remember two standards, this one would be one of them. Red wines are typically bolder, so they go better with bolder meats like a fatty steak.
  2. White wines go better with white meats. White meats like poultry and seafood are lighter in taste so a lighter white wine will pair better.
  3. If pairing with a heavy sauce dish, pair the wine with the sauce instead of the meat.
  4. Bolder, and more bitter wines are balanced with fats. Bold red wines are generally more bitter.
  5. Don’t overpower. Don’t choose a wine that will overwhelm the dish and don’t pick a dish that will go and beat the wine. They can complement and contrast, but don’t overpower. An example of this would be pairing a bold red wine with a light dish like baked chicken.
  6. The wine you choose should always be more acidic than the food. If the food contains more acid, it will quickly overpower the wine and throw the balance off.

Breaking It Down to the Basics

Matching wine with food is all about balancing out the basics tastes. After you understand what these basic tastes are and how they can work together (or against each other), then you’ll be able to pair wine with a dish.

There are more tastes than these primary six, but you can ignore them when you first start out. The six primary tastes are:

  • Fat
  • Sweet
  • Acid/Sour
  • Salt
  • Bitter
  • Spice

These six basic tastes apply to both food and wine. There isn’t just going to be one single taste in a wine or a dish. In most cases, there’s going to be a combination of a couple or more of these tastes. To simplify things, you can just narrow it down to the most noticeable taste(s). You don’t have pinpoint all of them; only the most prominent tastes will get you far enough.

While most food can be broken down into the six basic taste components above, wine is be simplified even further. Wine can be broken down into just three of the six primary tastes:

  • Any desert, sweet, or semi-sweet wine.
  • White and sparkling wine usually have higher acid content, but that is not always the case.
  • Red wine (especially bolder red wine) are usually more bitter.

Matching the Basic Taste Components

chart showing good wine and food pairings choices

The next step is to consider the basic taste components of both the food and the wine. Understanding how these basic tastes work with each other is what you need to know to help you choose pleasant wine and food pairings. Use the chart (or list) below to help you pick the right choice. Break down the dish to it’s basic taste(s) and then choose a wine that is a good match for it based on the wine’s basic taste(s).

Salty Food

  • Sugar will contrast, and thus balance the salt.
  • Pair salty food with a sweet or semi-sweet wine.
  • Stick to lighter wines.
  • Avoid bolder wines with higher alcohol content. The salt will bring out the bitterness in the wine.

Fatty Food

  • Fats will complement and balance bitterness; toning down the wine’s bitterness and allowing you to taste the other flavors in the wine.
  • The richness of fatty food will work better with bolder wines (which tend to be richer).
  • Fatty foods can also be contrasted and balanced with acid.
  • A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent choice.

Sweet Food

  • Depending on how sweet the food is, you’ll want to choose something that is off-dry.
  • Avoid stacking sweet on sweet. If one item is too sweet, it will ultimately overpower the other item’s sweetness; leaving you with the other tastes only. The sweetness of food will disrupt the sweetness of the wine.

Sour Food

  • Sour food can be a little tricky.
  • High acid in the food will often overpower the wine’s flavors.
  • If you’re pairing wine with sour food, make sure the wine has higher levels of acidity than the dish/food.

Spicy Food

  • Sweetness will contrast and balance the spiciness.
  • Choose a sweet or semi-sweet wine.
  • Spicy foods do better with lighter white wines.
  • Avoid dry wines, wines with high acid, high tannins, and high alcohol content.
  • Good choices include Riesling and Gewurztraminer

Bitter Food

  • Fat and salt will complement and balance biter. The problem is there’s no fatty or salty wine.
  • Avoid bitter on bitter. Stacking bitter over bitter will just result in more bitter. Too much bitterness is not very pleasant.

There are many more tastes, but these basics will get you started. Once, you’re comfortable with these basics, you can start exploring and learning about some of the other more complex tastes.

Light or Heavy

Another general rule to follow is to consider the richness. A richer food is often fattier. A richer wine (more bodied) is often bolder and has higher alcohol content. In addition to the basic tastes, you might want to consider the richness as well.

  • Heavy dishes pair better with bolder wine (usually red).
  • Lighter dishes pair better with a lighter (usually white)

When considering the richness of the dish, you need to also take into account the sauce. This is especially true if the dish is sauce heavy.

That’s about it for the basics of this wine and food pairings guide. Yes, the process of selecting the perfect wine for your dish is and can be a lot more complicated. However, following the basics here will get you reasonably decent results. Remember, everyone has different tastes and preferences. The best way to find the perfect pairing for your favorite dish is to experiment.

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