Rules of attraction: a guide to pairing food and wine

Published on 2 May 2019

Photo: Courtesy of Vintage Cellars

Finding the perfect match is easy — at least when you’re talking food and wine. Your recipe for success? Just follow these flavour guidelines.

Food and wine pairing is an inexact science but following a few simple rules can help elevate a simple meal to a grand dining experience. Generally, harmony is the key, but sometimes what might seem like a disparate pairing can turn out to be a heavenly match. A brash, spicy zinfandel with a beetroot and goat’s curd salad, for example, or a zesty riesling with smoked trout.

There are five key flavour elements that form the cornerstones of the produce we cook — sour, spicy, sweet, savoury and bitter. Three of these are also important components of wine. Sourness is the natural acidity of grapes, which, after all, are just another fruit. Bitterness in wine comes in the form of tannin - both from the skins of red grapes and the oak barrels that the red or white grapes are aged in. Wine’s sweetness comes from the fruity flavours of grapes, with unfermented grape sugars giving the sweetness to off-dry styles and dessert wines. A winemaker seeks to balance these three elements in a wine in a way that is similar to a chef combining ingredients in the kitchen.

While a few simple rules will minimise your food and wine clashes, don’t be afraid to experiment. And don’t fall for that old saying “white wine with fish and red wine with meat”, because food and wine pairing is often more about the saucing than the prime ingredient. These guidelines from Vintage Cellars will help you turn a simple meal into something special. And if all else fails, simply enjoy the food and then drink the wine. 


Sour rules
Acid is sour and brings the energy and vitality to all wine, be it red or white. Some grape varieties are naturally high in acid — riesling and pinot noir, for example. Grapes such as these that have been grown in a cool climate retain their acidity (their sourness), which will define the dishes they best accompany.

Citrus juice (especially lime) is important in Asian cooking, and often balanced with sugar. A fruit-sweet yet zesty riesling or pinot gris like Catalina Sounds Pinot Gris will work beautifully with Vietnamese spring rolls.

Food high in citrus acid tends to make a wine taste sweeter, so marry a tight, bright pinot gris or grigio with a tangy lemon chicken dish.

Mediterranean white grapes tend to have a lower acidity and work well with seafood and strong citrus flavours. Think fiano paired with a lemony risotto, or the Spanish grape albariño with sardines drenched in lemon juice. Recipes throughout the Mediterranean use lemon juice to counterbalance and cut through the oiliness of deep-frying, which is why a zesty sauvignon blanc paired with fried calamari works so well. Similarly, an acid–etched pinot noir will cut through the oily richness of chargrilled ocean trout.

Just as a vinaigrette-dressed salad forms a counterpoint to the protein-richness of a steak, a medium-bodied cool-climate red such as the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier will integrate these elements beautifully. Caponata also has a splash of vinegar to tame the sweetness of the currants, eggplant and tomato. A nero d’avola or grenache blend is perfect with grilled swordfish served with this sweet-sour Italian classic. Tomatoes are naturally high in acid, which is why tomato-rich spaghetti bolognese and savoury chianti (whose prime grape is sangiovese) are soulmates. An Australian sangiovese would make an excellent alternative.


Spicy rules
A crisp, well-chilled rosé is a failsafe choice with spicy food. Australian rosés are on top form — especially those made with savoury grapes such as sangiovese, nebbiolo or tempranillo. Serve one with a Thai green chicken curry.

High-alcohol wines accentuate the spice-heat in a dish, so unless you like a culinary clash, avoid big (15%) Barossa shiraz with a Madras curry and instead quench the fire with a low-alcohol Hunter semillon.

Most Indian curries have complex spicing, and work well with softer reds like Côtes du Rhône, Australian GSM (grenache, shiraz, mourvèdre) or Bosio’s Barbera d’Asti.

Red-wine lovers should look for fruity, spicy reds with a good level of acidity to complement chilli-dominant food. Pair a gamay (mandatory grape of beaujolais) with a Moroccan lamb tagine. An everyday pinot noir with a Jamaican fish curry is surprisingly good, while a bright, breezy valpolicella is great with pulled-pork tacos. For subtly spiced food, especially tomato based dishes, tempranillo, the spicy Spanish variety, works well. Try a rioja with patatas bravas or Lebanese kefte. Remember to serve the reds cool (but not chilled).

Vietnamese and Thai dishes carry top-note (often blazing-hot) spices best soothed by a grüner veltliner, the Austrian white grape with its own white-pepper spice. Wines with residual sweetness offer contrast, so pair a German riesling kabinett or a fresh and zesty South Australian riesling such as Heggies Vineyard Riesling with Thai green papaya salad.


Sweet rules
Many Asian dressings and flavourings include a pinch of sugar (cane or palm) offset by lime juice or rice vinegar. The fine St Hallett Riesling, or an off-dry wine, such as a spicy gewürztraminer or fruity moscato, makes the perfect partner for these.

When it comes to desserts, try to balance the sweetness of your wine with that of the dessert. If the wine is too sweet for the dessert, it will leave a cloying taste in the mouth. Too dry, and the sweetness of the dessert will make the wine seem sour. Chilling dessert wines helps to control the sweetness and accentuate the wine’s acidity. That said, a full-on botrytis semillon or sauternes should be served cool, not icy cold.

Match botrytised semillons with dairy-based desserts such as crème caramel or tiramisu. The wine’s unctuous flavours and touch of (oak-derived) tannin will also cleanly cut the creamy richness of an apricot custard flan.

Pair sweet rieslings with fruit-based desserts such as a traditional fruit salad or summer berry pudding. The acidity of the riesling acts as a foil to the fruit’s inherent acidity. Follow the International Riesling Foundation sweetness scale to make sure the sweetness of the wine isn’t out of step with the dish.

Chocolate-based desserts knock most dessert wines sideways, so it’s best to seek out a fruity muscat or super-rich sherry. The Lustau Sherry Pedro Ximénez San Emilio makes a heavenly match with a classic chocolate mousse. And, while tannin and chocolate are sworn enemies, peace will be assured if you serve up a lush McLaren Vale grenache with a bar of 70% dark chocolate — best served while you’re binge-watching your favourite TV series, of course.


Savoury rules
Savoury — or umami — flavours are prominent in produce that’s high in amino acid. Think tomatoes, beetroot, spinach, oysters, soy sauce and all meats, especially smoky bacon. Sushi dipped in soy sauce matched with a complex sauvignon blanc is a heavenly union.

Red meat is highly savoury, its protein and flavour-enhancing fat demanding a bold, tannic wine such as a Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon or blend such as Rosabrook cabernet merlot. Gently slow-cooking meat for braises and casseroles breaks down the protein, as well as emphasising its savoury flavours thanks to the umami notes of onion, garlic, mushroom, tomato and stock — or better still, red wine. Red wine ages in a similar way to the slow-cooking process, its tannins softening and the berry fruits morphing into more savoury, earthy flavours. For a mouthwatering combination, pair a mature red with a boeuf bourguignon.

Rustic reds are made for umami-rich food: barolo with wild boar ragu; Australian GSM (grenache, shiraz, mourvèdre) and a hamburger with the lot; tempranillo with any lamb dish. A sturdy malbec with barbequed beef ribs will transport you straight to Argentina.

Barrel fermentation and oak ageing add a savoury character to both red and white wines. Partner a roast chicken with a barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc such as Craggy Range’s Te Muna Sauvignon Blanc and you’ll get the picture — sublime pairing at its best!

In the same way, as cheeses age, they gain an increasingly savoury flavour, which is why pairing Parmigiano-Reggiano with a vintage champagne is such a delightful surprise. Maturing a soft, brie-style cheese will bring out its umami character. However, a tannic red will clash with the intense savouriness of the white mould, so astonish your guests by serving an old-school, buttery chardonnay with a ripe brie, camembert or stinky washed rind. It takes food and wine matching to a higher plane.


Bitter rules
Tannin is what gives wine its bitterness and comes from the skins of red grapes, with red wines fermented on their skins to extract colour, flavour and tannin. Cabernet sauvignon grapes have tough skins laden with colour and tannin. Pinot noir grapes have softer skins with less colour and milder tannins, which is why pinot noir, such as Tamar Ridge Pinot Noir, works with spicy and bitter food.

Oak is a secondary source of tannin in red and white wines. Most quality chardonnays are fermented and aged in barrel, resulting in more complex flavours and a firmer structure. Chardonnay, such as the Grace Farm Chardonnay, comes into its own with food, be it Weiner schnitzel or Korean fried chicken. Its tannins help cut the richness of Atlantic salmon or ocean trout, as does a subtle pinot noir.

Brussels sprouts, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus all add a bitter element to a dish. Pair them with a subtle white such as semillon or Italian varieties including fiano or vermentino. But take care with artichokes, radicchio and kale, as their inherent bitterness can ruin a wine.

Blue veining in cheeses balances their creamy richness, but can leave a bitter taste if served with a youthful, tannic red. The English serve port with their Stilton; the French, sauternes with their Roquefort; the sweetness of those wines taming the bitterness of the blue mold.

This article is presented by Vintage Cellars, a partner of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.