Gone are the days when we felt we had to follow the hard and fast rules of wine pairing or food matching. It can be intimidating to think of what big red wines will go well with red meat, which white wines with fish and, where to find the best sparkling as an aperitif. Recently, those general guidelines have become much more relaxed, allowing for more adventurous wine selections. As the winemaker of the award-winning, Two Sisters Vineyards in Niagara on the Lake in Canada, I’ve taken part in many wine pairing dinner events over the years. With the varietal selections we have available, and the meticulous vineyard practices, including cropping for low yields has privileged us with exceptional fruit. The winery is perfectly located on unique soil composition, terroir, and we have a great location in the Niagara River appellation Also, with our ultra-modern production facility, innovative fermentation equipment, and a first-class French oak barrel program, this spoils me as a winemaker so I get to select only the best wines for dinner pairings. But you do not have to be an expert in elevating your dining experience. Whether you are a novice in wine pairing or a wine enthusiast, you can throw a memorable experience by knowing the basic principles.
First, you need to understand the entire menu and plan from there. How will the meal be presented? Will it be individual courses that you would like to pair a different wine with each course or a family-style meal where you would select one red and one white to go with the entire menu? These are all critical factors to consider.
Once you figure out all the details, you want to decide whether you would like your wines to have parallel flavors or different attributes to the dishes you are serving. Choosing a wine with identical flavors focuses on elevating the character and flavor profiles in the wine and the food. For example, a fire-roasted game hen paired with a Cabernet Franc grape reduction and polenta is a good pairing. I selected a young one for this, a 2017 Cabernet Franc that had lots of wild gamey aromatics and subtle oak spice. These worked very well to elevate the reduction and the smoky notes. A contrasting pairing is where you choose your wine or your dish to create a balance in the other. Another one my favorite contrasting pairing as an example was a traditional method sparkling wine with a fresh branzino crudo generously drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The acidity and fine bubbles of the wine helped to balance the fat in the fish and the oil, leaving the palate refreshed.
When eating at home, we tend to serve our favorites. The most crucial point you need to remember is that it is ideal to choose the wines first and design a dish around it. Especially when you have a favorite wine or a special bottle, I find it easier to work forwards from the wine than backward from the dish. We can design the food around the wine and taste to perfect it.
Simple guidelines to get you started to have a successful wine pairing dinner experience.
1. Acidity in wines balances fat and creaminess but also works with natural acids occurring in the dishes. The same Sauvignon Blanc could work well to pair with a salad with a vinaigrette dressing with some acidity, as well as a cream dressing.
2. Red wines have tannins. The right food item can be a tool to soften more aggressive or young tannins. Although cliché, a well-marbled grilled cut of beef or lamb with a Cab Suv is a match made in heaven.
3. Sweet wines work with spicy foods, and also desserts that are equally or less sweet than the wine. The wine must always be sweeter than the dish, or the wine will get washed out. A well-balanced Riesling with good acidity and some residual sugar makes a beautiful pairing for spicy Thai or Szechuan dishes. You ought to avoid a high alcohol wine or big red wine for spicy dishes. Alcohol can negatively elevate spice.
4. Heavy protein dishes can go with bigger wines. A roasted venison loin for example, with cocoa nib and braised cipollini onion pairs perfectly with a big Bordeaux blend or a Cabernet Sauvignon. The same with a creamy butter-poached crab on tortelloni pasta would pair well with a barrel-fermented rich Chardonnay.
5. Lighter dishes should go with lighter whites or a light red with a slight chill (10 mins in the fridge). A citrus-marinated fresh fish ceviche is fantastic with a crisp, unoaked Chardonnay. Poached salmon and new potatoes is a great dish for a light Pinot Noir or Gamay.
6. When having multiple courses, make sure your wines are moving up in weight and tannins as you progress. Typically, we start with a glass of sparkling wine, then move to white or rosé, then on to the reds.
7. Don’t forget about Rosé! Such a versatile wine often enjoyed on its own to start but also pairs well with summer salads, or my favorite: grilled octopus on a bed of arugula. Rosés can range in weight from light and off-dry, to very textural and bone dry within a range of price points.
8. It is essential to remember your sides and sauces, as well. They are as crucial to your pairing as the main itself. Asparagus and artichokes are notoriously tricky to pair with wines; however, it is surely not impossible; it just takes careful selection. Cynarin, a naturally appearing chemical in artichokes, makes wines seem overly sweet. The trick is to balance it with a dry, fresh wine with good acidity.
As a winemaker, I know first-hand the amount of effort and time that goes into making wine. Because of this, I always want to make sure people get the utmost enjoyment out of their chosen wines by drinking them with the right dish or selecting the most complimentary wine for the menu. It can make or break the experience. Here’s another tip, if you have access or know a professional, ask for help and always think outside the box. Most importantly, have fun with it! Cheers!