Red meat should be paired with red wine, and white wine must accompany any fish dish. While this longstanding axiom is true in most instances, the question is a bit more complicated. Many wine experts advise that crossing the line on this belief can still produce a delicious combination.
Successful wine and food pairing can enhance the dining experience by complementing, not conflicting with, the flavors and textures of the food, harmonizing without competing—the intensity of these characteristics of both the food course and the wine should match.
Setting strict, unbreakable rules for wine and food pairing is often considered overkill by many and even somewhat pompous in some circles. But a handful of suggestions can create a greater awareness of what works best.
To establish a better understanding and distinguish the differences, many develop their own set of “rules” by sampling two substantially different varietals or blends with a single dish to begin to learn how each impacts the flavor and enjoyment of the food.
Some Basic Wine and Food Pairing Guidelines
The following list is meant to provide some general guidelines, not “rules,” for pairing food with wine properly:
1. Try to balance the intensity of the flavors. For example, lightly flavored dishes like grilled chicken usually pair best with less intensely flavored wines.
2. Choose a wine that pairs well with the flavor of the sauce or gravy. Because sauces can be the most dominant flavor in any dish, a wine with a similar flavor profile is best. For example, a sauce with a “fruity” component may pair best with a fruit-forward wine with fresh acidity.
3. Choose a full-flavored wine to pair with full-flavored meat dishes. A barbequed steak should be paired with a full-bodied wine having tannins and structure that effectively keep pace with the meats. For example, the flavors of a lighter, more delicate Pinot Noir will likely be overwhelmed by a robust main dish.
4. Red wine with red meat or white wine with fish usually works well but is not always the best. For example, you might pair a mild Pinot Noir with a tuna steak or a Riesling with rich sausage dishes.
5. “Sweet” dishes are challenging to pair. Hosts will find that pairing an excellent quality sweet wine with a somewhat less-sweet entrée can make a nice combination. However, a very sweet-tasting main course will tend to overwhelm the sweetness of any wine.
6. Don’t rule out contrasting flavors. While creamy dishes pair beautifully with a full-bodied Chardonnay’s buttery, oaky flavors, the bubbles and acidity of a high-quality sparkling wine or Champagne can contrast deliciously with the taste and texture of the sauces.
Note that reasonable exceptions to any of these suggestions do exist. Guidelines here are never meant to be overly strict.
Some Specific Ideas for Food and Wine Pairings
A Food & Wine article from April 2022explores wine and food pairing in considerable depth, offering some additional tips and insights to consider. Some of the single vineyard J.H. Wheeler wines handcrafted at Wheeler Farms, one of the premier St. Helena wineries, pair beautifully with many of the delicious food selections mentioned here.
Earthy Flavored Dishes and Pinot Noir
Although light-bodied and still flavorful, an excellent Pinot Noir pairs nicely with dishes that feature mushrooms or lentils. And contrary to popular belief about red wines and fish, the same Pinot Noir can be an excellent accompaniment for a tasty salmon dish.
Rich Seafood and Sauces and Chardonnay
A hearty seafood meal like swordfish, scampi, prawns, or other seafood in a rich sauce will pair nicely with a medium to full-bodied Chardonnay with flavors of apple, papaya, or pineapple.
Salty or Fried Dishes with Dry Sparkling Wines or Champagne
Whether you are having a bowl of potato chips or something more complicated like oily, fried foods, the fruity sweetness of sparkling wines can cut through the saltiness and seem even more refreshing.
Juicy Red Meat Dishes with Cabernet Sauvignon
At the pinnacle of intensely flavorful food and wine, steaks or lamb dishes paired with the firm tannins of one of the highest-quality J.H. Wheeler Cabernet Sauvignon create a beautiful culinary adventure. The Cab cuts through the fat and protein of the meat, which, in turn, smooths out the tannins in the wine.
Tart Sauces and Dressings with Sauvignon Blanc
A slightly robust white, Sauvignon Blanc holds its own against a wide range of savory dishes and sauces. These may include vinaigrettes, sauteed fish, scallops in a grapefruit-onion sauce, and even goat cheese.
Cheesy Dishes and a Dry Rosé
Some cheeses pair well with robust red wines, and certain white wines are perfect accompaniments for the less aromatic cheeses. But as a general rule, a quality dry rosé pairs well with any cheese, as well as grilled fish or a plate of charcuterie.
Lighter Seafood Dishes and Pinot Grigio
Heighten the flavor of your light fish dishes with a quality Pinot Grigio. This varietal tends to be light-bodied, with various fruity flavors and floral aromas, a great match for a lighter-flavored seafood offering.
Barbeque Sauces and Malbec
Whether your brushed-on barbeque sauce is somewhat sweet, spicy, or both, a quality Malbec or Shiraz can be the right pairing.
Spicy Dishes and Syrah
Heavily seasoned meats can work well with a Syrah or a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, wines that offer some spicy notes of their own.
Terrines, Pâtés, Mousses with Zinfandel
For dishes bearing a creamy texture and savory flavors like a pork, lamb, or duck terrine or a liver pâté, a quality spicy, fruity Zinfandel will complement the richness of these typically French molded dishes.
Sweet and Spicy Dishes or Spicy Green Salad with an Off-Dry Riesling
This pairing is all about matching the moderate sweetness of the Riesling with the heat of a spicy salad or savory recipe to highlight the flavorful ingredients.
Hors d’Oeuvres with Rosé Sparkling Wines
A California rosé, champagne, or sparkling wine works well with a wide range of foods, particularly as a lead-in to a flavorful dinner of lamb chops, beef risotto, or grilled tuna. The mouth-watering acidity and depth of flavor will please any guest.
Experiment and Make Your Own Rules
Clearly, there may be more than one successful wine pairing for some dishes. The key is never to let the wine overwhelm the enjoyment of the food nor to allow the richness of the food to negate the beauty and pleasure of a beautiful wine.
Wine and food pairings demand balance. An inappropriate pairing can become apparent at once.
Book Your Adventure at Wheeler Farms
Wheeler Farms, a historic wine estate near Yountville, produces the highest quality, single vineyard wines in the heart of Napa Valley. The winery is situated among more-than-century-old vineyards that sustainably produce the highest quality grapes for award-winning, single-vineyard wines, including the J.H Wheeler collection of Cabernet Sauvignons, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, and more.
Visitors are welcome to visit Wheeler Farms Winery and sample and purchase the line of outstanding single vineyard wines produced in their state-of-the-art winemaking facilities.
Reservations are requested for a unique Wheeler Farms wine-tasting experience. You can reserve your spot for a fascinating and enjoyable event by visiting the Wheeler Farms Wines website and completing the simple Tasting Reservation Request.
If you have questions or wish to schedule a larger group visit or other special arrangements, you should phone Wheeler Farm’s Director of Membership and Customer Relations, Stephanie Farmer, at 1-707-200-8500.
You can also contact Stephanie at her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.