There are many ways to increase your knowledge and appreciation of fine wines. Here we present the "Rules of Thumb," along with another basic of understanding how to best match food and wines: learning the qualities and differences of the major grape varietals, and how these characteristics are (or ought to be) expressed in the production of wines. Here you will see why some wines are more suited to certain types of food than others.
Rules of Thumb
The matching of the ideal wine with your meal has become a subject of much interest today. In the past, those who lived in wine-producing regions simply drank the local wine with the local food. And for good reason, as food and wine styles in any given region typically complement each other.
The strong but subtle flavors of Italian food seem to be enhanced when served with the right Italian wine. Good French wines have a finesse that complements the elegance of French cuisine; and Australian wines, which are far too fruity to match well with French or Italian dishes, come alive with a simple steak on the "Barbi."
How boring it would be, though, to only drink wines in this manner. What, if anything, should guide our wine and food pairings?
There have always been the basic rules: red wine with red meat, white wine with fish and white meat. These still largely apply, but they are by no means binding.
To find the perfect wine with every dish, however, would require specifying individual producers, particular vintages, and other information that would make the task a difficult one at best.
Instead we suggest a broader approach -- match not only the flavor of the wine to the flavor of the food, but also the weight or body of the wine to the intensity of flavor in the food. A heavy (high in alcohol) wine will not suit a delicate dish. Match the acidity of a dish to the acidity of the wine. Lemon and tomato dishes need acidity in the wine. Richness in a dish can either be cut through with an acidic wine, or matched with a rich one. In either case, the wine should be full in flavor and not taste lean.
Consider sweetness when pairing wines with food. Sweet food makes dry wine taste lean and acidic. There's a great deal of sense in the old rule of "White wine before red, young wine before old, and light wine before heavy." The palate adjusts easily to wines served in this order. Again, this is only a guideline, but a vigorous red wine will not show to best advantage when served after a rich late harvest white, for example.
If a dish has a sauce, then the flavors of the sauce should be considered. Red wine is traditionally drunk with cheese, but actually a white is generally better. Blue cheeses, in particular, are poor matches for reds, except port.
Certain foods have a great affinity for particular grapes, e.g., lamb with Cabernet. Often, Cabernet is best with plainly roasted meats and Pinot Noir is best with sauced meats.
Contrary to the old adage that white wine should always be served with fish, the red grapes, Pinot Noir and Gamay, go great with certain types of fish, such as salmon.
The final say is your own palate. If you like Chardonnay with cheeseburgers - just go for it and enjoy!
Grape Varietal Characteristics
First of all, it is important to note that even though climates, soil conditions, and vinification techniques differ among the many appellations, varietal wines always display certain qualities inherent in the grape's make-up.
Here we will address several classic grape varieties:
Generally makes rich wines with multiple layers of fruit flavors (black currants, cassis, some chocolate and spice) and smooth but firm tannic structure. Acidity is moderate; Body can be moderate to full.
Makes soft, round, drinkable wines with low acidity and generous flavors of plum, blueberry, and cherry along with a pleasantly chalky texture.
Makes ruby colored, velvety rich wines, w/modest tannins; high in glycerin ("velvet") with a lively acidic backbone that gives length and focus to flavors of raspberries, cherries and smoke.
Makes great and age-worthy wines with low to moderate acidity; aromas and flavors of prunes/raisins, raspberries and black pepper. Australian Shiraz tend to be more fruity and less acidic than French Syrah.
Makes medium to full bodied, low to moderate acidic wines; Tannin structure ranges from moderate to substantial (typically in "Old Vine" Zins); Aromas and flavors of blackberry jam and black pepper (red) and strawberries (white (sweet) Zin).
(Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Gamay, Granache & other reds coming soon!).
Makes moderate to high acidic (brilliant/clean/crisp), light to moderate bodied wines; Flavors/aromas vary greatly by region; vanilla, tropical fruits, apple, pear, toast, nuts, butter, oak, minerals.
Makes bright, crisp acidic wines with medium body; Cut grass, herbal and lemon flavors, some oak. Bordeaux (Graves) produces the finest (New Zealand's on the rise).
Makes very high acidic, light to medium bodied; Flavors are restrained fruit; Made dry or semi-dry to balance the high acidity (Vouvray); Also makes melon, honeyed dessert wines.
Makes simple, medium bodied, well structured, acidic wines with somewhat muddled aromas and flavors.
Makes light, (medium to heavy for Dessert), moderate to high acidic, wines with flavors of apricots, grapefruit, peaches and flowers.
(Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Semillon, Viognier coming soon.)