Either complementing or contrasting your wine with food (or food with wine) is the key to combining them, says Ned Goodwin.

Let’s face it, every man and his dog wants to know how to pair wines with food, or what to eat with what wine. I suppose the last phrase indicates where my bias lies. In other words, I frequently choose what to drink before considering what to eat and frankly, find most discussions about wine and food pairings rather dull. After all, can you imagine a life in which every decision is premeditated in a similarly fastidious fashion to that applied to wine and food pairings? Surely there is something to be said for spontaneity and the joy of drinking what one feels like, with what one wants to eat. I fear, however, that this will lead me into the dangerous territory of subjectivity versus objectivity in wine and frankly, that is a proverbial can of worms best left for another time and article. After all, taste in wine (and food) may be subjective, but the grounds for good taste are firmly entrenched in an objective comprehension of that which constitutes quality.

With this said, allow me to make a few suggestions to offer your next guests, while remembering that the only real rule is that raw oysters and red wine are disastrous.

Adaptation and contrast are the two guiding principles when pairing wine with food, or vice-versa. Perhaps you can think along the lines of whether wine is a vehicle to embellish the flavour of the food (sweet wine adapted to a sweet dessert; or acidic neutral white wines with saline oysters, for example), or as a bouncing board to give contrast to the food (a creamy mushroom risotto with a tensile white). Ask yourself a few questions. Which is the priority, wine or the food? What are the weight and flavour intensities? Are there marked traits in the wine or food that need particular care, such as the obtuse pungency of certain washed rind cheeses?

If food is the priority, wine of a similar weight and intensity is to be recommended, albeit, one that is relatively neutral in flavour so as not to overwhelm the chief ingredients and flavours of a dish. If wine is the priority, reverse this equation. Clearly, a beef stew demands a rich red wine, while a subtle meld of raw fish and citrus will be better served by a vibrant white, transparent and devoid of oak or artifice. Similarly, a burgundy hitting its straps may be best served by a simple roast chicken. Other traits to be considered may include saltiness, acidity, sweetness and increasingly, umami in the food; and acidity, sweetness and tannin in the wine. Let’s consider these individually.

It is important to note that chemically, saltiness neutralises acidity. Thus, low acid wines will not pair well with salty food as their intensity of flavour is often insufficient. Salt also complements sweetness in wines, if one follows the contrast rule of thumb.

Acidity in wine, or food, will buffer one’s impression of acidity that follows (adaptation), while accentuating sweetness and spice (contrast), sometimes excessively so for a balanced marriage of both parties. The quest for an ideal balance between sweetness and acidity is one of wine’s great balancing acts, seldom achieved but for the ballerina-like rieslings of the Mosel, able to sashay across a prim line of tension and delicate sweetness like no other wine style.

Tannin in wine will also clash with spice and needs acidity to be tamed, or protein with which the tannins can bind – to feel softer, rather than brittle and harsh. Adding lemon juice to a spicy dish is often a quick fix. Better then, to consider a fruit-forward gamay or grenache-based wine with your next rogan josh, instead of an astringent cabernet, especially one with lots of oak.

Sweetness can be foiled with an equally sweet, or sweeter wine, or food. If the degrees of sweetness across the dish and wine are not calibrated, the pairing will taste bitter. Again, it is good to remember here, too, that acidity can enhance sweetness. Lemon juice, anyone?

Umami is a particular physiological trait, increasingly acknowledged due to the soaring appreciation of Japanese cuisine, possibly the most fashionable in the world. Umami refers to the presence of glutamates and ribonucleotides – proteinaceous agents that result from the common Japanese use of kelp and fermenting food products, including tofu, mushrooms and dashi (Japanese stock) in cooking. This is not to say that umami is exclusively Japanese. However, it was the Japanese who created monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a readily available way to add umami’s textural gloss to a dish. Parmesan cheese, soy sauce and tomatoes all provide rich sources of umami, which is best described as a savoury warmth in the mouth. As with many other flavour compounds, umami is enhanced by salt’s addition. Umami is also amplified by ageing, fermentation, ripening, curing and smoking; thus following the notion of adaptation, wines that have undergone similar approaches during production (certain red wines, due to extended ageing in barrel; champagne, due to its second fermentation and ageing on decomposing yeast cells, or lees; white wines such as chardonnays for similar reasons: lees ageing and the mealy characteristics that ensue from fermentation in barrel) tend to parry well with dishes containing palpable levels of umami. It is no wonder that many Japanese wine lovers perceive champagnes, particularly long-aged expressions without oak – brimming with a nutty, toasted complexity – as ideal synergies for the lengthy, compartmentalised dining experiences known as kaiseki, an elevated expression of Japanese culinary culture.

Remember, though, no oysters with red wine!


Ex-sommelier Ned Goodwin MW is an Australian wine writer, consultant and educator.