What do you need to know when pairing wine with food?

Wine tastes good, and its myriad flavors are compatible with a variety of foods. Wine enhances food, and it is also life enhancing. With regard to the latter, wine is now served in hospitals, has been proven to be highly beneficial in geriatrics, and often is prescribed by modern doctors, as was the case centuries ago, in the treatment of many diseases, especially heart disease.

Wine complements food and food complements wine, but there has been far too much discussion regarding which wine to choose for a dish. “The old adage ‘White wine with white meats and red wines with red meats’ is simply a lazy man’s way of not having to think,” says Paul Kalemkiarian of the Wine of the Month Club. “Instead of taking the easy way out and classifying wines by color – a common problem in our society – you’ll find it much easier if you classify them by weight. In other words, light wines with light foods and heavy wines with heavy foods.”

This takes a bit of getting used to, and requires a lot more time, but it’s worth it in the long run. Consider light, thinly sliced beef tenderloin, served with a touch of lemon and butter and seasoned with capers and fresh thyme. Would you serve a big, heavy cabernet, or coarse barbaresco? The meat would get lost. But beef is red, and the “rule” says you should serve a red wine. Or, how about cioppino, a blend of shrimp, mussels, lobster and calamari in a rich tomato broth and served with crusty bread? Most chardonnays and nearly all Chenin blancs and Rieslings would disappear under the avalanche of flavors.

It’s time to stop worrying about the wines you must choose and start thinking about enjoying the blending of good food, good wine and good company. There are two areas to be concerned with regarding matching food and wine:

1. Pairing wines with light foods.
2. Deciding whether you wish to complement or contrast the flavors.

The first one is easy. A light Beaujolais or even many lighter pinot noirs and zinfandels are perfect matches for salmon, swordfish and even many shellfish dishes. Chardonnays and sauvignon blancs can easily stand up to many veal, turkey and even duck dishes. If you know what the dish tastes like but not the wine, ask someone. Any wine merchant or restaurateur worth his or her pay should know what it is that they are trying to sell you.

Contrast and complementing are a bit more interesting. A heavily spiced dish like cioppino, curry or rich tomato sauces go well with big, oaky chardonnays as well as a brawny Amador County zinfandel or a full-bodied petite syrah. Lots of herbs and spices could be complemented by a spicy Chateauneuf du Pape or an herbal sauvignon blanc. Or, you could contrast them with a rich, cherry/berry zinfandel or Barbera.

Signing up for a wine of the month or joining a wine club can offer you an opportunity to try many different wines, and learn how to cook to make your food work with the wine.

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