1. Don’t lose sleep over pairings. There are a few excellent pairings in which both the wine and food are enhanced, and a few disasters. But in the majority of cases, wine and food don’t influence each other so much that a less than perfect pairing will ruin the meal. Wine and food pairing is something to have fun with but is not worth stressing about.
2. Stock up on versatile wines. Wines with high acidity and wines with some sweetness are the most versatile for pairing with food. Riesling usually has some sweetness and good acidity so it is one of the most versatile varietals. Medium-bodied, fruity wines such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, Viognier and Chardonnay, if lightly oaked, will also pair with a wide variety of foods.
3. Don’t be a slave to rules. Pairing rules are rough approximations. Yes, white wines tend to be better with seafood than red wines but there are exceptions. Grilled tuna sauced with a red wine reduction would be better with a red wine; a light Pinot Noir or Merlot is fine with swordfish. Another platitude is “if it grows together it goes together”. In other words pair foods from a particular region of the world with wine from that region. This is a good rule of thumb because some regions have had centuries of experience making wine that works with their food. But keep in mind that many regions of the world, if they grow grapes at all, specialize in only a few varietals so by following this rule your choices are restricted.
4. Always pair wine with the dominant element in a dish. If a grilled chicken breast is smothered in mango salsa, the dominant flavors will be on the sweet side. With chicken piccata, the briny capers and sour lemon will be dominant and should influence your wine pairing.
5. Think about sweetness levels first. This is the rule with the least flexibility. The wine should be at least as sweet as the food. If the food is sweeter than the wine, the wine will taste flat and sour. Paying attention to this principle will help avoid the worst disasters. A little sweetness can also balance spicy heat. This principle is important for desserts as well. Make your dessert wine sweeter than the dish. But dessert wines also should have some acidity to provide palate relief. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise or Recioto di Soave are reliable for this purpose.
6. After sweetness, think about weight and body. Pairing a powerful, tannic red with a light salad or citrusy sauce won’t work. A soft, fruity Pinot Grigio will get lost when paired with a rich, meaty stew. When you’re stumped by unusual flavors, e.g. a frisee salad with lardons and egg, getting the weight right is often the best you can do.
7. After weight and body think about acidity. Acidity is what makes a pairing really sing and acidic wines tend to be the most versatile. Acidity can cut through the richness of a dish, stand up to tart ingredients, provide counter-point to fried foods and make your mouth water in anticipation of the next bite. Pinot Noir, most Italian wines, and many white wines such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc have good acid levels. Low acid seldom leads to disasters but it can prevent pairings from standing out.
8. Pay attention to tannins and alcohol. Tannin is a phenol that creates the drying sensation in red wines and provides support for a long finish. Tannins absorb fat which is why a Cabernet Sauvignon goes well with most steaks but they sometimes enhance bitterness. High alcohol tends to make wine feel weighty, sweet, and can sometimes add bitterness as well. Both tannins and alcohol will make spicy foods taste more spicy and bitter foods taste more bitter. High tannins and alcohol work best when paired with rich, savory dishes such as roasted meats but be careful of the spice levels in the dish.
9. Sometimes bubbles are best. Sparkling wines are refreshing and love salt and fried foods.
10. Let the star shine. If you have a great bottle of wine, let it take center stage. Don’t be afraid to suggest a simple dish that will show off the wine. This is especially true if the wine is aged. Aged wines have subtle flavors that get lost if the food is too exuberant. On the other hand, if the chef is letting his or her freak flag fly, go with a simple, versatile wine that will not compete with complex flavors.