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5 tips for perfect wine and food pairings

December 21, 2019

By Erin Henderson

Wondering what to pair with your Christmas turkey? Confused about what bottle will go with your New Year’s Eve tenderloin? Not sure about your Boxing Day brunch bubbly?

Relax. Pairing food and wine isn’t as challenging as you think – even though we all stress about it. The good news is we humans inherently know what flavours work. There’s a reason we have PB+J and not PB+Salmon.

If you’ve attended our food and wine lab at Wine School, you know the pairing possibilities are infinite, and maybe that paralysation of choice is what inspires the confusion, but when you get to the heart of it, you can’t really go wrong.

If you’re finding yourself among the flummoxed masses wondering whether to pair a Cabernet or Claret with your Christmas goose, I’ve outlined some of my top pointers for a sommelier’s successful pairings below. But before we get down to it: remember, pairing wine and food is supposed to be fun – and if you’re not having fun what’s the bloody point? Eat what you would like and drink what you’d like and have yourself a very merry Christmas.

Heavy weight match up

Consider the sumo wrestler: this ancient and sacred Japanese martial art is successful due to the considered pairing of two top performers in the ring. These mammoth creatures are well matched in their power, which creates tension and intrigue for the spectator.

Now consider the sumo wrestler and pair him against the child star of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Not as entertaining is it? In fact, it’s probably the opposite, creating a “look away now” awkwardness.

The same rings true for wine. Take a rich, full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon full of tannic structure and power, and pair it to a delicate piece of sole in a light butter sauce. That fish has about as much chance as the Wimpy Kid in a sumo match. The weight of that Cab is going to annihilate it, rendering your dinner all but tasteless.

A better option? Pair that light sole with a fresh Chablis (unoaked Chardonnay) or light Sancerre. And keep your Cabs for rare meats like New York Strip.

Complementary flavours

Did you see my latest appearance on CTV’s The Social? If you did, you saw we paired The Prisoner — an excellent California red blend, full of deep flavours of fig, black current and cherry — with a rosemary crusted lamb rack with blueberry sauce. The blueberry compote picked up the dark berry notes of the wine for an elegant complement of flavours.

Similarly, you may see common pairings of Pinot Noir, which has notes of earthy mushroom, black peppercorn and root vegetable, is often paired with boeuf Bourguignon which has mushrooms, pepper and root veg in the mix.

And one more just to really drive the point home: Sauvignon Blanc with its distinctive herbal note and bright, mouth-watering acidity is a natural with green salads and vinaigrette. The green notes in the wine complement the green in the salad, and the acidity of wine and vinegar play nicely together.

Contrast structure

Acidity is what causes that feeling you get when you suck on a lemon or bite into a Granny Smith apple. It's a natural and necessary component of wine. Wines like the Sauvignon Blanc mentioned above are very high in acid, which accounts for that fresh, crisp character. These play nicely against rich, fatty foods like runny cheeses, fried fish or calamari, or even pasta in oil-based or cream sauces. Ever squeeze a lemon on your fish and chips? That acidic lemon cuts through the fat. Acidity in wine does the same thing: It cuts through the richness, cleanses the palate, and gets you ready for the next bite.

On the opposite side are tannins, those gritty things that make your mouth feel full of cotton balls. These stand up to rich proteins and fat. Like a bouncer at a night club, they can take on the burliest of proteins and are often better for doing so. The proteins and fats in a steak, for example, work brilliantly at calming down aggressive, mouth drying tannins, while the tannin has the oomph to compete with the dominating meat.

Heat Bomb

The pairing landmine is spice. When we start adding heat to dishes things can get a little dicey for wine pairings, especially with reds. Why? Spicy heat is a sensation, not a flavour, aggravating the surface of your mouth. Tannins and acidity are also sensations. When you add aggressor to aggressor, it’s rarely a happy outcome. Just check out the club district at 2 a.m.

If you’re going for spicy foods like Indian, Mexican, certain Chinese and Thai dishes, your best bet is to reach for low-alcohol and slightly sweet wines like Gewürztraminer, or off-dry Riesling which will temper the heat and match the intense flavour of the dishes.

Sweet

Here’s another potential pairing disaster. The cardinal rule is to always choose a wine that’s sweeter than your food. Otherwise both could end up tasting bitter and flavourless.

As I demonstrate in our Wine School food and wine lab, if you really want to stick with the same wine your were drinking at dinner and carry it through to the main course, your best option is to go for desserts that aren’t intensely sweet: dark chocolate mousse, fruit cake, or fruits coated in bitter chocolate. If you have a very sweet dessert, it’s best to pair with an ice wine, Port or other sweet wine.