Pairing wine with food is not an exact science. Even if it was, breaking the rules comes with no penalty other than perhaps a less than ideal flavor. That said following some guidelines can help you bring out the best in both the food and the wine.
Complementary weight and flavor
One of the most important things to consider when matching wine with food is weight. Light foods go well with light wines, and heavy foods with heavy wines. If this balance is out of whack, your heavy food will completely obscure the delicate flavors of a light wine, or the full body of a more robust wine will cover the delicate flavors of a light food. Here, balance is the key.
Not just weight, but also flavors can be matched between the wine and the food. Sweet foods pair well with sweet wines. Buttery lobster goes well with a rich, buttery Chardonnay. Fruity wines, such as Riesling or Viognier go well with fruity flavors and fruit sauces. An earthy wine like red Burgundy goes well with earthy foods such as mushrooms. Wine descriptions of a wine can give you a good hint of what kind of food it might go well with.
For dessert, make sure the food isn’t sweeter than the wine. A dessert wine can act as dessert on its own, or accompany a dessert. A mildly sweet dessert, like fresh fruit, will go well with most dessert wines, but a strongly sweet dessert, like chocolate cake, needs a sweeter wine to match. If the dessert is sweeter than the wine, it can make the wine taste sour or bitter.
Contrasting weight and flavor
You can also take the contrary view that opposites attract. Instead of pairing wines and foods with similar flavors, you can try to find flavors that make an interesting contrast. Some of the more common contrasting flavors that go well together are an acidic white wine with greasy food or gooey cheese, or salty foie gras or cheese with a sweet wine, such as Sauternes. A popular contrast combination is a heavy, sweet port with salty Stilton cheese.
If you are having a dish with a sauce, don’t forget to take the sauce into account. Fish is usually paired with a delicate white wine, but this rule may not apply when the fish has a thick creamy sauce, or is fried in batter. The fish might go better with a slightly heavier white, or even with a lighter red wine.
Crisp, acidic wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Chablis are very particular about what they go well with. Tart foods, such as lemons and tomatoes, will make the wine itself less tart, but a sweet food will do the opposite and make the wine taste too sharp.
If you want to have a strong, tannic wine such as Barolo or Cabernet, you need to have a food with a strong enough flavor to match it. High fat and protein foods, such as a hard cheese or rich meat make a good accompaniment for a heavy red wine. The strong flavor of the food will soften the flavor of the wine, while the tannin in the wine helps to clear your palate of a greasy food.
To combat a spicy food, try an off-dry wine. A wine with high alcohol will increase the spiciness of spicy foods. A slightly sweet wine, such as Riesling, is the perfect partner for a slightly spicy food. Even pepper, which would often seem too pungent for wine, can be a good food for pairing. The pepper makes your taste buds more sensitive to the flavors in the wine, which can therefore taste richer and more intense.
One way to determine what dishes might go well with a wine is to look at where the wine originated. Usually a wine fits well with its local cuisine. Wine is made for the locals first, so they make the wine they like, and they like the wine that goes well with their food. That’s why Italian wine goes so well with Italian food, while French wines are well-suited to complex French dishes.
Going beyond what you know
Many of the most popular wines, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot can be some of the hardest to pair with food. The weight, high oakiness, and tannin of these wines may not go well with most foods. So feel free to experiment a bit with complementary or contrasting wines and foods. Keeping in mind the endless variations in weight, texture, spice, sweetness and spice flavor combinations in food and wine, this should keep you testing and tasting for a lifetime!