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07 Apr 2021 | Randy Kemner


Food and wine pairings can drive you mad. For one thing, there are seven billion different palates on the planet, each with individual responses to what each of them are putting into their mouths, whether food, or wine, or both together. In my many decades of experimenting, there have been far too many occasions where there was a nasty reaction between the food I was eating and the wine I was drinking. The causes are many, with some mysterious and some more obvious.

I once drank a domestic Chardonnay with a famous vintner over a plate of shucked oysters, and a shocking chemical reaction took place that caused a wretched, bitter metallic taste that didn’t subside over the subsequent courses. (We bought the Chardonnay, but never again drank it with oysters.)

Then there was the time I was first introduced to Thai food with what would become a legendary Pinot Noir and a delicate Premier Cru White Burgundy. The hot and sour soup, so spicy my nose ran and my eyes welled up with tears, pummeled the considerable complexities in both wines, they might as well have been Welch’s grape juice, an expensive lesson in what not to eat with wine.

At a wine dinner where the organizers should have known better, a delicately sweet Moscato d’Asti was served alongside a super-sweet, whipped-creamy dessert. What started out with the frothy sweet taste of fresh grapes ended up tasting like a shrill, obnoxiously tart Pinot Grigio, all acid. The sweetness was completely stripped out of the wine.

At countless dinners, I’ve sipped perfectly fine Chardonnays and Cabernets only to have them dramatically diminished by the food I was eating. As soon as my plate was empty, the Chardonnays and Cabernets returned to their enjoyable state, causing me to conclude that these wines weren’t made for the table. A cocktail party, perhaps.

As a public service, I’ve come up with these ten guidelines to help you fully enjoy your wine while dining.

1. Ask yourself why you are serving wine rather than another beverage with your meal.

Just because you like to drink wine, doesn’t mean you ought to. There have been many meals where fruit punch makes more sense. If a wine tastes bad with certain foods, don’t drink it. Especially if you respect its winemaker. There is a place for iced tea. Or wine spritzers, if you still need to get your wine thing on. Sangria served my Southwestern meal very well in Santa Fe.

2. Seek harmony between your wine and your food, or offer a complementary contrast.

The late winemaker at Weinbach, Laurence Faller, was about to conduct a seminar at our store when we were trying to figure out which hors d’oeuvres would best accompany each of her wines. As she was thinking, I heard her whisper under her breath “harmony—complimentary contrast.” And there it was, the two great principles of wine pairing. I’ll give you an example from a Thanksgiving dinner. Harmony is turkey with turkey gravy. A complimentary contrast is turkey with cranberry sauce. With wine, harmony might be obtained by eating turkey with a rich Chardonnay. A complimentary contrast would be drinking Beaujolais with your turkey.

3. What grows together, goes together.

This was another great lesson given to me by a wine supplier. While it is not a law etched in stone, it is a good jumping off place. If your dish is from the Mediterranean, where olive oil is the cooking fat, then choose a wine from a Mediterranean region, where the grape choices and cultivation have to taste good with things cooked in olive oil. The same principle holds true with foods from cooler, wetter climates, where pastures are verdant, and butter is the cooking fat of the region. It stands to reason that vintners will plant grape varieties that make wines taste good with their local foods cooked in butter. Animal fat and root vegetables look to Alsace, Germany and Sudtirol for wine solutions. You notice these are European examples. Places where chiles and other hot stuff are grown—Mexico, India, Thailand, Louisiana—don’t traditionally grow grapes. Remember that next time you are thinking about drinking a Gevrey-Chambertin with chile verde.

4. Often there is no one wine that is best for a particular food. Two different wines can have equally satisfying, yet different results.

It may be surprising to some, but I’ve had success drinking white wine and red wine with the same food. Different wines will take the meal in different directions, both equally satisfying. Thanksgiving dinner is one example, roast chicken is another where white wines and the right red wine will perform equally well. Of course, it depends on how that food is cooked. I love white wine with poached salmon and red wine with grilled salmon.

5. Serve food that will allow wines to fully express themselves. Use this rule of thumb:

Simple Wine with Complex Food.
Complex Wine with Simple Food.

This is great news for wine lovers on a budget. Expensive wines are usually fussed with these days. Consumers usually want amplitude and dark colors and velvety texture and sweet oak to justify their premium prices, none of which taste good with most foods. Oak barrels are expensive, and when they are used to flavor a wine, the result of food juxtaposition is often bitterness. When you have a lot going on in the dish, drink simpler wines where the fruit in the wine can easily come forth. No oak flavors, if you please. (We eat grapes, but rarely wood.) If you really want to drink your cellar-aged Cabernet or red Burgundy with dinner, serve it with a simple roast beef or roast chicken.

6. Salty Food Brings Out the Fruit in a Wine. Likewise, in some cases, even vinegar.

Is a wine too astringent, too acidic? Serve some salami or other salted meat. Even potato chips. In many cases your wine’s fruit will emerge. That is especially true of Italian white wines, which when served as aperitifs can be a bit shrill. A vinaigrette dressing on a Panzanella, for example, will make a Vernaccia downright fruity. Beaujolais also tastes remarkable with vinaigrette salads.

7. To pair wine, key off your sauce as much as what’s under it. Maybe more so.

Another example of someone who should have known better was the chef at the old Mondavi Center in Costa Mesa who was preparing seared tuna for the assembled trade to showcase Robert Mondavi’s Pinot Noir. Trouble was, he made it ahi style, with an Asian sauce that was so hot it made your nose run. The Pinot Noir, which might have performed will with a simple grilled tuna, tasted awful, resulting in 0 sales for the night. Sitting in a romantic restaurant in Chablis, I ordered whitefish in beurre blanc, which was magnificent with the Chablis wine I drank with it.

8. Except for spicy foods, wine should have sturdy acidity when accompanied by food

Flabby wine may be alright sitting by a campfire, but food needs acidity to freshen the palate for another bite. Consider what the fat in salami or a cheeseburger does to the roof of your mouth, building up on itself until it obscures the taste of subsequent bites. A crisp wine will scrub out your mouth and prepare it for the next bite, making it taste as good as the first. Europeans thought this one through. That’s why their wines taste the way they do.

9. High alcohol and oaky flavors might be good for sipping, but they rarely taste good with food.

This is an adjunct to suggestion #5. There is a reason the old wine classification of the BATF stops at 14% alcohol for “table wines”. Someone a long, long time ago figured out that meals didn’t taste good with wines over 14%. Those are legally classified “dessert wines.”

10. Matching sweet wines with desserts is most often a recipe for disaster

At a seminar for the famous Sauternes Chateau d’Yquem, Alexander Lur Saluces said serving his precious sweet wine with dessert is a “disaster.” He suggested salty things like foie gras, Roquefort cheese and even roast chicken. The same rule applies for sweet German Riesling and delicate, fruity Moscatos. If your wine is less sweet than the dessert, your wine will be stripped of all sweetness, defeating the point of drinking sweet wine. If you must serve nibbles with your sweet wine, make them salty and savory to bring out the sweetness. A butter cookie may be OK if it’s not too sweet.

And there you have it. 50 years of wine and food pairing experience boiled down to 10 suggestions. I hope you get the most out of every bottle you open. As importer Rudi Wiest once said, “Your food is already dead. Don’t kill it again.”

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