Sommeliers Tell All: 5 Big Factors of Wine and Food Pairings
Wine. Red wine, white wine, rosé, champagne – wine is central to Western civilization as we know it. Some of the earliest mentions of wine can be dated back to 6000 BC. It’s hard to ignore the prominence of wine in the Bible, mentioned 140 times in the Old Testament. Roman legions marched on wine, leaving behind flourishing viticulture in their wake. Wine is intertwined with the history of agriculture, cuisine, civilization, and humanity itself. The history of wine is vast indeed, but here we’re talking about something much more relevant to you, specifically, your dinner.
Here’s the big question: “How do I pair wine?”
You probably know the golden rule of thumb about wine pairings: Red wines pair best with bold flavored proteins (red meat) and white wines pair best with light-intensity proteins (chicken or fish). Of course, there’s more to making successful wine-and-food pairings. Getting down into the nitty-gritty might overwhelm the uninitiated, which is where sommeliers come in.
A sommelier or wine steward is a person who is an expert in fine wine and is responsible for serving it to patrons. Certified Piedmontese’s fine dining restaurant, Casa Bovina, boasts three sommeliers that help guests demystify the science behind wine pairings.
Bennet Riley, Beverage Director at Casa Bovina
“You're never going to know everything about wine. The most talented master sommelier is still not going to know everything. I’m always moving on to the next thing because there’s just so much to learn.”
Jordan Reed, Front-House Manager, Certified Sommelier
“Wine pairings are sometimes a science, and sometimes it’s just a feeling. Sometimes you taste the wine, and you know immediately; it’ll light up in your eyes. You know exactly the food you want to pair with it."
Matthew Bromberg, Certified Sommelier
“It’s amazing how many different flavors you can get out of something as simple as grape juice – I was lucky enough to learn from some very talented sommeliers who showed me how much you can find in a glass of wine, and I want to do that for other people.”
Wine pairings can be a baffling headache for the uninitiated, but our sommeliers here agree that there are five big factors that you should always consider when choosing the right wine:
Of Same Origins
The saying “what grows together, goes together” can be very helpful with wine pairings. Find out the origin of your dish – its country, region, and culture and pair it with wines from the same roots to enjoy it in full swing. It is common in Europe that the wine and cuisine traditions from the same region were refined side by side over the centuries, and the locals would have developed their wine style to fit well with their food. For example, food from Piedmont, Italy will have a history of several hundred years and has a wine that traditionally accompanies it.
Fight Against Fat
Fat gives a rich, creamy mouthfeel and is wonderful in small amounts to conduct and amplify the flavors of your food, but sometimes it gets too fatty on your tongue and edges into unpleasantness. Wines with high tannin (generally found in red wine, tannins are compounds from the skin and seeds that cause the gritty feeling that dry your palate, making you pucker your mouth and rub your tongue on the roof of your mouth) and high acid content can cut through the fat in rich food to cleanse your palate, helping round out the flavors in your mouth. Animal fat would bind with tannin to create a pleasurable sensation on your tongue which makes tannin less gritty. That’s the reason why tannic red wines go so well with steak, as they brilliantly contrast the bold flavor of meat.
Nebbiolo which ranges in quality level from young, fresh, tart Langhe Rosso to floral and powerful Barolo and Barbaresco
Flavor Brings Flavor
Flavors in your glass can complement or contrast with the flavor of your food. If you only consider the protein on your plate when making decisions on wine pairings, you’ll be missing out. You should be taking note of all the ingredients present in the dish, as well as the sauce, starch, and vegetable. If a dish has lemony flavors, choose a white wine balanced towards citrus. If there’s a plum sauce in your dish, a New-World Pinot Noir will mirror those flavors. It is effortless to mirror wines and foods that have similar traits, and matching flavor with flavor will ensure that the wine complements the whole dish.
Tip: For dessert wines, the wine should always be sweeter. It helps balance the element of sweetness of the dessert.
Grassy, vegetal flavors in Sauvignon Blanc or Gruner Veltliner can go well with asparagus and other strong green vegetables. Oxidative styles of wine like Chardonnay or Arneis are wonderful with nutty dishes.
Soothe Down Spice
Spiciness is important to consider when pairing a wine with a dish. High acid wine goes well with spicy food because it makes your mouth water and cleanses your palate – the spiciness of the food would be less physically painful. Spicy foods are also complemented well with wines that are a little sweet, which would neutralize the heat of the food and help you enjoy the flavor. Refrain from wines with high tannin content. High tannin wine can dehydrate the mouth and intensify the heat from spices into an abrasive, almost painful sensation.
Gewurztraminer is a famous pairing with spicy Asian dishes because it is flavorful enough to stand up to bold flavors and frequently has just the right amount of sweetness. Off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc aren’t quite as bold but have the acidity to cleanse the palate. If you prefer a red wine with your dish, Barbera from Piedmont or fruity new world styles of Pinot Noir can be lovely.
Balance the Palate
Always consider the intensity and power of the wine with the of the food to draw out the best flavors of both. Balance is key here, as you want both wine and dish to be the star and not overpower one another on your palate. Pair heavy wines with heavy dishes, soft wine with soft dishes, robust wine with robust dishes, and subtle wines with subtle dishes. The alcohol content in wine is also a factor to consider. Alcohol can be a big flavor, so you should usually start with a wine that has lower alcohol content and go up from there.
Few wines are equally well suited to foie gras and fried chicken but Champagne goes well with just about everything. Full-bodied whites such as an oaked Chardonnay or a higher acid/lower tannin red such as Barbera can bridge the gap when one guest orders steak and the other fish.
There’s a wine for every occasion, but sometimes all you need to do is to forget all the rules and experiment to find what you like best. Don’t worry too much about which wine pairs with what and when you should drink wine or even how. Who knows, you might give way to some amazing pairings.
A gem of parting advice from Jordan, “The most important decision about picking wine is who you’re drinking it with.”
Matt states, “At Casa Bovina, our wine list has a focus on Piedmont, then Italy, then the rest of the world. We believe we have a wine from Piedmont that can be paired with every dish in the restaurant. The region is so varied that its styles can accompany just about anything.”
As opposed to giant wine lists with six different versions of every type of wine in the world, Casa Bovina is curating a specialized wine list focused on Italian wine, specifically from the Piedmont region. Sound familiar? It’s the place of origin for Piedmontese cattle. There’s more that goes into building a highly acclaimed wine program than just ordering bottles of high-end wines from prestigious or iconic producers. The wine list at Casa Bovina changes week to week as as our sommeliers carefully curate it.
Let Casa Bovina be known far and wide as the top place to enjoy Italian wine. Keep an eye out for either Bennet, Jordan, or Matt when you visit Casa Bovina and ask these experts to help you find the best wine pairing to complete your special night.
“Our customers deserve a stellar experience that’s nothing less than the best meal they've ever had," says Bennet. "Having the right wine to go with each dish is just the cherry on top.”