A Chef’s Guide to Perfect Wine Pairing

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

Are poultry and fish best paired with whites? Is red wine limited to meals of red meat? Chef Bill Briwa dispels some common wine myths and provides easy and accessible tips to master the art of wine pairing. 
Image of wine glasses for wine pairing article

Many people often decide what they are going to eat and then, as an afterthought, choose a wine to accompany the food. Imagine for a second that wine is not just the beverage you use to wash down what you eat but, instead, that it is liquid flavor. If you think of wine as an ingredient, then you can understand that wine tasting and pairing is an integral part of a more compelling dining experience. Thirst—not hunger—is the new frontier of flavor, and if you pay attention to wine, there’s a lot that you can learn about flavor interaction that will improve your cooking.

The four most common wines are sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon.

Sauvignon Blanc

White Wine

First, you should taste the sauvignon blanc to understand what it tastes like. Start by sniffing it, and even before you taste it, you can appreciate the quality in the wine by the way it smells. Wine as an ingredient is a pretty compelling ingredient. It’s aromatic, complex, and changeable over time—not to mention delicious.

Before you taste the wine, try to decide what you smell. You should find a quality about the wine that is green. It might smell vaguely like green apples and green herbs, such as sage. If you want to make the wine more aromatic, you can swirl it in the wine glass, but an appropriate glass is designed to funnel the aroma right up to your nose.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Then, taste the wine. Does it taste different than it smells? It should also taste pretty green, and there should be a lot of bright acidity in the wine. It might even taste like under-ripe fruit, such as a tart green apple. Ask yourself the following questions: Is the wine sweet? No, it should be acidic. Is the wine alcoholic? Not really. Is there a lot of tannin in the wine drying your mouth out? No, there shouldn’t be. In addition to green apple, the wine might taste bitter—almost like grapefruit, lemon, or lime.

Sauvignon Blanc Tasting

Pair with a little bit of goat cheese. It’s acidic in its own right. There’s a grassiness, or herbaceous, quality to it. It washes off your palate very quickly. It’s not creamy. There’s a mineral quality—sort of a chalkiness—to goat cheese. Next, taste the wine and note how it changes. The acidity in the wine speaks to the tartness of the goat cheese. There is a mineral quality in the wine that plays off the mineral quality and chalkiness of the goat cheese. In addition, the herbaceous quality of the cheese, the grassiness, speaks to the green, herbaceous flavor in the wine. The food itself tastes more complex, and when you pair it with the wine, the complexity increases.

For the antithesis of that experience, taste the wine after having tasted the cream cheese. Right away, you get a tremendous pushback—the wine suddenly shocks you. The flavor has completely changed. The sweetness of the cream cheese made the wine seem more aggressive.

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Chardonnay is a very different wine from sauvignon blanc. It tends to be a lot softer and rounder, riper, and not nearly as acidic.

When you’re looking for acidity in a wine, you should look for a mouthwatering quality Your body has a certain pH, and if you take something in—such as wine—that is at a different pH from your body, your body will respond by trying to balancing things again With acidic wine, you should experience a flood of saliva, which waters down the acidity An acidic, or tart, wine is a mouthwatering wine

When you smell it, you should smell sweet, round flavors. You might
 smell ripe apples—not green apples. You might even smell a little bit of pineapple, some creaminess that comes from malolactic fermentation, and a vanilla flavor that typically comes from oak.

Then, taste the wine. It should not be nearly as acidic as the sauvignon blanc was. It should taste of riper fruit and have a rounder body and fuller flavor. Even though this is a dry wine, it tends to be a little bit sweet on the palate. It’s a bigger wine with more alcohol, and there is a little bit of tannin in this wine because it has seen some oak.

Chardonnay Tasting

This time, start by tasting the cream cheese. Then, taste the wine again. This experience should be reminiscent of tasting the goat cheese with the sauvignon blanc. The sweetness of the cream cheese speaks to the sweetness in the wine. You should taste the ripe fruit, the soft acidity, and the little bit of creaminess and butteriness.

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Red wine
Pinot Noir

Pinot noir is a very aromatic wine; it is known for its aroma. When you smell it, this wine might remind you of cherry cough drops or of a dusty rose. It smells a little bit floral. When you taste it, you will find that this wine is much bigger than the first two wines. There is some tannin, but there’s also some very ripe, soft fruit. The acidity is higher than you might expect for a red wine; it has some bright acidity.

Pinot Noir Tasting

After you taste the pinot noir, taste some salmon, which is a mild fish that is very rich with oil. Add a little bit of salt to the salmon. On your palate, the weight and intensity of flavor is almost identical to those qualities found in the wine. The richness of the fish is cut by the acidity in the wine, and there’s something about the aroma of pinot noir that speaks to the fish.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet sauvignon is very opaque and dark. It is heavily extracted. By looking at it, you would expect it to be a big wine. It smells only partially of fruit; it actually smells like the plant that the fruit grows on, such as the leaves of blackberries. When you taste it, you might taste a hint of tobacco, dark fruit, and a vegetal quality. It is not very acidic; it’s a very full-flavored wine. There’s quite a bit of tannin, but it’s also smooth and delicious.

Cabernet Tasting

After tasting the wine, eat a little piece of unseasoned steak that is cooked medium-rare. Then, taste the wine.

Seasoning is an important consideration. For example, when you add sweet food to dry wines, the combination is not very appealing. Sugar can make wine taste stronger and aggressive, less fruity, more acidity, more tannic, and more astringent. Try adding sugar to your palate and then tasting a dry wine, such as cabernet sauvignon.

The wine should seem stronger, less fruity, more astringent, more tannic, and less sweet. The problem is that the steak is not seasoned. As it is, it’s an expression of pure savory flavor, or umami, which can make wine taste strong—but not in a good way. Add some salt to the steak, and then taste it again. It should taste better after being seasoned. Then, taste the wine again. Everything that was right about the wine earlier should come racing back. It is now fruity, soft, round, balanced, and very appealing.

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Two glasses of white wine with cheese

The Six Steps of Wine-and-Food Pairing

  1. Taste the wine and make sure you know what defines that particular type of wine
  2. Pay attention to the weight and intensity of the wine
  3. Decide what you’re going to cook—what’s going 
to define your food
  4. Choose a cooking technique; each distinct technique will bring something different 
to your food
  5. Build relationships 
between the food and wine to bring the match into focus
  6. Season the food appropriately so that when the food is properly seasoned, the wine tastes great

Common Questions About Wine Pairing

Q: What are the basic rules of wine pairing?

There are as many rules to wine pairing as there are wines; however, if you pair light wines with white meats and fish and heavier wines with red meats and spicy foods, you should be fine.

Q: What food is best with red wine?

Any food can be good with the right red wine. The lighter the red wine, the lighter the food it should be paired with, is a very general rule, while strong reds like cabernets go great with barbecue or roast beef.

Q: What food is best with white wine?

White wines generally go best with light foods such as seafood and salads. However, very generally, full-bodied chardonnays can go with heavier meats such as poultry or even venison.

Q: Can white wine be paired with steak?

Yes, white wine can be paired with steak. It is recommended to pair full-bodied whites such as Chenin blanc or chardonnay with steaks.

This article was updated on 1/22/2020

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