Wine and Food Pairing

Five rules for pairing wine with food

By Anna Webster

24 Sep, 2020

Our long-awaited return to sharing wine and food with friends brings infinite menu options. Sommeliers Samantha Payne and Jane Lopes share their advice for getting the pairings right.

A lot of food and wine pairing comes down to what you enjoy, but there are some things to consider if you want to get it right, as sommeliers Samantha Payne and Jane Lopes reveal.  

Sommeliers Samantha Payne and Jane LopesSommeliers Samantha Payne (left) and Jane Lopes.

1. Choose wines lower in alcohol

For Samantha, the most important factor in determining a food-friendly wine is the alcohol content. “Food exacerbates tannins, acidity and alcohol, so a wine that’s balanced, with a lower alcohol content of around 11.5 to 13 per cent, is going to work better with food than a wine that sits around that 15 to 16 per cent mark.” 

Jane agrees that wines that are out of balance – overly acidic, tannic, dry, sweet or alcoholic – don’t tend to complement food as well as those that are “balanced, open and not dominated by super strong flavours”. This is why Jane suggests an ideal match for steak is a lower-alcohol cabernet, grenache or even a cool-climate shiraz to work with, rather than against, the meat.  

2. Match like with like

Another consideration is whether a wine’s flavours and structural components (acid, alcohol, sweetness, tannin, body and so on) will work together with the food. As an example, Jane says acid needs acid. “Think Chianti Classico and tomato sauce.” 

When matching flavour, Samantha suggests focusing on one component to start. If you’re looking to match slow-roasted lamb shoulder seasoned with rosemary, lemon and green olives, for example, the herbaceous notes found in grenache will match the rosemary beautifully. Then consider whether the wine will pair with the rest of the dish. In this case, the bright plushness of the grenache will stand up against the richness of the lamb. 

3. Play opposites

Instead of matching like with like, you can choose to cut, contrast or balance components against each other. For example, fat can be cut by either tannin or sugar – think cabernet paired with steak, or foie gras and Sauternes. Richness and body can be cut by acid – caviar and Champagne, or lobster and chardonnay. And saltiness can be cut with alcohol – think olives and sherry, or blue cheese and port.

With Asian cuisines, or dishes heavy with chilli and spice, Samantha recommends aromatic whites such as riesling, gruner veltliner, silvaner and vermentino, or lighter, more delicate reds like pinot noir, pinot meunier, gamay, cabernet franc and blaufrankisch. “Big, bold flavours will particularly exacerbate alcohol, tannin and acid, so you need to be careful to choose a wine that’s a little more savoury and fruit-forward to balance them out,” she says.  

If you’re not sure where to start, Jane says the best way is by visualising the meal. “I think about the taste of the wine and visualise it with the balance of the food,” she says. “The component that strikes me as most congruent, I go with.” 

4. Match weight and density

Regardless of whether you match like with like or opposites, weight and density must always be considered. “You don’t want to be pairing a really light piece of fish with a rich, oaky chardonnay or a big, full-bodied cabernet with structure and tannin because it’s going to overpower the food.” 

The grape varieties themselves don’t really matter – it’s about finding the right weight and style within that varietal. A rich, oaky chardonnay might overpower a piece of fish, but a crisp, lean example would work beautifully. 

5. Choose food-friendly favourites

If you’re after a few wines to start with, Jane says Italian – either wines or varietals – are a safe bet. “Lean towards the entry-level price-points for the most food friendliness because you’re usually guaranteed a bit less oak and structure,” Jane says. She suggests trying Caparsa Chianti Classico, Foster e Rocco Sangiovese, Pippan Steel Nebbiolo or Vietti Langhe Nebbiolo. Jane also loves a slightly off-dry riesling for its ability to pair with a range of different dishes. “Sierra Reed’s is a good bet year-in year-out,” she says. 

Samantha believes Australian pinot meunier is leading the charge when it comes to food-friendly wines, especially from Oakridge. “I think all the different styles coming out of the country at the moment are really exciting, really approachable and really food-friendly,” she says. One of Samantha’s favourite whites is an aromatic gruner veltliner, particularly Nick Spencer’s from Tumbarumba in New South Wales. “It’s got enough acid and backbone to cut through the richness of things like pork belly or roast chicken with a lemon shoved up its cavity, and enough flavour that it doesn’t get lost in a dish. It’s a bit of an MVP.” 

The last word 

Ultimately, the most food-friendly wines are the ones you enjoy drinking. “Food and wine matching is about creating that harmony and that experience,” Samantha says. And if you’re happy with and enjoying the combinations you’ve come up with, that’s the most important thing. 

This is an extract of an article that first appeared in issue #53 of Halliday magazine.