A few months ago, I had a hankering for blackened salmon, so I found the perfect recipe and ended up with a beautiful dinner that just needed a good wine to go with it. The only problem was that my white wine collection wasn’t up to the task. As I looked through my wine fridge, I saw beautiful bottles of dry Chenin Blanc, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and California Chardonnay, but none of these wines were bold enough to handle an oily, spicy salmon. I decided to experiment with a bottle of fruity Merlot instead, and the combination was stunning; the red fruit balanced out the salmon’s fattiness perfectly. The kind of food that goes well with red wine isn’t limited to steak dinners or hearty stews. You can pair red wines with delicate hors d’oeuvres, chicken, and even fish, as long as you understand how to choreograph the different flavors at work.
Pairing Light Reds
I often serve my light, delicate red wines alongside dark leafy green vegetable dishes. That’s because chard and other intensely-flavored greens tend to overpower white wines, yet if you try to pair them with a medium-bodied red, the wine takes on an astringent personality. Light reds are fruity enough to cut through the acidity of the greens, and their fruit flavors also keep them from tasting too acidic themselves. A sweet, light red will pair well with a mixed green salad, whereas a more savory red, like Pinot Noir, will taste better with a dish that has more earthy depth. Try combining a Burgundy with a slice of mushroom and cheese flatbread to bring out the wine’s deeper umami notes.
2010 Georges Roumier Bonnes Mares (sandalwood notes, spicy, cherry-like): Pair with spinach-stuffed mushrooms to emphasize the earthy, woodsy notes in the wine, and to cut through the spinach’s acidity with sweet cherry.
2011 Chateau Moulin a Vent – Croix des Verillats (peppery, dark berry notes, aromatic): Pair with a black pepper chicken salad, which will allow the berries to cut through the greens and the pepper notes in the wine to come through.
Pairing Bold Reds
When it comes to red wines that have bold, concentrated flavors, anything that can compete with the wine’s intensity is a good bet. I tend to pick foods that have a chewy texture, since big, bold reds coat the roof of your mouth and have a long finish. Red meat pairs best with bold reds because the two are well matched in texture and intense flavor. Generally, the leaner the meat, the lighter your wine should be. However, if you have a bold red wine with smooth tannins, you don’t have to pair it with red meat. Vegetarian stews, tomato-heavy chicken dishes, and oily fish like salmon also pair well with a bold wine that’s not too tannic.
2012 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon (tannic, dense, spicy): Pair with a lightly-seasoned filet mignon to let the wine’s spicy flavors speak for themselves, and to match the wine’s chewy density.
2013 Morlet Family Syrah (fatty, earthy, smooth tannins): Pair with lamb chops to bring out the rich fat of the meat, and to highlight its earthy gaminess.
Pairing Fortified Wine
I rarely find a fortified wine and food pairing that I enjoy. That’s because fortified dessert wines often speak for themselves, and are simply too bold and too sweet for most dishes. However, one pairing that I do enjoy is butternut squash with a dry Madeira. Both have a dense texture, and as long as the wine is dry enough, they have a similar level of sweetness. The key to a successful fortified wine pairing is to match sweetness first; if the food isn’t sweet enough, the wine will overpower it, but if the wine isn’t sweet enough, it will taste like a vat of acid.
Normally, I warn people against pairing wine with chocolate because the chocolate tends to overwhelm subtle flavors in the wine. But there’s nothing subtle about a glass of Port, making it one of the only wines that truly pairs well with intense chocolate desserts.
1987 Blandy’s Madeira (thick, spicy, somewhat dry): Pair with a simple butternut squash soup to mimic the thickness of the Madeira’s texture and to allow the wine’s spice to shine.
1977 Ferreira (concentrated, chocolate-like, robust): Pair with a chocolate ganache to highlight the wine’s chocolate notes and sweet, intense flavors.
Pairing Aged Reds
Wines that have spent more than 20 years in a cellar will lose some of their bright fruit flavors, which means you’ll want to handle food pairings differently with these wines. Pairing aged wines with food can be tricky, and depends on how well the wine was stored and whether it retained its firm tannins. Unfortunately, you won’t know this information until after you open the bottle. This is why I usually drink aged wines on their own, or I serve them with a sampling of different types of cheese. Good quality cheese often has an aged, nutty quality that goes well with older red wines, which take on the same kind of flavors when they mature.
1995 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon (herbaceous, tobacco notes, woodsy): Pair with gruyere to mimic the savory notes of the wine.
When you match a red wine’s body and sweetness (or lack thereof) to your food, you will almost always have a successful pairing. The most important tip to remember is that, while wine and food can harmonize with one another, there can only be one star at the table. Decide whether you want to highlight the wine or the food, and the perfect pairing will inevitably follow.
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Image by Kirti Poddar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons