White wines aren’t the easiest to pair with food; their light, delicate flavors can get overwhelmed by even a simple beef stew. However, in my experience, nothing beats a great pairing of white wine and food. When you get the balance of flavors right, your food appears more complex–you’ll taste every pinch of paprika and sprig of thyme. In the past, I used to default to red wine food pairings because I thought they were easier, but over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed a refreshing glass of white wine with almost every meal. Most kinds of food go well with different styles of white wine, as long as you know how to identify and highlight key flavors.
I’ve found that light, dry white wines thrive when the food they’re paired with isn’t complicated, and they go especially well with fresh seafood, meals that have a natural sweetness, and anything with citrus. Their acidity cuts through sweet flavors, allowing you to taste every ingredient. These whites also prevent your palate from getting overwhelmed by too many sweet flavors at once. But don’t pair an acidic dish with these kinds of wines. Pairing, say, an acidic Chenin Blanc with a vinegar-heavy salad sets the wine up to compete with the dish, rather than complement it. Opposites often attract in the world of wine and food pairings.
Vineyard 29 Sauvignon Blanc (aromatic, earthy, acidic): Pair with pea soup to highlight the sweetness of the soup and complement its herbaceous notes.
Raveneau Chablis Les Clos (citrusy, mineral-heavy, bright): Pair with foie gras or goat cheese to lift and brighten the soft, fatty flavors of the food.
Slightly spicy or acidic dishes go well with light, sweet white wines. Take sweet Chenin Blanc, for instance. You might not expect this delicate wine to pair well with a spicy, 25-ingredient Indian curry, but, as wine director Todd Smith points out, it’s a fantastic combination. Chenin Blanc parses the flavors of the curry apart because it has an underlying acidity that’s common in most white wines. It’s also sweet enough to balance the curry’s tangier, spicier notes.
But this doesn’t mean that, conversely, dry wines go with sweet foods. You won’t want to pair a dry Riesling with a rich slice of cheesecake, or the wine will taste sour. Try pairing a light, ultra-sweet white wine with an equally-sweet dessert.
JJ Prum Riesling (caramelized fruits, minerality, aromatic flowers): Pair with an Indian-style chicken curry to separate the complex spices and complement the dish’s naturally herbaceous aromatics.
Huet Chenin Blanc (honeycomb, soft fruits, very sweet): Pair with caramel creme brulee to mimic the sweetness of the dessert.
Long ago, when I was just learning about fine wine, one of my friends told me that she drank a bottle of Moet & Chandon with a bag of cheap potato chips. I was shocked and even a little offended. How could she disrespect a great bottle of Champagne like that? Clearly, I hadn’t tried the pairing, because when I did was immediately clear that this was a great idea. The bubbles in the wine made the saltiness of the chips that much more exciting, while the fruitiness balanced out the savory snack. It was the perfect combination of sweet and salty.
Sparkling white wine is fairly versatile–it pairs just as well with fatty snack foods as it does with Thai dishes and caviar. The one quality that all of these pairings share is richness or high fat content. The carbonation in Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco keeps the foods lively, even if they are weighed down by deep fried breading.
Krug Clos du Mesnil (nutty, apple-heavy, minerality): Pair with pad thai to complement the peanut flavors of the sauce and break up the dish’s heaviness.
Louis Roederer Cristal Rose (aromatic, fruity, intense): Pair with vegetable and fish tempura to cut through the fattiness of the breading–the intensity of the wine helps it compete with deep-fried dishes.
The kinds of food that goes well with aged white wine (such as those older than 10 years) will be different than the foods that go well with their younger peers. That’s because aged wines take on a more subtle personality as they mature, meaning that they are more fragile on the palate. Personally, I don’t serve any food with white wines that are more than 25 years old, because I find the wine’s flavors enjoyable enough alone. If you still want something to snack on while you taste your most prized bottles, try light cheeses like brie or mild gruyere. The soft nuttiness of the cheese will complement the toasted nut flavors of an aged Chardonnay without overpowering the wine’s soft, cooked fruit.
Aged Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Montrachet (rich, nutty, floral): Pair with a mildly-seasoned cashew cheese. The rich nuts in this vegan cheese will complement the toastiness of the wine without overpowering the palate like a traditional dairy cheese.
Aged Yquem (honey-like, concentrated, creamy): Pair with camembert to complement the sweetness of the wine’s honey notes and emphasize the creaminess of the wine.
When it comes to finding the perfect pairing for white wine, stick with similar intensities. You can serve white wine with bold foods like curry or even steak, as long as you choose a concentrated vintage that can stand up to those flavors. White wines can be even more powerful than reds when it comes to bringing out subtle flavors in food, which is why they are now my go-to party wines.
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Image by Nonnietang (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons