Pairing wine with food can be nerve-wracking for the wine novice. But it doesn't have to be.

A few tips to help you along your way. And, hopefully, a surprising revelation or two (what? red wine with chicken???)


So let's to the basics - a mini wine course, if you will - and then to some food and wine pairing.

There are four basic things that we taste (there are actually five, but the japanese coined umami is a bit esoterical and thus, I shall not attempt to go into it here). The four are: salt, sweet, bitter, and acidity. One must note that bitter and acid are not the same thing. Acid is that feeling that occurs when you bite into a lemon - puckery. Bitter is akin to the dregs of hot tea, which is due to the tannins inherent in tea.

A white Alsatian wine may have notes of mineral (salt); a Sauterne is luscious and sweet; an intense Cabernet Sauvignon may be high in tannins, thus leaving one with a lingering hairiness on the tongue; while a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa can be quite acidic, causing the mouth to purse in response.

As in life, there are contradictory rules when it comes to pairing wines with foods. On one hand, you can serve foods that complement the flavors in a wine. On the other, opposites attract, and make for a very special pairing indeed.

Let's take that white Alsatian wine for example. Let's pretend it's a Pinot Blanc, has a mineral quality to it, but isn't as acidic as the South African Sauvignon Blanc. It may also exhibit notes of apricot, and runs a smooth course round the mouth and down the throttle. This wine would be a wonderful accompaniment to fried clams or smelts. The batter and the light salting of these fried foods would be complemented by the minerality in the wine, while the fruitiness and smoothness would sit well with the slightly greasy aspect of the food having been fried.

A wine in high acidity could go either way - a hearty blue cheese would be a nice contrast to the tingly slightly vegetal quality of this wine; while a simple green salad with a vinaigrette dressing would be the complementary route to take.

Tannins are bitter. And bitter only begets more bitter. So it's always nice to pair red wines that are high in tannins with a protein. The fat will mellow the bitterness experienced while the bitterness will heighten the flavors in, oh, let's say, a perfectly grilled steak. The exception is dark chocolate. For some reason, the bitter aspect present in both a highly tannic wine and an intense dark chocolate comes together in a dance that can be rather exciting to experience.

But for the money pairing, I'd save that dark chocolate and savor it with a nice Sauterne (or any dessert wine). Fresh berries - simple, to be sure, but if in season, a perfect last course - are a most lovely pairing with the intense smooth sweetness found in dessert wines.

Spicy Asian foods and Mexican fare are the most difficult to pair with wines. A wine with a high alcohol content will only heat the already spicy foods up more. This can make for an unpleasant experience, indeed! But if you really want to stick with wine, a lot of folk believe (and rightly so) that a good Riesling pairs wonderfully with Asian foods. The best wine to pair with Mexican food, in my opinion, just happens to be,er, beer.

As for the old adage that chicken and fish should always be paired with white wine? Throw it out the window. A roasted chicken or a grilled salmon - highly delicious and protein mainstays in most kitchens - is best experienced with a red wine. I wouldn't go with a heavy red like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, but a light Pinot Noir or Grand Cru Beaujolais is a most wonderful partner for your poultry and salmon needs.

Pairing food and wine is certainly an art. But it's not an intangible art. The ideal food and wine pairing should heighten the flavors in both the wine being drunk and the food being eaten. And, as in all things, it takes some practice. So don't be afraid of a miss now and then, as you'll have plenty of hits and can make your own notes on what you like with what.

And with all that practicing making perfect and whatnot, you'll have plenty of good eats and wine to taste together along the way.