Conventional wisdom will tell you beef goes best with red wine, and white wine is best with fish. The truth, however, is pairing the right wine with your meals, desserts and cheeses is much more complex.
“In my experience of preparing food to be enjoyed with wine, I’ve learned that it’s not about finding the ‘perfect pairing,’” said Sarah Scott, executive winery chef at Opus One Winery. “These can be elusive. Rather, it’s about consistently cooking with excellent, seasonal products and mindfully balancing the umami, salt and acid ingredients within each dish. This allows the wine to taste as the winemaker intended.”
“We consider body and texture when considering food pairings for our wines,” said Nina Kravetz, head of marketing and direct-to-consumer sales at Martha Stoumen Wines. “Lush and textural wines like our historic Out to the Meadow field blend or aged Negroamaro Rosato keep us craving salty foods with a compelling char. When bright and brooding wines like carignan and pinot noir are on the table, we lean on more decadent dishes that could use a companion to cut through the fat.”
“When you’re doing food pairings, there are some basic rules,” said William Allen, owner and winemaker at Two Shepherds, who provided an example. “Try to avoid completely opposite wine pairings. Generally, if you’re matching wines with acidity, you typically want to pair them with foods that have acidity.
“One of the things in pairing that is often very difficult is spicy foods,” he said. “Most wines will clash with spicy foods. That’s why a lot of people drink beer with spicy food. Big bold fruity wines don’t work because you’re clashing fruitiness with spiciness.”
“Penfolds BIN 311 Chardonnay has vibrant citrus fruits and pronounced minerality,” said Ellie Farrell, public relations manager at Treasury Wine Estates, which has more than 40 wine brands including Beringer Vineyards. “For the same reason, we love a squeeze of lemon on crab legs, shrimp and oysters. The crisp citrus flavors are the perfect foil for briny shellfish.”
“Some of our lighter reds like our pinot meunier go great with salmon,” said Allen. “But we’re not talking about white steak fish. We also have the vermentino that would definitely pair with summer foods, summer salads, oysters for sure and other kinds of seafood.”
But pairing wine with seafood can be a challenge.
“It depends on your seafood,” said Allen. “What’s the sauce on it? Is it a cream sauce? Is it just grilled with nothing on it? You can take a fish dish and make it completely different depending on how you’re preparing it.”
Meat and Pasta Pairings
“We often recommend barbecue,” said Gillian Balance, Beringer Bros spokesperson and master sommelier, about food pairings with their cabernet. “Sweet, smoky, tangy sauces really play up the toasty oak characters, while the dark berry fruits and tannins provide the perfect contrast to savory meat platters.”
“The Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a delicious cabernet-driven blend with ample dark fruits,” said Farrell. “The well-integrated tannins and fruit-driven profile are the drivers of the wine’s versatility, allowing it to pair beautifully with any number of dishes, including roasted chicken, grilled beef tenderloin and pasta dishes with meat or mushroom sauce.
“The spicy, charred flavors from heavily toasted bourbon barrels add another dimension to the dark fruits in our Beringer Bros Red blend, which pairs well with smoked meats and barbecue,” she added.
Roasted lamb chops, duck and Wagyu New York Strip are among the meals that go best with Opus One, according to Christopher Barefoot, vice president of communications and guest relations at Opus One Winery.
Overture, the other wine produced by Opus One Winery, pairs best with “risotto with mushrooms, or any pasta with hearty mushroom sauce and a truffle or two on top,” said Barefoot, who also suggested meats with chimichurri and roasted root vegetables, and “even a grilled burger with sharp cheddar cheese and a medley of summer vegetables like summer squash or summer beans.”
Martha Stoumen’s cabernet blends like Another Shore 2021 go well with hearty dishes, those that are fattier and meatier such as sausage and schmaltzy chicken, according to Kravetz, adding Honeymoon goes well with continental fare.
“Our white Honeymoon blend is also a holiday favorite,” she said. “It’s fun to cook while you drink the wine.”
Allen, who describes his Rosé of Cinsault as a complex wine to be served with a little chill, said, “You can pair it with things that are savory. Duck is good, so is lamb. You would also pair it with typical summer fare, particularly hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue ribs. It’s got a nice freshness and a little bit of structure.”
“Sharper cheeses are best, harder vs soft, and with a good amount of age, including aged gouda, ewephoria, seascape, fiscalini cheddar, comet and toma,” said Barefoot about Opus One pairings, adding the recommended cheeses with Overture are similar to Opus One since they are both cabernet wines.
“What you want to avoid is soft rind, creamy cheeses like French bries, and triple cream such as Brillat-Savarin, St. André, etc.,” he added.
“With so many wines in our portfolio, and the incredibly diverse world of flavors and textures in cheese, I often will recommend a delicious ‘bridge’ wine, something that will work with almost any cheese,” said Farrell. “A great example is our Etude Pinot Noir from Grace Benoist Estate in Carneros. The wine offers subtle red fruits, earthy tones and silky texture, making if the perfect backdrop for mild, earthy cheeses like tomme, manchego, gouda and mild cheddars.”
“Many popular desserts have one or all of the following: nuts, caramel, butterscotch, chocolate or dried fruits,” said Farrell. “When describing our Penfolds Club Tawny Port, all these flavors are mentioned. There is also enough sweetness to match desserts like sticky toffee pudding, crème brulée or ice cream with caramel sauce.”
Allen, however, is not as enthusiastic about pairing wines and desserts.
“For me, generally, pairing dry wines and desserts is a challenge,” he said. “Maybe in the summertime, like a watermelon or a fruit salad, but definitely not a typical sweet dessert like cake or brownies. This is why typically dry red wines and chocolate don’t go very well even though people try to sell you red wines and chocolate at Valentine’s Day. It’s actually one of the worst kinds of pairings there is.”
Temperature vs Wine Flavor
“Think about temperature,” said Allen. “You wouldn’t have a dinner party and serve a carrot soup out of the refrigerator. You would heat it up.
“I always tell people, if you don’t have a wine cellar, which a lot of people don’t, take your red wine off the counter and put it in the fridge for 15 minutes, and take your white wine out of the fridge for 15 minutes,” he continued. “Remember the temperature of the wine dramatically impacts the flavor of the wine and thus the food pairing as well.
“95% of people drink their red wines too hot and their white wines too cold. So, you’re completely throwing off the food pairing because the temperature of the bottle characteristics changes. When your red wine is hot or warm at 70 degrees [F] on your counter, it’s not the proper serving temperature for an elegant red. You’re going to make the alcohol really stand out.
“On white wine, most people do the exact opposite. They pull them out of the fridge, which is 38 degrees [F]. If you’re buying ‘Two Buck Chuck,’ you would never put ice cubes in it and put it in a blender.”
Winemakers are always learning about new pairings for their wines.
“Don’t stick to the old adages,” said Allen. “That’s a very outdated thing, white wine with fish, or red wine with meat. There’s a whole row of things in between that. Just be diversified.
“It’s fun to be creative,” he added. “I think people fixate too much on getting the food pairings exactly right. We will often have two bottles open and try them with both courses of the meal. Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised.”
Martha Stoumen’s webpage offers visitors an opportunity to be part of the Cookbook section of its Field Notes by reporting and describing the new food and wine pairings they have discovered.
“We get a lot of reminders that wine pairings don’t need to be Eurocentric,” said Kravetz. “There are many flavors to be trying such as tacos and Middle Eastern food.”
But if you aren’t feeling especially creative, please note that wineries often include suggested food pairings on their websites.