Humans have been pairing wine with food for centuries. Happy accidents have lead to sublime partnerships, where flavors are elevated to a state of nirvana by merit of their being combined together.
To taste one of these serendipitous pairings is to be awed and inspired; we don’t blame you for wanting to try it yourself. Becoming a savvy gourmet is as simple as understanding the flavor and characteristics of classic wine varietals. Following are eight favorites and the foods we think make the perfect union.
Chardonnay is the king of white wines and by far the most common. Chardonnay grapes are extremely versatile, meaning they grow well in a multitude of climates. This type of wine is easily manipulated with vinification techniques that allow the wine maker to really showcase his prowess. Barrel fermentation adds more complex flavor and aroma while also enhancing tannins. Malolactic fermentation creates smooth, creamy mouth feel. Sur lie aging—where wine is allowed to ferment with its yeast sediment—builds layers of aroma and body. All of these factors contribute to the simple truth that a well-made chardonnay is one of the most drinkable wines around.
Seafood and butter are chardonnay’s classic partners. Melt-in-your-mouth scallops and succulent monkfish compliment the wine’s rich buttery quality. This recipe features a zingy rosemary-anchovy sauce that stands up brightly to a lavishly oaked chardonnay. Prepare this dish in light lemon-caper sauce if your chard has been aged in a stainless steel barrel, which results in a lighter, more delicate product.
Known as pinot grigio in Italy, this light, dry white wine has suggestions of melon and peach. Pinots from Alsace and most American variations—known as pinot gris—are generally richer, sometimes with hints of spice. These varying styles provide a broad range of flavors belying pinot’s drinkability for just about anyone.
Pinot grigio pairs nicely with seafood, light pastas, and salads. It’s fairly acidic, so avoid serving it with tomato or citrus-based recipes. This lightly spiced Curried Chicken Salad makes a refreshing compliment to a extroverted pinot gris. The nuts, grapes and mango compliment the notes of almonds and honey common to this type of wine, and the acid cleanses the palate between bites.
Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic varietal with light to medium body. This refreshing white tends to be delicately perfumed–with hints of tropical fruit, citrus or apricot. New Zealand has shown a propensity for crafting some of the best sauvignon blancs, making green-lipped mussels so common a pairing that the words have become nearly synonymous. In truth, anything that comes from the sea is an excellent companion.
The fresh herbs in this tropical ceviche compliment the grassy notes in the wine, while the crisp acidity helps to mellow the bite of the jalapeño.
Pinot Noir wine is lighter in body and color than most reds and often lower in tannins. These bright wines are sometimes mistakenly considered simplistic, but the varietal can produce satisfyingly rich and full-flavored variations. Hints of red fruit and a trace floral aroma characterize most wines in this category, with occasional notes of earthy, mineral, or black truffle essences. This grape is the hardest to grow, but when finely made, creates an imitable wine drinking experience.
A medium-bodied pinot pairs beautifully with savory seafood dishes, like paella. It loves to be combined with sweet components, like crushed tomatoes and aromatic saffron. The pinot’s racy acidity rinses away the saltiness and spice with each sip.
Cabernet sauvignon grapes succeed reliably throughout most wine regions. Generally characterized by currant, plum, cherry and spice, complex blends may also feature herbal, anise, or tobacco hints. Cabs are highly tannic meaning they age remarkably well.
The intensity of a jammy cabernet pairs elegantly with a cheese plate: Consider three boldly flavored selections that stand up to such a heavy-hitting varietal. Salty sweet Gouda; sheep’s-milk Pecorino-Romano; and stinky-yet-nutty Morbier, displayed with crusty baguette would be simply divine.
Despite its popularity, merlot’s quality maxes out at “very good” most of the time. It is used in blends, often with cabernet grapes that serve to round out the flavor. A fine merlot can stand on its own however, and will be supple, medium-bodied and moderately tannic—with hints of cherries, herbs and chocolate.
Pungent spices like cumin, paprika, and cayenne compliment merlot. Morrocan b’stilla—a spice-infused meat pie—combines these aromatics with cinnamon and powdered sugar to create a dish that’s sweetly satisfying. This recipe calls for ground chicken, but would be extra decadent made with lamb.
Syrah, known as shiraz in Australia, is a complex and boldly distinct wine. The grape grows well in many climates and results in wine with supple textures and rich tannins. Pepper, black cherry, tar, and leather are nuances that characterize this luscious varietal.
Pair this with grilled meats to enhance the smokiness of the meal. Pork loin begs for fruit adornment and the sweet-tart pomegranate sauce really brings out the dark berry flavors in the wine.
This versatile grape is planted more than any other red grape in California. Those that become red zinfandel produce a full-bodied, intensely powerful wine with ultra-ripe, dark fruit flavors and hints of pepper and spice. Zinfandels tend to be quite tannic, meaning they age well.
The prominent jammy flavor of a zinfandel feels almost sweet on the palate, making it perfect for rich dishes and roasted meats, and most especially for the dessert round. For this Molten Chocolate Cake, use a chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa. The bitterness of the cocoa is complimented by the peppery quality in the wine, and the tannins cleanse the mouth after each rich bite.
David Moore is the Social Media Coordinator at The International Wine of the Month Club, an online mail order wine club established in 1994 and fit for anyone from wine enthusiasts to those just looking for great wedding gift ideas.