Some of the wine snobs of the world may disagree, but here, we believe there are no hard and fast rules to pairing wine with food. Take it from our friend Sarah Shadday, Marketing and Wholesale Coordinator for Mallow Run Winery: “Eat what you like, drink what you like! If it pairs well on your palate, it’s the perfect pairing!” It sounds elementary, but everyone’s palate is different. What one may enjoy, another may not.

There is, however, one truth to all this: wine and food are splendid partners. Like a happy marriage, their union is intended to bring out the best in each other. Both strive to assist the other in reaching their full potential.

If you’re offering wine service at your restaurant, including a recommended wine pairing with the entrée gives guests a unique experience they’ll want to repeat. Karen MacNeil writes in her acclaimed text The Wine Bible:

“It’s certainly true that extraordinary flavor affinities do exist, and that most of us have had a least a few of those ‘wow’ moments when the wine-and-food combination was unbelievably good.”

Wine’s flavor profile can change. The same wine may taste different in a lively atmosphere than it did when you were guzzling it down on your living room couch. Maybe the wine was served too warm, or it wasn’t aerated, or you’re drinking it out of the wrong type of wine glass. The type of wine you choose to wash down your dinner (or rather, if you’re like me, the type of dish you choose to eat with your wine) can also impact the flavor. As we said, there are no hard and fast rules for wine pairing. However, some food can bring out bold new characters in the wine – or it can dull them.

What Wine Goes with What Food?

“Traditionally you match strength of flavors,” Shadday explains. “[Eating] something heavy and fatty? Choose a structured, bold red. Light fish? Go for a delicate rosé or light white.”

MacNeil reiterates this:

“Match delicate to delicate, bold to bold. It only makes sense that a delicate wine like a red Burgundy will end up tasting like water if you serve it with a dramatically bold dish like curry. Dishes with bold, piquant, spicy, and hot flavors are perfectly cut out for bold, spicy, big-flavored wines.”

The first step to wine pairing is deciding what type of experience you’re looking for. Are you hoping to mirror flavors, or create an interesting contrast? Let’s use lobster as an example. A butter or cream sauce is often served with the lobster. If you opted to mirror flavors to bring out the buttery profile, you might consider serving it with a chardonnay – a popular full-bodied white wine with buttery characteristics. However, why not try creating an interesting juxtaposition by pairing the rich and creamy lobster with a Champagne or sparkling white wine? You might be surprised by the pleasantness of the experience.

Similarly, a food’s saltiness can create an exciting contrast with the acidity of the wine. Typically, white wines are high in acidity, but so are certain reds. Maybe a smoked salmon and Champagne, or cheese and Chianti? Many Asian dishes, especially those with soy sauce, pair well with light Rieslings, both adding new dimensions to the flavors you’ll experience.

Saltiness can also contrast nicely with a sweeter wine. Try that same cheese with a port and note the experience. Who knows? It could make for a fascinating menu pairing to offer guests post-meal. However, when dealing with sweeter wines, be conscious of pairing them with desserts. Desserts that are sweeter than the wine will often dull the flavor.

Dishes with fruit in them tend to pair best with fruit-forward wines, working in tandem to bring out hidden flavors to liven up the palate. Similarly, spicier dishes should be served with something bolder and fruit-forward, like a Shiraz, that can cut through the spice and unleash a vibrant zest.

The texture of the food should be a prominent consideration. Foods high in fat typically demand an equally rich and structured wine, such as a cabernet sauvignon. This is where that steak and wine rule come into play because it’s hard to beat a hearty steak and bold red combination.

Your Food and Wine Adventure Awaits

To get you started, here are general rules. But remember, nothing is set in stone, so experiment all you’d like with different food and wine pairings.

  • When in doubt, serve wine with a roast chicken. The chicken acts as a blank canvas, helping you get an initial feel for the wine.
  • Before matching, consider: what kind of wine do you like, what’s the texture of the food (is it heavy, or lighter fare?), what’s the preparation like (grilled, baked, sautéed?), is it served with a sauce?
  • The acidity of the wine can enhance and lengthen the flavor of the dish.
  • Texture is king: a bold, full-bodied wine can overwhelm more delicate dishes. The heftier the food, the fuller the wine’s body.
  • Sauces play a role, too, because they can change or define the dish or its texture. Consider: is the sauce acidic? Spicy? Heavy or light? These can easily overpower the wine, no matter what the dish it accompanies.

What Foods Should You Avoid with Wine?

Even though we’re big advocates on trying new combinations, some foods that can detract from the experience. Proceed with caution, and try altering your preparation, such as combining with other ingredients, like heavy cream or bacon, to minimize the impact they’ll have on the flavor of the wine. Some of these include:

  • Artichokes – many complain of a metallic taste in the wine when paired with these
  • Asparagus – cooking asparagus sometimes releases what’s been described as a “skunky-smelling compound,” which many blame on the wine
  • Chiles – these can make higher alcohol wines taste hot and bitter
  • Vegetables or foods containing sulfur, like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and eggs can throw off the flavor of the wine
  • Vinegar – the high levels of acetic acid can steal from the fruitiness of certain wines, causing them to taste bitter

How Do You Include Wine into Your Menu?

The first rule: never include a wine on your menu without tasting it first. We recommend doing a blind tasting so you’re basing the selection on the quality of the product, eliminating potential bias from the label.

After you narrow down to your initial selection, orchestrate tastings with the front-of-house staff, including managers, servers, and bartenders, pairing your wine choices with top-selling menu items. The more familiar your team is with the wine, and how it complements individual dishes, the better they’ll be able to sell it. Many restaurants also include the wine pairing suggestion next to the menu item so the customer can readily know what to order for the optimal wine and dine experience.

You’ll want to have at least something for every type of wine drinker. This includes dry whites and reds ranging from light to full body, as well as a sweeter option, such as a Riesling or Moscato. You may also want to include some sparkling options and dessert wine for an after-dinner appeal.

Once you nail down which wines you want to include on your menu, the next step is creating it. The wine menu style and assortment diversification should match the ambiance of your restaurant. Some opt for a separate wine menu, especially if the selection is quite large. If your wine, and drink menu in general, is smaller, devoting a single page in your regular dinner menu suffices just fine.

Structuring and organizing your wines, again, depends on your specific restaurant and what mood you’re looking to create. If you’re offering both wine by the glass and bottle, you’ll want to be strategic.  On average, a typical 750-milliliter bottle will provide four to five six-ounce pours. You’ll want to make sure to cork the bottle at the end of each night and refrigerate it to slow the rate of spoilage. However, even with refrigeration, after a bottle’s been uncorked and air has infiltrated the wine, you only have about four days before it goes bad. So, all this is to say if you want to offer a wine by the glass, you’ll want to make sure it makes economic sense. Reserve the pricier bottles, and those you observe aren’t often ordered by the glass, strictly for bottle-only service (more on pouring, serving, and storing wine here).

Some upscale restaurants catering to a more sophisticated wine scene may separate their wines by Old World and New World, and region.

Another common way some restaurants list their wines is by body type, starting with lighter-bodied wines at the top, and ending with full-bodied. This is a convenient way for guests to identify the style they prefer quickly.

In America, the most common practice is organizing wine by the specific grape variety (chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, etc.). Whichever way you decide to style your wine menu, you should at least separate sparkling wines from standard table wines, as well as organize by red and white wines, and dessert wines.

If you go through a wine distributor, you’ll be purchasing wine by the case (usually 12 bottles each). When incorporating new wines into your menu, it’s best to start small and see how they perform at your restaurant. Keep track of sales and continuously adjust your list to optimize for what’s popular. A few key areas to track include:

  • The number of bottles served per table
  • The per-person check average for the wine
  • How much white wine is ordered compared to red wine, based on percentage
  • Numbers of bottles compared to glasses
  • Average price of a bottle of wine sold in the first three months
  • The top 10 most ordered wines

Awesome Food and Wine Pairings

There are limitless food and wine pairings. Here are just a few popular ones to ignite your imagination.

Light-Bodied White Wines

Wines similar in structure to Pinot Grigio or Rieslings can go nicely with flounder, clams, and oysters.

Medium-Bodied White Wines

Consider pairing with snapper, shrimp, scallops, bass.

Full-Bodied White Wines

Including those such as chardonnay or viognier, you may consider something like salmon, lobster, tuna, duck, roast chicken, and sirloin steak.

Light-Bodied Red Wines

Light red wines like Chianti, Pinot Noir, and many from the Burgundy region of France often complement those same dish types as full-bodied whites, including salmon, tuna, duck, and roast chicken.

Medium-Bodied Red Wines

Those like merlot, some Malbec’s, and certain Pinot Noirs fall under here. Try with game birds, pork chops, or veal.

Full-Bodied Red Wines

Full-bodied red wines, like cabernet sauvignon and different styles of Zinfandel and Shiraz, are traditionally paired accordingly to other fuller foods, such as game meats, lamb chops, and steaks.

Don’t limit yourself. You don’t know what you don’t know until you try it out! Don’t be afraid to try something new! We’d love to know what your favorite food and wine pairings are. Let us know in the comments!