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The Fallacy of Wine & Food Pairing

Along with “What’s your favorite wine?” and “Is wine X still any good?,” wine-and-food pairings are among the things that wine writers get asked about most.

In these instances, I’m as apt to fall back on conventional wisdom as anyone else. Having steak? How about a Cabernet or Zinfandel? Sautéed trout? Reach for a Riesling.

Authors David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson didn’t make it easier when they published Red Wine with Fish (Simon & Schuster) back in 1989. All of those traditional rules seemed to go out the window.

Of course, we in the press feed off these insecurities. We tell readers exactly what wines they should serve with every recipe we print.

To be fair to them, the options are never that simple. What if I don’t have a Cabernet in the house? Can I substitute Merlot? What about sauces? Side dishes? It’s a rabbit hole that intimidates far too many people.

Of course, we in the press feed off these insecurities. We tell readers exactly what wines they should serve with every recipe we print. We even encourage our tasters to recommend specific foods in a fair proportion of their wine reviews.

Restaurants do the same. Some list recommended wines on the menu, while others employ a sommelier—or several of them—to steer folks in the “right” direction. The vast majority of sommeliers do a great job reading their clientele and helping them make appropriate selections. I almost always ask for their help when dining out.

If, though, your dinner party of four orders different dishes but wants to share a bottle or two of wine, someone is going to have a less-than-perfect match. The holy grail of the pairing game is an experience that elevates both wine and food. Yet, in nearly two decades of writing professionally about wine, the number of such transcendent wine-food pairings I’ve experienced is around five.

What’s much more attainable are pairings that complement each other or, at the very least, don’t detract from each other. That’s where a sommelier’s knowledge of the menu and wine list really comes out.

At home, keeping a small supply of wine “staples” becomes useful, much like a well-stocked pantry. With just a few wine styles, you can have something on hand that will complement most meals.

On the other hand, if you’re not partial to any of these wine styles, don’t bother. The beauty of the wine-food game is that as long as you like it, you win.

Six Essential Wine Styles

Sparkling Wines

These turn any event into a celebration. They’re also versatile with food, rarely going horribly awry no matter the dish.

Light Dry Whites

While I wouldn’t advocate pairing these with red meat, these are supreme as apéritifs or alongside anything from the water.

Rich Dry Whites

Think fatty fish like tuna or salmon, or anything with a cream sauce. Chicken, pork and veal work, too. An oaky Chardonnay is fine with grilled steak.

Off-Dry Whites

A bit of sweetness goes a long way in matching wine to dishes with any sort of spicy heat, regardless of the main ingredient.

Light Dry Reds

Red wine with fish? These are your best bets. They also go well with white meats and can stand in for heavier reds in a pinch.

Rich Dry Reds

Classic red-meat material, whether grilled, roasted or stewed. If you’re a vegetarian, mushrooms would be a good choice.

Managing Editor Joe Czerwinski has been mismatching wine and food for decades, but one of his all-time favorite pairings is aged goat cheese with white Hermitage.