Article posted Friday, June 12, 2009 11:31am

Pairing Food and Wine Basics

One of the most frequently asked wine-related questions people have is how to select an appropriate wine that will match and enhance their meal. Although “drink what you like” is always the first rule, understanding some very basic pairing strategies may very well change your mind about what you like, and give you the incentive to try new wines.

Traditionally, the first rule of pairing wine and food is to consider the “weight” of the foods you are serving and the body of the wines you are considering. In general, heavier, dense foods like stews and steaks would be best served with bigger-bodied, more robust wines such as cabernet and syrah. As a rule, lighter, more delicate food pairs best with wines of similar character. A great example of this is a mixed green salad served with a delicate pinot gris.

Beyond weight consideration, our pairing strategies are based on three basic principles:  Contrasting, Bridging and Mirroring. Following are some good examples for you to consider:

• Bridging is a pairing strategy where the idea is to isolate a flavor in the wine, and then add that flavor to the dish to act as a “bridge,” helping the wine and food to merge with each other. Wine guru Karen MacNeil uses a great tasting example – pairing popcorn and chardonnay. Her recommendation is to start with a big, buttery chardonnay, and a bowl of plain popcorn. Taste both, and then add salt and butter to the popcorn. Taste again, and the difference is profound and remarkable.

• Contrasting is a relatively recent pairing strategy that emerged during the height of the Nouvelle Cuisine boom in the 1980s. Simply put, it is the strategy of pairing foods with wines that have opposite qualities. A classic example of this concept is the idea of Peanut Butter (salty), and jelly, (sweet). One of our favorite contrasting pairings combines a sweeter riesling (i.e. late harvest) or Port, with an intense, savory cheese like Manchego or Maytag Blue.

• Mirroring involves matching foods and wines with similar, distinct characteristics. Common examples would be the pairing of a good steak and a big, chewy California cabernet, sautéed mushrooms with French pinot noir, or a Washington riesling with sautéed shrimp and ginger. A favorite and classic combination for us is a young, herbal Australian shiraz paired with simple grilled lamb chops.

If all the above seems like a bit too much, take a look at the link below and you’ll find a wine pairing “widget” that’s fun and simple to use: In any case, the key to successful pairing begins and ends with knowing a wine’s basic characteristics, so use your knowledge, and remember to take advantage of label descriptors, reviews and other resources to make your matches work!

Paring Examples

If you would like to conduct some trial runs of the three pairing routes, we feel the following wines are great examples to work with. Try the chardonnay with some buttered popcorn for bridging, the riesling with some Manchego cheese for contrast and the shiraz with some grilled lamb chops for mirroring.

• Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay Columbia Valley 2007

Appearance:  Pale clear gold in color with a green hue

Aroma:  Butter and oak on the nose with a hint of stone fruit

Flavors:  Creamy, silky mouthfeel with pear and stone fruit undertones

Finishing Notes:  Everything carries through to the finish adding a hint of fig and toast, very well balanced wine

Where To Buy:  Pick & Save, Econo Foods, Main Street Market

• Pacific Rim Sweet Riesling Columbia Valley 2008

Appearance:  Very pale yellow in color

Aroma:  Stone fruit in nose along with sweet blossoms and honey characteristics

Flavors:  These flavors become plush on the mid-palate and carry through to the finish   

Finishing Notes:  The sweetness turns crisp toward the finish with a fair amount of acid making it a nice food wine

Where To Buy:  Main Street Market, Madison Avenue Wine Shop

• Thorn Clarke Shiraz Shotfire Ridge Cuvee Barossa Australia 2007

Appearance:  Dark, almost inky red

Aroma:  Lots of minty eucalyptus in the robust nose

Flavors:  Briary raspberry and blackberry with anise flavors and the minty tones carrying through

Finishing Notes:  Adds cocoa and plum on the finish with soft but noticeable tannins

Where To Buy:  Madison Avenue Wine Shop, Top Shelf, Lagniappe

Wine Wiki: Tight

A wine with a significant presence of tannins that is restraining the other qualities of the wine, such as fruit and extract, from being more noticeable. A “tight wine” is expected to age well as the tannins soften to reveal these other qualities.Information about “Where to Try” and “Where to Buy” these selected wines was provided by the local wine purveyors and vendors. If you happen to also serve or sell these wines, email [email protected].

WINE:30 is written by Karl Bradley and Jody Wuollett. Karl is the general manager and self-proclaimed “sous” sommelier for the Mission Grille. Former restaurant executive and Door County native Jody is happily under-employed as a Mission Grille food server and a member of the local band Northbound. They are both long time residents and first time contributors to the Peninsula Pulse.