Wine Column: How to pair food and wine

By Tim Korby

Pairing wine and food? It sounds simple enough ~ and with a few simple tips, it can be. If choosing wine for a meal at home, then start by thinking about the meal as a whole and all of the flavors on the table. Are they mild or flavorful; rich or acidic; fatty or lean? With these characteristics in mind, you will be able to select a wine that will keep all of the flavors in balance.

Some foods work better with wines of a similar nature. Match mild foods like baked haddock to mild wines like Pinot Grigio or Chenin Blanc. Match big, flavorful foods like peppercorn steak with big, flavorful wines like Syrah or Zinfandel. Also, you usually want to match the richness of the food to the richness of the wine. A higher acid dish, like swordfish in a lemon-caper sauce, should have a higher acid wine like a Sauvignon Blanc. A richer dish, like chicken in a mushroom cream sauce, should be matched with a richer California Chardonnay. A higher acid wine with a rich cream sauce is like adding lemon juice to cream ~ not a pleasant result.

Other foods tend to work better with wines that contrast with the characteristics of the dish. When you start getting into fattier dishes, like a ribeye steak smothered in sautéed wild mushrooms, you want to start looking for a wine with higher tannic acid, like Cabernet Sauvignon, to balance the dish’s fatty richness. With spicy foods like Indian or Thai, the best pairings are those wines that are fruitier, almost verging on sweet, like Rieslings. With spicy dishes, I usually do not recommend wines made from Gewurztraminer because, sometimes, the wine’s spicy flavors clash with the spices used in the dish. Even more fruity wines like Sauternes work very well with a very savory dish like pate de foie gras.

Matching wine to a meal at home is different than ordering wine in a restaurant, where each person at the table may be ordering something completely different. If you’re not big drinkers and really only want one glass of wine each, then you have two options: Each person can order a wine by the glass to compliment their dish, or you can find a bottle that will not overpower the lightest meal ordered at the table. If the latter is your choice, then everyone at the table will have to come to a consensus on whether to order a red, a white, or the more obvious solution ~ one of each. If you are in an ethnic restaurant, then make your wine selection from the same country in which the food originated. This will narrow down your selection some and make it a bit easier to come to a final selection.

If you are not quite adventurous enough to try Greek wine with your Greek food or Spanish wine with your Spanish food, then probably the most universal wines for dining are lower alcohol Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (around 13.5% ABV) that have seen little to no oak aging. Usually, these wines are both delicate and flavorful enough to be enjoyed with an array of foods. With these tips, and a little experimentation and practice, you’ll be able to impress your dining companions.


Tim Korby is the director of Julio’s Liquors’ online wine store. He started in the wine industry in California in 1976 and moved to the Boston area in 2000. In addition to being a retail wine buyer, he has taught wine courses since 1984 and has regularly written newsletters, articles and blogs since 1981. Korby travels the world several times each year to find just the right wines for his customers and to learn the true romance of the wines he sells.