This is a fascinating subject and something that intrigues everyone who is interested in wine.  Although it can become borderline scientific in some books, it can be broken down quite simply and you don’t need to get too bogged down in detail to get the basics right.

Basically, there are chemical reactions between the different flavours, and these can really take you by surprise when matching certain foods (try Roquefort blue cheese with a sweet desert wine).  When you drink wine by itself it tastes one way, but with food, it can taste completely different.

Ultimately the wine should enhance the flavour of the food and vice versa.  Pairing foods with wine can open your mind to trying new wines, or giving wines that you would not consider a second chance.  I always “hated” Chardonnay, but when I tried it recently with roast chicken, I had to admit it did pair really well and it has opened my mind to trying wines I would usually avoid.

The whole subject can become an exercise in pure snobbery though, so remember rule number one is to make sure you like what you are drinking.

It’s a balancing act and you need to balance the flavours, tannins and acidity in the food and the wines. 

Here are some tips for pairing wine and how to complement and contrast flavours, once you’ve figured out what you’re going to cook: 

Complementing flavours

  • This is really straightforward and might be a bit obvious, but it needs to be said – don’t overpower a mild delicate dish with a big powerful red wine.  Match mild foods with mild wines. Match strongly flavoured foods with big, flavourful wines.   It makes sense; imagine eating a delicate lemon sole with a big Cabernet Sauvignon.  A rich gamey stew, on the other hand would go nicely with a strong Shiraz as a light tuna salad would go well with a mild delicate Pinot Grigio.

    lemon, recipe dorade fish, pinot grigio, food and wine pairing, south african wine, wine, south africa uncorked

    Citrus roasted dorade

  • Match sweet with sweet – sweet wine is called desert wine for a reason.  Late Harvest South African Chenin is particularly delicious with a berry or lemon tart.  Although there is an on-going debate as to which wine goes with chocolate.  Some people believe there is no match.  It could be a great idea for a party – everyone bring a chocolate desert and a bottle of wine that they think complements it….
  •  Acids (groups of chemical compounds which give grape juice and wine its tang and ability to refresh) go well together – a Sauvignon Blanc will go well with a tomato salad or a fish with a lemon sauce.  Typically, white wines have more acidity because white wine grapes are harvested early in the ripening process while sugars are a little lower and acids still high, while red wines have lower acidity because they are harvested later in the season.
  • A creamy sauce can really be complemented with a delicious creamy Chardonnay.  Chicken in a mushroom cream sauce or a creamy cheese will go really well with this kind of wine.

Contrasting Flavours

    • A fatty dish can also work well with a crisp, more acidic wine (in contrast to my above point!)  A sparkling wine is delicious with lobster or oysters and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc can cut through the fattiness of something like fried chicken.
    • oysters, sparkling wine, south african wine, south africa, south africa uncorked, food and wine pairingTannins (cheek-drying, astringent phenolic compounds similar to stewed tea in effect on the palate which are found mainly in red wine and are derived from grape seeds, skins, and stems) work well with food that is heavy in protein and fat – hence the famous steak and red wine combo.  The combination of protein and fat in a steak help soften tannins in a wine.
    • Spicy and Sweet: the ever challenging match with Asian cuisine is hard for some people.  Often people will chose a big tannic red to help keep up with the spiciness but what actually works better is to match it with a slightly sweeter wine.  Gerwurztraminer is the classic match, or Tokay Pinot Gris from Alsace.

Some look outs:

  • Don’t ever match a creamy dish with an acidic wine, it will really clash (like mixing lemon juice and milk).
  • If you’re stumped, a good tip is to match the food to a wine from that same country, or a wine similar to the wine from that country.  So have Pinot Grigio with light Italian food, or Shiraz with a gamey stew.  I found this article matching wines to South African foods a good guide (helping me discover some new South African dishes too).
  • Finally, the quality of the wine and the food should be in balance – don’t serve lobster with a simple cheap white wine, you should really have something more deserving.