You’ve all heard the old food and wine pairing rule – white wine with fish, red wine with meat. And you may have also heard the more popular phrase – eat what you like, drink what you like. In reality, paring wine with food – or food with wine – is somewhere in the middle.

Pairing food & wine is not a science. It has a lot to do with personal preference and taste, so there are no cut and dried rules. In fact, most wines work with most foods, but knowing a few basic rules can enhance your enjoyment.

Complementing Flavors
Match creamy with creamy – Creamy wines, such as Chardonnay or Viognier, can be matched with cream-based sauces (pasta or poultry) or a creamy cheese. You’re matching rich with rich, so the textures of one will complement the other.

Match acid with acid – Bright, crisp Sauvignon Blanc is a lovely match for that fish with a lemon sauce. A good rule of thumb – if the food has lemon or other citrus in it, you’re going to want some acid to match. Some wines to pair with a lemon-based sauce are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Chablis.

Match sweet with sweet – Chocolate cake? Lemon custard? Actually a good way to do this one is to pair color with color. Rich and dense chocolate cake will be well matched with Port or other dark, sweet wines. A light lemon custard looks for sweetness, so a Moscato or Muscat-based dessert wine is not too heavy and can be a perfect match.

Match delicate with delicate; bold with bold –. A delicate meal, such as sole with lemon butter, would be completely overwhelmed with a big California Cabernet. Instead, pair with a delicate wine such as Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc or even a light and fruity Pinot Noir. In the same way a light Sauvignon Blanc would be overwhelmed by a hearty beef stew. For those flavors, a bold red like an Italian or a big Australian Shiraz would do much better to complement the bold flavors of the dish. In short – do not overwhelm the food or the wine.

Contrasting Flavors
Match spicy with sweet – A big tannic red with spicy chow mien? No. The dish would be perfectly paired with an off-dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer, and it’s a party in your mouth. The sweetness of the wine is offset by the spice in the food and instead of tasting sweet, you taste the delicious fruit in the wine instead. Pair Riesling, Pinot Gris (Alsace style) or Gewurztraminer with spicy Thai or Indian food. It’s a great combo.

Match creamy with crisp – Another fun match is to use a bright acidic wine to cut through a cream-based food. Take creamy cheese, Sparkling wine or Sauvignon Blanc can cut through that cream and bring out the best flavors in both the dish and the wine. Another great example is Chablis with a lobster bisque.

Match Tannin to protein & fat – Tannins in wine are enhanced when  paired with other tannins present in foods, so avoid pairing a big tannic wine with walnuts or chocolate! The two elements that help soften tannins in wine include protein and fat. This is why a steak is such a classic pairing for big red wines – it has both. Protein and fat help bring out the fruit in a red wine, subduing harsh tannins.

And last but not least Regional Pairings
Not sure what to have with a certain food? Try matching region to region. If you’re having pasta bolognese, try pairing it with a Chianti or another Tuscan Red. Rosemary-crusted lamb is a clear match for Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Oysters on the half shell would be just perfect with a  Loire white or Albarino.   Both are coastal wines, perfect for shellfish. There is just something about the food and wine coming from the same soil and climate that helps to make a perfect pairing!