The Explainer: Food & Wine Matching 101

Interested in food and wine? Me too! I do regular classes and talks on the topic through The Humble Tumbler, and over time have developed what I think are some nifty ideas to help clarify some of the main points. Importantly, I am certainly not someone who believes wine goes with everything – overall I seem to find the best matches are made with French, Italian & German inspired dishes. So don’t be afraid to experiement with beer, sake, whisky and cocktails – the concept described below applies to all of them!

Firstly, start with the wine, not the food. Why? Because you can change the dish but the wine is as it is! From here there are three main things to consider:

  1. Try to match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food
  2. Consider the structural elements of the wine and how they interact with food. Eg. acidity, tannin, alcohol.
  3. Don’t underestimate the effect of bridging ingredients such as sauces, condiments and dairy.

This post is all about weight in food and in wine!

Understanding ‘weight’ in wine

Weight in wine refers to how the combined sense of alcohol, extract, sugar, acid, flavour and texture can give rise to a perceived ‘bigness’.  This can be interpreted as ‘body’ – as in light, medium or heavy body. One way to imagine this is by using the milk analogy: light milk is light bodied, full cream milk is medium bodied and (light) cream is fuller again.

Of course you can’t judge the body of a wine properly until you’ve opened it – which isn’t so helpful when you’re at the wine shop standing in-front of all those unopened bottles! There are a few clues though on the label – including grape variety, alcohol and any reference to winemaking methods.

The following table makes some assumptions about grape variety, alcohol and wine style which are designed to be used as a guide only.

 DRY WHITE WINES Light Light  – Medium Medium – Heavy
Common dry white varietals – Pinot Grigio, dry Riesling & Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Arneis, Vermentino, Verdelho. Semillon, Arneis, off dry Riesling & Gewurztraminer, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Fiano, Pinot Blanc, some Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc Chardonnay, Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne & some Semillon
Some wine making assumptions Generally unoaked (made in stainless steel) dry, with bright acidity. Most of the flavours in these wines are from the grapes Stainless and / or partial (often older) oak, lees contact, skin contact, partial MLF influence* & residual sugar Oak ferment common, often with some new oak. Lees contact, MLF* influence, skin contact, oak ageing & bottle age
Alcohol 11.0 – 12.0% 12.1 – 13.4% 13.5% +
 DRY RED WINES Light Light  – Medium Medium – Heavy
Common dry  red varietals – Any dry Rose, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Tarrango. Merlot, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, lighter styles of Sangiovese, Malbec, Tempranillo, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Durif, Tannat, Zinfandel. Heavier styles of Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Grenache, Malbec.
Some wine making assumptions Generally young, pale, wines with medium-to-high acidity. Limited oak, low tannin, low – medium alcohol. Most of the flavours are from the grapes. Richer flavoured wines with varying oak influence. Tend to be medium coloured, lower in acidity, with medium tannin, medium extract and medium alcohol. Deeply coloured, richly flavoured, often complex wines with noticeable oak influence, high tannin & extract, high alcohol
Alcohol 12.0 – 13.4% 12.1 – 13.9% 14.0% +

So you can see from this table that depending on the style a wine is made, it can appear in different weight categories. The clever thing to do here then is to buy your wine off someone who knows what they’re on about!

Understanding ‘weight’ in Food

Weight in food takes into account the main ingredients and the methods used to cook them.  From the image below you can see that cooking method can influence weight and flavour intensity as much as the main protein ingredient. The left column is a rough list of cooking methods, which as they descend, impart more flavour to the ingredient. The next column is a list of common types of protein, which as they descend, become richer in flavour. Where the cooking method and main protein cross over can give you an idea of the weight of the food – which will point in the right direction for wine.

This is an extract from The Humble Tumbler Textbook. All rights reserved.

This is an extract from The Humble Tumbler Textbook. All rights reserved.

So if you char grill quail you’re adding significantly more flavour (and bitterness) than if you poach it – which will change the style of wine that is suitable for the dish.

So by matching the weight of the food with the weight of the wine, even without thinking about flavour and structure, you’ll be on the way to a good pairing.

A couple of examples to see you through:

Scallops: Raw – with a citrus dressing keeps it light and will pair nicely with a light, zippy white wine – perhaps a Riesling. But it you fry them off in butter and herbs you’ve added more flavour – which calls for a bigger white wine – perhaps a Pinot Gris or Verdelho or Chenin Blanc even.

A chicken breast poached is really answerable to its dressing, otherwise it’s quite neutral. The thing to consider here though is by adding in proscuitto or speck, and some buttery mashed peas you’d be quite happy sipping on a lifght red – perhaps a Pinot Noir or Gamay blend.

Roasted vegetables & garlic are a great way to build weight into a dish while still keeping it on the healthier side of things. It takes time, but to me heavily roasted eggplant and zucchini are great with Pinot Noir (or even a lovely softer sytle Cabernet), whereas steamed (or lightly cooked) vegetables do bettter alongside a lighter white wine.

Good luck!

Until next time…