What Wine Goes With What Food?

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We've all heard the rules: red wine with meat, white with fish or fowl. But just as with all rules, this one was made to be broken. There's a growing recognition that there's both more and less to choosing how to pair foods and wine.

The most important factor, of course, is to choose a wine you enjoy. Spumante with Chinese take-out may make the so-called experts shudder, but if that combination works for you, that's all that matters. After all, you're the one eating the meal. However, personal tastes aside, there are some guidelines and suggestions for combining wines and foods that can enhance your enjoyment of each.

Start by thinking of wine as a condiment. You're choosing one that will interact with the foods, just the way a spice does. In fact, wine does affect the taste of food, similar to the effect of spices. Wine contains acids, tannins and sugars, all of which work with the food to create different tastes. Your goal is to find the proper combination that will allow you to enjoy the flavors and characteristics of both the food and the wine.

Wines, like food, can taste sweet, tart or bitter. Food can also be salty (not a property of wine, but salty foods affect its flavor). It's that sweet/tart/acidic interaction that determines the way different food/wine combinations will affect each other.

Sweet Foods

Foods that are somewhat sweet, such as a honey-mustard glaze on chicken will make the wine taste drier (less sweet) than it really is. A slightly sweet wine such as a White Zinfandel or Riesling could work well.

Acidic Foods

Choose wines that are higher in acid when serving acidic foods. Try pairing salad with a balsamic vinaigrette or a lemony-kissed fish dish with a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.

Bitter Foods

When serving food with a bitter twist--say, bitter greens in a salad--enjoy it more with a fruity, full-flavored wine such as Merlot or Chardonnay. If you're grilling a steak, try a wine such as red Zinfandel or Shiraz. The tannins in these wines can sometimes give them a slightly bitter taste, but the fat in the meat can tone down this tendency.

In addition to the basic tastes, consider pairing foods and wines that have the same feel to them - light with light and full with hearty. A full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon could overwhelm a light fish, and the taste of a delicate white Zinfandel would be lost when accompanying beef stew.

And what about sparkling wines? Only those produced in the Champagne region of France may be called Champagne, but all sparkling wines, no matter their name, are suited to festive occasions. They make an excellent start or finish to any meal.

At times, pairing opposite foods and wines can be surprisingly effective. Hot and spicy foods such as fiery curries or Chinese hot pot can work well with sweet dessert wines. The contrast in flavors can create new nuances in taste and act to cleanse the palate.

A fun way to pair wines and food is to match them by their geographic source. Doesn't it make sense that a French wine would be the best accompaniment for coq au vin?

And for those times when you aren't serving a full meal, don't forget the natural pairings of wine and cheese. There's a reason these two are so often combined. Wine and cheese complement each other exquisitely. Mild to sharp cheeses work well with red wines, as do soft cheeses such as Camembert or Brie. Dry whites are excellent with goat cheese. Sweet wines call for a more intense cheese.

But no matter what combination of food and wine you choose, remember that the most important ingredients for a memorable occasion are the friends and loved ones you invite to share the experience with you.

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