You’re in the grocery store or liquor store, wandering past the shelves of wine. Riesling. Cabernet. Port. Gewurztraminer. Myriad winery and product names. How do you know which will go best with that special dinner you’ve planned?
If your knowledge is limited to “white wine with fish” and “red wine with beef” — or you just reach for the most attractive label — here’s some basic advice to help in your quest:
First, the technical side of things. Wine Cellar Innovations’ website lists some initial guidelines.
Wine should have a higher acid content and sugar content than the food. The two should be “equally intense.” Indeed, red meat usually goes best with red wine. Chicken or fish is usually best with white wine. Fat balances more bitter wines. And wine should “match” any sauce, the website says.
Even more confused now? I was. So, winemakers from the Yakima Valley helped to set things straight.
In general, a bolder red wine complements a larger, heavier meal (think ribeye steak), explained Dr. Palmer Wright, owner, general manager and winemaker at Yakima’s Kana Winery. This could be a cabernet sauvignon or syrah, for example. Conversely, a white wine with a “lighter, more delicate flavor,” such as a “lightly-oaked” chardonnay, pinot gris or riesling, complements a white, flaky fish dish.
“Beef and lamb can overpower white wine,” agreed Gail Puryear, who is “vigneron” (winemaker) for Bonair Winery in Zillah. Red wine, however, can “cleanse the palate,” refreshing the mouth and allowing the taste of the meat to come shining through.
If you try to combine a red wine with a seafood such as oysters or clams, however, you’re mixing elements including tannins (sometimes described as a wine’s “pucker power”) and iodine in the seafood, resulting in what Puryear regards as a metallic taste.
Another factor to consider is the flavor of the food itself, Wright said. However, this leads us down a more twisting path that sometimes even reverses the rule about reds and whites.
“Like-flavors of wine go with like-flavors of food,” he said, as in the case of a spicy red wine complementing a chicken baked with a very spicy crust.
For Thai food or Spanish paella, however, “you need something that can handle the spice,” bringing us back to a dry white wine, perhaps a dry gewurztraminer, said Puryear. Italian pasta with red sauce pairs well with red wines.
Wright added recommendations for pinot noir with salmon, and chardonnay (with a vanilla, buttery flavor) with butter-sauteed scallops.
Even simpler meals may go well with wine. A light pizza (perhaps with arugula and goat cheese) could be paired with a chardonnay or pinot noir, suggested Laura Schlect, partner and marketing director of Gilbert Cellars in Yakima. A cabernet or red wine blend (maybe grenache/syrah/mourvedre) could be great with a meat pizza. Try a cabernet or syrah-based blend with hamburgers or ribs, she advised.
And let’s not forget dessert!
“The sweetness of food and the sweetness of wine should be somewhat identical,” Puryear said. Thus, a “late-harvest riesling” pairs well with cheesecake and a red port would be ideal with chocolate cake.
Sparkling wine also could accompany everything from desserts such as crème brulee or ice cream to a charcuterie board or oysters, Schlect said.
Many white wines are released by vintners in the spring, when fresh fruits and vegetables begin to appear and meals tend to become lighter, Schlect said. Red wines are generally introduced in fall and winter, timed to accompany stews and other heavier, cold-weather meals.
One advantage of buying wine from a winery as opposed to a store is that you can taste the product before you bring it home, Wright pointed out. And personal taste is another important factor.
“Everyone has a different palate. Look at the wine. Look at the color. Smell it. Taste it. If you like it, buy it,” he recommended.
If you prefer red wine — or white wine — that can help you “narrow the scope” of choices to consider pairing, Schlect said.
And what about the price of a bottle of wine? Do more expensive wines taste better?
“There is a limited return beyond a certain price,” suggested Wright. For example, a $35 bottle of wine won’t necessarily taste better than a $25 bottle. It can be a matter of “diminishing returns.”
Don’t even bother to mention high-end European wines such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild to some local winemakers. In addition to the high price (a vintage between 2016 and 2019 can run between about $775 and $1,050 per bottle), they’ll suggest that many Americans just don’t like European wines — or they’ll explain how European wines are made in “open concrete tubs,” versus the more hygienic tanks used in America.
There are “220 wineries in our vicinity,” Wright observed. “The Yakima Valley is the heart of wineries and vineyards in the whole Columbia Valley. Washington wines are known throughout the world.”
In the final analysis, “there are rules” for pairing wine and food “but Americans are notorious for breaking rules,” Puryear said. “Rules are meant to be broken if it works for you. It’s an individual taste. … Try different food and wine combinations.”
“It does take trial and error,” Schlect agreed. “You might follow pairing rules to a tee and it still might not fit. It’s not necessarily one-rule-fits-all.”
If you’re still trying to figure out the best combination for an upcoming celebration, try Googling “wine and food pairing chart.” You’ll find a variety of suggested pairings. One recommended site is Wine Folly at winefolly.com/wine-pairing. Other sites include recipes along with pairing suggestions, so you can whip up anything from chipotle shrimp quesadillas to molten chocolate cake (see eatthis.com).
“Never be afraid to ask (for recommendations), at grocery stores or from the winemakers themselves,” Schlect added. “There are no stupid questions. We’re all learning new things every day. It’s going to be an adventure.”