Food & Drink

What I’ve learned about food and wine pairing, and how to hack these simple tips at home

When she teaches JWU students about wine and food, certain pairings make it come alive.
When she teaches JWU students about wine and food, certain pairings make it come alive. Catherine Rabb

I hesitated to write this column. Wine and food pairing is so nuanced and so personal, trying to create a guide that works for everyone is impossible.

However, I’ve been teaching about the topic for over a decade now, and some pairings elicit the most “aha!” moments from students, pairings that ring true to tasters more often than not.

When teaching young chefs about pairing, we look at the building blocks of flavor – aroma, acidity, sweetness, saltiness and bitterness – as well as heat and spice, cooking techniques and flavor intensity. Some of these are in the food, some are in the wine, and some are in both. I select a number of wines with different styles and pair them with assorted foods. Then we explore how each component affects the overall taste experience. You can try the wine with the individual component first, then pair it with a meal, and see what you think.

This is by no means a complete list of the possibilities, but these tips might give you a good place to start.

Tip 1: White wines with high acidity (although it works for reds, too) pair beautifully with foods with high acidity. It’s counterintuitive to pair a high-acid food and a high-acid wine, but a little magic happens. Both the wine and the food taste richer and smoother.

Taste it: Try an acidic white like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with a small bite of a fresh lemon or grapefruit slice.

Real food pairing: Serve a high-acid white wine with grilled fish drizzled with fresh lemon and topped with fresh fruit salsa that has a bit of citrus.

Tip 2: Salt in food is often a very, very good friend to wine.

Taste it: Try a bit of salt with pretty much any wine and see what happens. The effect is especially dramatic in reds with high tannin, like Cabernet Sauvignon. You don’t need much. Play around with various salts, from kosher to pink sea salt.

Real food pairing: Make any dish you love, with low or no salt, and try it with a wine you typically enjoy. Then sprinkle just a bit of salt on the food – not much, just a hint – and try it again. Many times, you’ll experience the wow factor. And apologies to those on a low-salt diet – often salt substitutes do the opposite.

Tip 3: Tannin in wines can be a problem. Tannin is found in the skins of red grapes and it has a mouth-drying effect, making it hard to pair with food.

Deconstructed pairing: Try a tannic wine with a bite of fresh pear or apple, then with a lick of spicy sauce like sriracha, then with a very savory food like an olive. Generally, all will strip the wine of its charm. Then try the wine with something with a bit of fat and a bit of salt. You’ll see the opposite – the wine will taste richer and fuller.

Real food pairing: Tannic wines are wonderful with foods with a bit of protein and fat. Pair a good wine with a good steak. Up the ante and add a little pat of maitre’d butter (butter whipped with diced herbs, lemon and a little salt) for a lovely pair. That lemon and salt and the savory steak will soften the impact of the tannins.

Tip 4: Sweetness in wine is very food-friendly, while sweetness in food is less wine-friendly. Weird, but useful. Generally, lightly sweet wines like spicy, fatty, savory foods, while sweetness in food requires a wine just a bit sweeter than the food.

Taste it: Choose a wine with a bit of sweetness such as a Riesling, and a wine that has very little, perhaps Cabernet Sauvignon. Try a bunch of things with each of the wines: a lightly sweet slice of pear or apple, a chocolate chip, a bit of lemon or grapefruit, a salty potato chip, a lick of sriracha sauce, and a bit of a blue-veined cheese. Often, the wine with a bit of sweetness is super food friendly, while the wine with no sweetness is shouted out by even a little sweetness in the food.

Real food pairing: Try fried chicken with a slightly sweet wine, for a fun pair. Then try a slightly sweet food, (perhaps something grilled with a barbecue sauce made with honey or molasses), and see what happens.

All of us hold a unique set of preferences and experiences when it comes to food and to wine. Pairing wines and foods shouldn’t be a list of the correct boxes to check, but a personal journey that includes the flavor pairs you love with an open mind and a sense of exploration. If you create a bad food and wine pair, I promise, by the second glass, it will no longer matter.

Catherine Rabb is co-owner of Fenwick’s and a senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. Email: