The art of matchmaking
The choice of wine to accompany food has to come down to personal preference. However, some classic partnerships are difficult to beat and general guidelines can be useful.
Balance is the key
Think of wine as a sauce. This can either complement flavours or contrast with them to accentuate different tastes. The key word is balance. Whereas a powerful wine, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, would match a venison stew, it might quash the delicate flavours of trout with almonds. River fish cooked in butter, however, or the rich flavours of crab may be balanced nicely by a crisp Sancerre.
Smoked foods need something with flavour. Oaked white Burgundy is traditional with salmon, or try a full-bodied, off-dry pinot gris from Alsace.
Regional pairings are usually very successful. The rich flavour, sweetness and fairly high alcohol of a vendange tardive (late harvest) gewurztraminer is delicious with Alsace Munster cheese; or copy the Bordelais' predilection for Roquefort with a glass of luscious Sauternes or the Loire pairing of Sancerre with the local crottin goats cheese. The natural, slightly sweet nature of honey-roast gammon complements the medium-dry style of German rieslings, like The Society's; and our Beaujolais is delicious with sausage. Having the courage to experiment can be rewarding (try fish in spicy tomato marinade or rich cheese sauce with light or medium-bodied reds), but bear the following in mind:
Consider the relative 'weights' of wine and food. Frequently, full-bodied wines, with relatively high alcohol, suit full-flavoured dishes; lighter, less alcoholic styles, more delicate flavours. Red wine usually accompanies stronger-flavoured food, but don't discount, for example, ripe, flavoursome, weighty new-world chardonnay. Puddings are matched well by rich, alcoholic, sweet wines like Beaumes de Venise, although a lighter-style, slightly sparkling Moscato D'Asti may usefully refresh the palate between mouthfuls of chocolate sponge.
Acidity in wine is particularly useful for clearing the palate when eating oily or creamy dishes. Try Muscadet with mackerel or shellfish, Alsace riesling with chicken in a creamy sauce. Certain reds - those from Italy and Portugal, for instance - are also known for having relatively high acidity: balance them with olive oil-dressed pasta, oily sardines or mackerel. Be cautious where dishes contain lemon juice, wine, vinegar or fruit (including tomatoes), as all make wines with low acidity appear dull and flat. Look to the Loire, England, and Mosel valley for crisp whites with good acidity.
Tannin in wine can be felt in the mouth in the same way you feel tannin in strong, cold tea. Mostly found in red wine, it has the same, helpful, cutting effect as acidity on oily dishes and gives wine the substance to make it a natural partner to food. Decanting wine and bringing it to room temperature before drinking can make tannins in robust wines appear softer. Comparatively tannic wines, including red Chinon from the Loire and Claret, are particularly good with fatty food such as duck or rillettes de porc.
A 'balanced' wine has roughly equal amounts of tannin (in red wines), acidity, fruit and alcohol, which come together in the mouth. A wine with lots of fruit is generally one which will appeal to many (witness the success of Australian wines). The ripeness of fruit can make white or red wines appear sweeter than they actually are. Fruity wines can bring out the fruit flavours in dishes such as duck with morello cherries or sweet and sour pork. As more vigorous fruit is present in young wines, these are often the best choice for such dishes.
Herbs and Spices
Full-flavoured or aromatic wines are best with spice or herb-based recipes: mature Alsace riesling with dill sauces and mustard; chilli with rustic vins de pays; spicy sausages with an Australian shiraz; Chinese or mild Indian dishes with a gewurztraminer from Alsace or Chile.
Sweet whites are often at their best when served with cheeses or even fish dishes in creamy or cheese sauces. Matching them with the pudding can be difficult: if the wine is sweeter, the pudding will taste less rich; if the pudding is sweeter, the wine may appear dry and dull. Try Madeira with plain sponge, an old Sauternes with a French-style apple tart or Vin Santo with figs.