Tips on Pairing Food with Wine

Posted on 10-03-2017

Author: Lamar Engel

Date: 7/12/2015

We often hear the term - 'How to pair wine with food' which for most of us, can be daunting as the choices seem endless on both the wine and food spectrum. Let's flip around the concept of pairing wine first before food like in a restaurant and try choosing the food first before the wine. 
In a fine dining restaurant, food is often made with precision in combining multiple flavors of salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami that marry on the dish and in the mouth. Each chef has their own techniques and flair when executing a specific dish as the sheer timing of flavors released within the mouth plays a massive role in 'wow-ing' the palate and changes depending on how the dish is constructed to hit your senses. 
Order a Cocktail first - Seriously
When the wine list is handed to you- set it aside for a minute. Order a cocktail first, something you ARE familiar with before tackling a monstrous wine list you may be unfamiliar with. This will relax you, set your palate up for success and allow the waiter the ease of knowing that you are interested in making the right decision for your wine with your meal.  
Ask your Waiter to describe the dish...Passionately 
Ask your waiter any of these questions- 
'How would you describe this dish?' Or 'Can you please describe the flavors in the sauce?' By asking short questions, you are gaining information. 
Without knowing how the food tastes, choosing a wine to enhance the performance of a dish can be an extremely difficult task. Relying on the service staff or waiters to describe the dish with passion and descriptive vocabulary can be at times hit and miss as the art of speaking to food has been lost in many places. 
In the past, I have asked my front of house staff, sommeliers, and waiters to read more fictional novels to help them increase their vocabulary on descriptive words. It totally helps when adjectives are spoken. 
Now order your food objectively.
Sugar - Salt- Acid 
When choosing a wine to go with your food think about this:
Sugar- too much sweetness interrupts the flow of the show and ends up stealing the spotlight. Both white and red wine will enhance sugar in a negative way and can kill the pairing. Even though everyone wants to put apples and Brie cheese together while sipping wine doesn't make it right. Matter if fact bitterness is the byproduct of excessive sweetness and wine as these two compete for balance and no one wins.
Salt - is your friend with white and red wine. Salt acts as an inhibitor or tannin that is often found in wines helping the preservation of wine. Salt softens a gnarly big red and creates velvety silk undertones in oaky whites. You can't go wrong with salt.
Acid - is also your best friend when pairing as there are a multitude of acids that cohabitate in wine that marry and compliment with acids found in other foods and sauces naturally. Citric Acid, Malic Acid, tartaric acid, ascorbic acid and many more are found in wine and link onto alike acidic vehicles in food such as reductions, sauces, and juices. Acid enhances fruit within wine and allows for a marriage of bliss with the right food. 
Order a Wine without Regret
Don't be afraid to ask a waiter, server, or sommelier about how a wine tastes - remember you are armed with knowing how three flavor elements of salt, sweet and acid will play a part so this is where the fun begins. Order any wine that you want.
When you receive the wine you order, clear your mind. Seriously - stop thinking about your troubled day or work. It will all be there later. For now, this is about you taking care of you and your mental health. Think positively and start sipping. Immediately think of something you like about the wine.
It may be easy for you to be negative as the world around you is inherently attracted to drama so breathe and think about something  you find pleasurable about the wine. If someone is with and says ' oh I hate this wine' politely tell them to go to hell and wait while you enjoy your sip. It's not their fault they are still working out their demons of the day. Focus on you and then ask yourself if the wine envokes any memory you may have had. 
Once you have a taste of the wine - try various elements on your plate with the wine first. Try the sauce - sip the wine, try the starch- sip the wine. The way you go about eating the dish will help you now as you have made a mental reference on how each element tastes. The combination of the dish with the wine will begin to grow your appreciation for the chef and the vintner. 
Stop Blaming the Wine
Have you ever had a dish and tried pairing a wine to that dish only to be extremely disappointed? Did you blame the wine for the unbalance? 
Don't feel bad - almost everyone I know has blamed the wine for the unbalancing of their food when trying to pair the wine. 
It's not the wines fault the pairing went wrong. 
Yep- it's us. 
Our physiology changes everyday by the minute as we live and so does our palate. Affected by the foods we eat, moods throughout the day, and even our own blood type; our palates should be considered one the greatest wonders and mysteries of the world. There is so much we still don't know. However, what we do know is that when speaking about wine and food- wine should not be the blame for a mishap in the pairing.
Wine has been crafted in a similar fashion that a chef approaches a dish and in some ways with more science and foresight for its longevity as this liquid has been created to be preserved within a bottle for extended periods of time. 
Although food combinations are comprised of a myriad of flavors - wine on the other hand only contains acid, sweet, bitter, and even umami- esque flavors when sipping on an older wine. Wine does not contain salt but plays nicely with it as mentioned above.
Play with Your Food
Mom always said 'stop playing with your food!' But in this case it's definitely ok. Keep experimenting on how the main elements of flavor play a part in your everyday cooking at home or when you go out. 
Add a little lemon here, a little Hawaiian salt here, a little reduced balsamic vinegar there and watch your palate expand. 
Unicorn Pairing
There is no such thing as a 'shoe-in' pairing or as I call it a 'Unicorn pairing' with wine and food as everyone has different amount of specific kind of taste bud receptors on their tongue and throat. It's also ok if one of your friends says 'meh' to one of your pairings as their physiology and body chemistry will be different than yours so encourage them to make the adjustments to their tastes as needs be. Others will insist on certain things tasting incredible but you will have to try them out for yourself and make the tweaks that fit your palate. 
Enjoy your experimenting and good luck on finding new flavor combinations with food and wine!

There is a world of flavor waiting to be explored!