Pairing Wine With Food

Paring wine with food

This is not meant to be an exhaustive study on the nuances of food and wine. There are volumes that have been written on that, and they go much deeper into it than we have room for here. Also they will go deeper into it than I am personally inclined to. Getting into too much detail about this will bore the casual wine drinker to tears, and we certainly don’t want that to happen.

Most of us want to enjoy wine and food, not obsess over it. No disrespect to the nuance hunters, but we’ll leave them to study which Hungarian farmer’s roast boar goes best with Egri Bikaver. We’ll be more like which wine will go best with the pork tenderloin you picked up from the grocery store. If it’s not up yet, soon there will be a page of recipes and wine pairings I’ve had good luck with.

Pairing Wine With Food: How This Page Is Put Together

Nearly as important as the food itself in this food/wine marriage is how the food is prepared. For instance, chicken served one way is perfect with white wine, but if it is prepared another way it should have a red wine along with it. We will begin with lighter foods and move toward heavier fare. When something crops up that is outside the conventional “white wine with white meat; red meat with red wine” rules, we will do our best to deal with it. And what about vegetables? Don’t vegetarians get to drink wine? Absolutely. We’ll get to that as well. As always, however, you are the one who should choose what you drink. As long as it’s your food and your wine you can do whatever you like. No matter what some wine geek thinks.

Pairing Wine And Food: Fish

Pairing wine and fish is generally thought to be pretty easy. Fish? Drink white wine. Well, it’s not as easy as that. Salmon is a fish. So is Tuna. Might a red wine go pretty well with that deep red fresh tuna?

We’ll start with some basics, and the basics for fish are the same as basics for everything else. Lighter wines with lighter flavored fish, and heavier wines with heavier flavored fish. In addition, the method of preparation can make a difference with your wine choice. One example of this is shrimp. With most common shrimp preparations, including grilling, Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent match. However, a favorite recipe of mine is a shrimp dish that includes a sauce with beef stock and sherry, along with pasta done in the Alfredo style. A rich dish, which I think goes very well with Chardonnay. The shrimp is the same, but the preparation is different.

Another popular shellfish delicacy is lobster (or “lobstah” if you’re from New England). There are several methods of preparation, but it’s hard to escape the fact that lobster is very rich. Boiled whole lobster, grilled lobster tails, lobster in various dished with pasta, it doesn’t matter. Rich. If you have the traditional drawn butter with your lobster, it cries out for a buttery California Chardonnay. Or at least it does to me. Perhaps you might like to cut the richness with a crisp Pinot Grigio. Works for me as well. I would stay away from Sauvignon Blanc, especially if it is of the grassy/green peppery style. If it  is more on the melon/lemony style, it might work.

Grilled Salmon

As long as we’re on preparation rather than the fish itself, lets talk grilling. What sort of fish are usually grilled? More sturdy, fuller flavored fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, swordfish and such. This is when you might pull out the New World Chardonnay. These Chards will stand up to the full flavor of the fish and will not be overpowered by the smokiness of the grilling process. In fact, you might prefer a lighter red like a Pinot Noir.  Don’t forget, your taste is what is most important.

How about fried fish? I don’t have any statistics, but I’ll bet more fish is served fried than any other way.  So what do you drink? You could opt for a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or French Sancerre. Or – sorry wine lovers – you could go with beer. It’s hard to beat fried fish and beer.

What about a delicate saute with lemon?  Such fish as flounder, sole, tilapia or even snapper are often done this way. You’re looking for a wine with acidity here, and mineral, citrus and/or flowery flavors. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, French Chablis, and Riesling are all likely candidates.

Flounder With Lemon

Here is something else, just to make it more confusing. Japanese researchers recently found the reason that you often get a seriously fishy aftertaste when having fish with red wine. Iron. Not the iron in the fish, but the iron in the red wine. Iron levels in red wine will vary with variety and the location where the grapes were grown. The way certain fish interact with iron is important. Scallops were the worst offender, but you should probably be drinking Chardonnay with scallops (very rich) anyway.

Pairing Food And Wine: Poultry

When dealing with poultry, most of us think of chicken or turkey. But there is more in the category. Duck, goose, pheasant, and guinea fowl are here as well. Although duck and goose are generally available in many good supermarkets, they are unusual on most tables in the U.S.

The issue with chicken or turkey is that they do not consist of the same kind of meat. The breast portions are mild with little fat. The thigh and drumsticks are darker, fuller flavored and fattier. And, as always, preparation makes a difference.

Chicken Piccata

Chicken and turkey breasts are being used more and more in traditional veal preparations, particularly scallopine. They don’t taste the same, but chicken breast is much less costly and more widely available than good veal. If you are having one of the lemon sauces, e.g. piccata, you’ll want a crisp, citrusy white wine like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. I generally like Chardonnay with preparations with Marsala, Sherry, and many of the cream sauces you’ll see. Others may prefer a crisper white to cut the richness of the sauce. The ubiquitous “Chicken Parm” with a breaded chicken breast, Italian spices, marinara sauce, and cheese will probably work better with a light to medium bodied red, perhaps a Valpolicella, Barbera or Chianti. If you’re grilling chicken breast, first of all be careful you don’t overcook them. Marinated or not, the smoky grilling will lend itself to either a big white or a light to medium red.

We haven’t even gotten as far as dark meat and already we find both reds and whites will work. Don’t be confused. This gives you more opportunities to find a match you like. It is pretty safe to say that if you are having dark meat only – chicken or turkey – you will be happy with a red wine. You can stay in the medium bodied range and have an excellent pairing. Lean toward Italian reds if you are having tomato sauce. The acidity in the sauce will work very well with the acidity of medium bodied Italian reds like Chianti and some of the Tuscan blends.

Roast Chicken

How about roast turkey or chicken? I am in the minority here. With roast chicken or a traditional American Thanksgiving turkey dinner I like a big, buttery, oaky California Chardonnay. Here is why: Roast chicken and turkey have the most beautiful toasty aroma, both during and after cooking. The roasty smells and flavors blend beautifully with the toastiness of the Chardonnay. Once you add the richness of the gravy, stuffing and mashed potatoes, the buttery Chardonnay is perfect. Naturally, I realize others have different opinions. I continue to try to enlighten them, but they are a stubborn lot. If you are one of them, don’t worry. There is a wine for you also. Many people like Pinot Noir in this case. I can understand this. Others go with real (red) Zinfandel. This, I cannot understand, but that’s just me. Medium bodied Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon could work – try Washington state offerings here. If money is no object, look to a mature Bordeaux. It may be that you want a white, but just don’t like Chardonnay. Find a dry Riesling, or perhaps an off-dry Riesling. I say dry, because it will cut through the richness of the meal without losing its appley, floral characteristics which make Riesling so good.

Coq Au Vin

You can’t have a discussion of wine and poultry without talking about Coq au Vin, or chicken in wine. Basically it involves braising chicken pieces with wine. The traditional wine would be red, but it doesn’t have to be if you prefer white. Braising is cooking meat in a closed pot with liquid. Never cook with a wine you would not drink. Especially with a dish that calls for a fairly large amount of wine, like Coq au Vin or Beef Burgundy. I have tried to do this. Don’t go there. The wine doesn’t have to be a 95 pointer, just one with good fruit. You don’t have to use Pinot Noir, which is traditional, and I would not use one of the inky reds that are available, just a good medium bodied red. If your preference is white, I would go with Chardonnay. Both for cooking and drinking. If you want a great recipe for this, look no farther than Julia Child.

A brief note about duck and goose. These can have a more gamey taste than run of the mill chicken or turkey. Some people like it, some people don’t. I’m not talking about you folks who go turkey hunting. I know you don’t find Butterballs walking around in the woods. My suggestion is a bigger red wine that will stand up to the dark meat and somewhat gamey taste, although many people like Pinot Noir with duck breast. Think Syrah or Zinfandel also.

Pairing Wine With Food: Red Meat

Although pork is not technically a red meat, we’ll put it in with beef, lamb and veal. If it walks on 4 legs and/or doesn’t have feathers, for our purposes, it is red meat. Red meat has been getting beat up pretty badly in the press in recent years. You get the impression that if you eat a burger today, you’ll be in the hospital’s cardiac ward tomorrow. A guy who grabs a fast food burger and fries 7 days a week is a red meat eater. So is the person who has red meat 3-4 times a month. We’re talking to the 3-4 times a month people. Not just because they don’t use the drive through every day, but because they eat different varieties of meat. Who wants to eat the same thing day after day?

So we’ll leave the assembly line burgers behind and concentrate on meat that people are likely to drink wine with. The question of which wine is best with Secret Sauce is unanswerable.

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Grilled Steak

If there is a hard and fast rule about wine and food, it would be red wine with steak. Some people say grilling meat is how men get back to their prehistoric roots. Whatever. To me, it just tastes good. Drink what you like, of course, but Cabernet Sauvignon with a beautiful strip steak is a classic match for good reason. A filet is a different story, though. Just on the other side of the bone from the strip is the filet mignon, but it is much farther away in terms of flavor and price. The filet has a much more delicate flavor, and steak lovers will tell you it has less flavor. A hairy-chested Cabernet is not the wine here. A more delicate Merlot or even a Pinot Noir would work better. Grilling burgers with family and friends is a summer tradition across the U.S. One of my favorite wines for this is Grenache. In Spain the grape is called a Garnacha, and you can find some great values here.

Another favorite beef dish is a pot roast in red wine. This cut of meat is inexpensive, and just smelling it cook is almost as enjoyable as eating it. It is very easy to do, but it takes some patience. About 3-4 hours of it depending on the weight of the roast. You’ll need a wine that can stand up to the full flavors in this meal. Try a Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, or a Syrah with this. If you like a spicier pot roast, lean toward the Zin or the Syrah. And remember, don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.

Beef Burgundy

Another braised beef dish is Beef Burgundy, or Boeuf Bourguignon if you’re French. If you want the best recipe for this, you can’t do any better than Julia Child. When you hear Burgundy (a place, not a color), you think Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Obviously we’re thinking red wine here, but you don’t have to use a Pinot Noir. Cook with a fuller flavored wine and drink a fuller flavored wine, and you’ll be just fine. Julia even recommends a Cotes du Rhone in her cookbook. A Cotes du Rhone is usually a blend of Grenache and Syrah. If you’re ordering this dish in a restaurant, find out what wine the chef used when cooking it. Order a wine of similar weight and style.


Few people are indifferent about lamb. I have seen its flavor described as gamey or earthy. Whatever you call it, it is different from beef. Some people love it, and others don’t care for it at all. To me, it is hard not to like a rack of lamb cooked with Dijon mustard, rosemary and cracked black pepper. If this sounds good to you, try a Syrah, Zinfandel or a big Cabernet. In fact, these wines will work well with many lamb dishes. Lamb is popular worldwide, so don’t limit yourself to American wines. Good values can be found with Argentinian Malbec, Australian Shiraz (same grape as Syrah), or Spanish Rioja. Rioja (ree-O-hah) is a region in Spain where the dominant grape is Tempranillo. With lamb, make sure you have a wine big enough to stand up to the lamb’s characteristic flavor.


Veal Chop

Toward the opposite end of the spectrum is veal. Veal is, of course, a young steer. Good veal has a delicate texture and flavor. A big red wine is a mistake with veal. The meat is so delicate that a white wine is often the best choice, especially if you’re having a piccata or another preparation with lemon. You don’t see much good veal in grocery stores, but it can be found in specialty shops. Much of the good stuff goes to top restaurants.

Italian style veal dishes with marinara sauces will be best with the same wine choices as the chicken dishes made the same way. Chianti or other Tuscan blends, and wines make from the Sangiovese grape will make you happy. If you are grilling veal chops, Pinot Noir, lighter Cabernet Sauvignons or Bordeaux would be good choices. I have a recipe for Veal Chops Bonne Femme, which translates as Veal Chops Good Woman. It is certainly a good woman who cleans up after I cook the veal chops. The dish includes bacon and is simmered in white wine. This recipe will show up on the recipe page. I really like a big Chardonnay with this. As with everything else, preparation matters.


Pork has undergone a huge change over the past few decades. Pork used to be a fatty meat, and you had to be sure to cook it well done to keep from getting a tapeworm. Being less fatty has its good points and bad points. I don’t know about you, but I was very pleased to cross tapeworms off my list of things to worry about.

Baked Pork Chops

My mother’s fried pork chops are something I remember fondly. However, the pork chops on the market now are so lean that you have to be very careful about overcooking if you fry them. They will get tough quickly. We have started baking pork chops with a spiced coating. This enhances the flavor and helps maintain tenderness.

Baked chops or a roast pork loin are both good stuff. Light reds or big whites will complement them well. I have also always like Riesling with pork. Find one that’s not too sweet and give it a try. Riesling is actually a very versatile wine.

Pork Tenderloin

Pork tenderloin is one of the best pork cuts you can find. It is the Chateaubriand of pork. Pork tenderloin can be grilled, stuffed, made into scallopine, braised, and probably some other things I haven’t heard of. Pinot Noir is perfect with most pork tenderloin preparations. On the recipe page there will be a couple of recipes. There is one with cracked peppercorns, Dijon Mustard and a reduced red wine sauce. We had this recently with a J Vineyards Pinot Noir (not a $15 value wine). Serious yummage there. Great food and wine pairing. Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley is almost always great stuff. The best value I’ve found from there is the Kenwood, which is about $15.

Pairing Wine With Food: Vegetables

Throughout history, wine has traditionally been paired with meat dishes. The flavors of various wines seem almost destined to be matched up with different kinds of meats. This doesn’t mean that wine won’t taste good with vegetables. However, if your dinner plate is a chicken breast, brown rice and green beans, most people will say they are having chicken for dinner. Meat has pretty much always been the focus of the meal.

Obviously, this is not so with vegetarians. This doesn’t mean these folks are going to have a heaping plate of lima beans and nothing else for dinner. They will eat a variety of foods just like non-vegetarians; they just do it without meat. And many of them can get pretty creative with it. One thing that can add enjoyment to a vegetarian meal is wine.

The principles that help us match a wine with meat are the same as without meat. Lighter dishes with lighter wines, and heavier dishes with heavier wines. Surprise, surprise. For example, green salads usually do well with lighter, crisper white wines. Wines from the Loire Valley in France, Rieslings, Sauvignon Blanc, Italian Soave and Pinot Grigio are all good candidates. Just be careful of an overly vinegary salad dressing. The vinegar will fight with the wine, and nothing will taste right. Balsamic vinaigrettes seem to work better with wine.

Bean and Cheese Burrito

An example of a heavier dish might be a bean and cheese burrito (or enchilada). Spices typically found in burritos will pair well with wines like Zinfandel, Grenache, and many Italian reds. I won’t deny that a cold beer works pretty well with this dish as well. You get the idea, though. Hearty, spicy bean dishes will give vegetarians the protein we all need, plus they provide vegetarians a chance to sip a little red wine.

Now that we have mentioned cheese, it is fair to say that the richness that cheese brings will make most any dish taste better with wine. Beans and tofu can help with this as well. A mostly or completely fat-free meal is not going to be at its best with wine. This is why wine works so well with meat. If you are using a vegetarian diet to lose weight, you probably won’t be having much wine anyway. Once you reach the maintenance stage of your diet, a little cheese and wine will make eating more pleasant.

Listed below are examples of some vegetarian dishes with wines that will pair well with them. You can use this as a guide to experiment and find which wines go best with your favorite vegetarian foods.

Mushroom Risotto

Mushroom risotto. Just about any risotto is made the same way. The difference is what you put in it. Mushrooms and Pinot Noir is almost as classic as steak and Cabernet Sauvignon. The earthy mushrooms go perfectly with Pinot Noir, and the wine isn’t big enough to overpower the ‘shrooms. Obviously you’ll use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, and don’t forget a healthy dose of fresh grated Parmesan Cheese and sautéed onions. Other vegetarian risotto recipes without mushrooms will likely be better with a white wine. It can still be a pretty rich dish, though. You might want to go with a  Chardonnay.

Pasta is of course a perfect base for all kinds of dishes, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. One classic vegetarian dish is Pasta Primavera. Primavera means “Spring” in Italian – and Spanish too – so Pasta Primavera is a dish with colorful spring vegetables and herbs. Tossed with cheese, it is wonderful with

Pasta Primavera

Chardonnay, or you may prefer a crisper white to cut the richness. A simple and inexpensive Italian Frascati or a Sauvignon Blanc based wine will provide some crispness. Another classic pasta dish is lasagna. Layered with cheeses and red (marinara) sauce, this is perfect with Italian red wines like Chianti or anything made with Sangiovese. Wines made with the Dolcetto or Barbera grapes will work also.

Grilling vegetables will boost their flavor and make them more compatible with red wines. An interesting recipe I saw involved peeling an eggplant, slicing it thinly, brushing the slices with olive oil and then grilling them. The grilled slices were used in place of pasta to make a vegetarian lasagna. If you like eggplant, this may be one for you to try. It will be good with red wines.

Soups are another type of dish that can be both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Cream of potato as a soup course would be good with a white wine. Pasta e fagioli (Italian pasta and bean soup) is very versatile. I’ve seen it made with white beans, greens and herbs, and I’ve seen the more traditional preparation with red beans and tomatoes. The first version would go well with a full bodied white wine, while the second would be better with a light to medium bodied red.

If you want to get fancy, try a vegetable tart of some kind. An onion tart is a fairly well known French preparation. This will work well with a number of whites; Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris in French), a mediun dry Riesling will be great as will a sparkling wine or Champagne.

This by no means exhausts the possibilities with wine and vegetarian dishes. I hope this gives you a starting point to find which combinations work best for you.


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