Once upon a time, the rules were simple: red wine with meat; white wine with fish. Then came a new rule: Ignore the old rule and drink whatever you like.
Perhaps it’s better to forget rules and simply follow some general guidelines to enhance your enjoyment of both wine and food.
As regional wines have evolved to match the foods of the area, an easy pairing is to do as Europeans do –and drink local wines with local foods.
Consider balance, so that neither the food nor the wine overwhelms the other.
Weight: A hearty dish like Beef Bourguignon calls for a full-bodied wine like Red Burgundy. Though reds are the usual accompaniment to powerful meat dishes, it’s not the color that’s most important. For example, a full-bodied white wine might be a better match than a light red. Conversely, a light, delicately prepared fish – like Trout Amandine – needs a light and delicate wine.
Acidity: Both food (tomatoes, citrus, etc.) and wine (particularly those from cool climates) can have acidity. For example, many Italian dishes are made with olive oil, so many Italian reds have considerable acidity, which matches the tomatoes and cuts through the olive oil.
Salt: Salty foods taste better when balanced with a bit of sweetness – as when prosciutto is served with melon. Take a salty cheese and match it with a nice sweet Sauterne and you have a delicious match.
Sweetness: As sweet foods make dry wines seem tart and acidic, a good guideline is to serve wines that are as sweet or sweeter than the dish.
Tannins: Because of its high tannic content, a Cabernet Sauvignon drunk without food can cause your gums to pucker. Wine tannins are attracted to protein (as in your saliva), so when the wine is drunk with fatty lamb, the tannins attach to the protein molecules in your mouth, which strip them to leave your mouth feeling cleansed.
Flavor Intensity and Characteristics: When the flavor characteristics of food and wine match, you have a nice pairing. For example, shellfish are complemented by delicate wines like Muscadet, while fruit-based desserts match with fruity Muscat wines and creamy sauces go well with wines fermented in new oak barrels (oak infuses the wine with buttery, creamy flavors).
What about Chocolate? Many experts agree that chocolate is difficult to match; it simply doesn’t like company. Its aromas, its persistence on the tongue and its tannins overpower most wines.
So what to drink then when so many of today’s luscious desserts are made with chocolate? Choose a wine that has a powerful single-note aroma, one that has a high alcohol content and isn’t too dry, too acidic, too tannic or too astringent. For example, try a Tawny Port with plain dark chocolate; a Hungarian Tokaji with a filled milk chocolate ganache; a Maury or Banyuls Grand Cru with other chocolate desserts.