“So, what wine would pair well with this dish?”
That’s a question servers will inevitably get if they work in an establishment with a wine list. You don’t want to be left dumbstruck. You don’t have to be an expert, but a little knowledge about wine pairing can help you provide excellent service to your guests.
Know Your Food and Wine
To effectively match the right wine with a dish, you have to be familiar with your establishment’s food and wine menus. Be sure you know the ingredients of the dishes you’ll be serving. Read the wine list a few times to get an idea of the range of wines available. Take advantage of any staff wine tastings your employers do. Read the labels and descriptions. Then choose a few reds and a few whites that you like to recommend when guests ask.
Wine Pairing Basics
Wine pairing basics are common sense. White meat, white wine; red meat, red wine. Heavy dish, full-bodied wine; light dish, light wine. It doesn’t get more basic than that, and it’s easy to remember. Also, the type of wine used in a dish will inform which wine will pair best. If there’s a flavorful sauce, match the wine with the sauce. But there’s a little more to wine pairing.
Successful pairs compare or contrast with the dish. You don’t want one to detract from the other. Both the wine and the food should be equally enjoyable.
Think about the defining characteristics of the food. Look for things like bitterness, saltiness, fattiness, acidity, or sweetness. Same goes for the wine: is it fruity, acidic, sweet?
Once you’ve got a handle on the characteristics of the dishes and wine, then it’s time to get them together.
- Salty dish: Salt brings out sweet and elevates bitter. So, go for a sweet wine, like a sparkling wine, but not one with high alcohol levels.
- Sweet dish: For desserts, choose a sweeter wine. High-alcohol wines are good for savory dishes with sweet sauces.
- Bitter dish: Don’t pair bitter wine with bitter food. Bitter food can hide acidity in wine and bring out the sweetness.
- Fatty dish (meat and dairy): Match with acid, tannin, or alcohol level, then narrow the choice with the wine’s flavors, for example fruity.
- Acidic dish: Pick a wine with an acidity equal to or more than the food. Try a bold red.
- Spicy dish: Go for a slightly sweet, low alcohol wine. White wines work well for spicy dishes.
There are also certain types of wines that go well with particular ingredients:
- Red meat: Cabernet Sauvignon
- Light fishes: Pinot Grigio
- Fatty fish: Chardonnay
- Vegetables: Dry whites
- Mushrooms and truffles: Pinot Noir
- Fresh herbs: Grüner Veltliner
- Cheesy: Dry Rosé
- Tart sauces and dressings: Sauvignon Blanc
- Barbecue sauces: Malbec and Shiraz
- Sweet and spicy: Dry Riesling
- Fruit desserts: Sweet sparkling wine
Remember to emphasize the main characteristics of the wine so it shines, not fights, against the dish. A rule of thumb is to choose a wine that is sweeter than the food; it should also be more tart (higher acidity).
If you can, try to learn more and taste more wine in your off hours so you have first-hand experience of how certain pairings taste.