There is an art to matching wines with food. Most of the time you can rely on the tasting notes on the label to give you a rough guide, but mistakes do happen and they can be embarrassing. That goes double if someone on your dinner party guest list is a bit of a wine geek. Here are five of the most common problems and how to make sure they never happen at your table:
1. Spicy food and oaky wine
Some wines are stored in oak barrels and others have oaky flavors imparted with special woodchips or wooden staves. Many people like an oaky note, but when combined with spicy dishes it’s a big no-no. A heavily oaked wine won’t cool a fiery mouth. Instead it’ll make the spice seem all the hotter. Cue watering eyes and hands reaching for anything but another glass of wine.
An unoaked Riesling is generally a good choice for spicy foods- if in any doubt, check the label for mentions of oak. Gewurztraminer can also be a nice choice when your food flavors are smoky as well as hot. The sweetness will contrast nicely with the smoke and it will contrast with fire rather than stoke it.
2. Sweet desserts and sweet dessert wines
As a rough rule of thumb, try to make sure that your dessert wine is sweeter than your dessert. Again, it’s a question of the wine complementing the dish rather than emphasising one single characteristic to the point where it feels overpowering. You can make the dessert pairing task much easier if you go for creamy desserts like cheesecake or a something with a nutty flavour rather than very sweet treats like meringue or classic sponge.
3. Strong wines and delicate foods
Serve a full-bodied wine with a delicate dish and all your careful cooking will be wasted. The flavors of a subtly sauced white fish or an artfully prepared salad can be completely blown out of the water by a robust (but lovely) Margaret River Pinot Noir or Californian Cab Sav. For that subtle fish course, reach for a nice Chenin Blanc. It won’t hurt your beautiful food flavors.
4. Subtle wines with strong dishes
Don’t let caution push you towards less robust wines when that is the order of the day. If you’re hosting a gourmet BBQ, for instance, you’re going to need a wine strong enough to match the food. Big, bold South American reds are your friend here. They go perfectly with richly flavored red meat dishes. At the moment there are some great wines coming out of Argentina in particular, and you can pick up an excellent bottle for a very reasonable price.
5. Not all chocolates are created equal
Never trust a label that says ‘pairs well with chocolate’, because chocolate is hugely variable. A wine that works perfectly neatly with a creamy milk chocolate might be far too dry when matched with a bitter dark chocolate, leading to an unpleasant taste sensation that won’t soon be forgotten.
The strength of the wine should also be taken into account. Dark chocolate is one of life’s great pleasures but it’s a strong flavor that demands a careful wine choice. Avoid drier wines. In general, your local store should have a Sangiovese or Zinfandel that will work well with dark chocolate. For milk chocolate a more subtle Cabernet Franc is the better choice.