“What grows together, goes together”, says the old adage, but, given the variety of food ingredients and wine styles available nowadays, things became a bit more complex, with a virtually endless number of possible combinations. Also, there is no such thing as a definitive food and wine pairing, since they are essentially a matter of personal taste. That said, it’s obvious that trying to establish a set of universal rules would be pointless. However, there’s a tangible component in this matter, the chemistry of food and wine, probably the best starting point for trying to draw up a list of principles that, hopefully, will work most often.
The majority of food and wine pairings work by approximation, trying to match the weight, volume, aroma and mouthfeel of a dish with those of the wine that accompanies it. Thus, buttery popcorn will go well with many oaked Chardonnays, and tendentially acidic dishes with dry, crisp, sparkling wines. Like raw oysters with a few drips of lemon juice, or, say, caviar, with Champagne or white Chablis.
Young, clean and lively white wines are, in fact, the most versatile when it comes to food, since they usually not only go well with the dishes that, like them, are light, fresh, and bright, but also with richer, fatty food, since acidity cuts the fat, cleansing the palate. They also tend to be a safe bet to match spicy food.
Although the classic pairing for fish and seafood are also white wines with more or less acidity and more or less complexity, depending on the "weight" of the dish, some seafood preparations will taste even better with red. This is the case of octopus rice, which asks for the same red wine it was cooked with, and raw tuna, as in nigiri sushi and sashimi, a surprisingly good match for a fragrant Burgundian Pinot Noir or its robust Iberian relative, Portuguese Baga! – In fact, there are many situations where the best marriage is obtained by contrast.
Naturally, the aforementioned principles also apply to meat: white meats tend to pair well with more or less complex and full whites, rosés, or young reds, while red meats, usually more flavorful, admit more assertive reds. The biggest and deepest reds can be hard to match with dishes other than hearty stews, offal, game, rich sauces, or culinary options containing a bit of all of these.
Typically, dry wines will appear somewhat tasteless when served with sweet desserts. Then, a good Port, Madeira or Sauternes will likely make good companions for mousses, puddings and cakes, especially those with honey and nuts. Here, acidity is key! But dark chocolate will go best with Shiraz, or even a ripe Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the end, it’s necessary to keep in mind that details can be everything when it comes to food and wine pairings. A simple ingredient, a detail in the cooking time, texture: any of them can make all the difference. So, when the idea is not just to accompany a dish with wine, but really to enhance both, it’s mandatory to experiment, be curious, irreverent, and prepared for disappointment. At least as much as for the most pleasant surprises.