The Basics: Wine and Food Pairing Guide

// By Alayna Rouse // , Mar 27, 2019

Topics: Wine Knowledge

The world of wine can be intimidating. From full bodied red wines to crisp dry white wines. The options are truly endless! However, when it comes to pairing wine with food there are quite a few tips and tricks to help you along the way. This guide is your one stop shop on how to pair food and wine.


The first step in gaining an in-depth knowledge into wine and food pairings, is an understanding of some of the most commonly used wine terms. These terms are used to describe all different aspects of wine.  For a more extensive list of terms, check out our blog How to Taste Wine


Terms to Know


Acidity: Present in all grapes and play a role in the preservation of the wine. Wines that have a sharper and more crisp taste will have higher levels of acidity.


Body: A term used to describe the flavor profile of a wine. For instance a full-bodied wine is one with a powerful flavors and strong aftertaste.

Dry: Wine that normally consist of very little to no sugars.


Tannin: a chemical compounds found in the skin, seeds, and stems of grapes. some are incorporated in the aging of the wood barrels 


Food and Wine Pairing Tips Everyone Should Know


Can't remember which wine pairs well with salmon or your restaurant's chef special? Well these tips cover all the basics on what you should and should not do when pairing wine with food. These tips will help broaden your horizons on the impact wine can have on the dinning experience. 

  1. Red Wines and Red Meat. One of the most basic tips that is easy to remember and will help you make quick recommendations. The reason that red wine pairs well with red meats, such as steak, is because of its ability to soften the proteins in the meat and help enhances the flavors of the fat. The softening of the meat occurs because of the tannin, a chemical compound found, found in red wine. 

  2. White Wine and Light Meat ( Fish and Chicken). White wines pair well with fish because the acids in the wine enhance the taste of the fish, making it taste fresher. Similar to how lemon is squeezed over fish to enhance the taste, white wine can have the same impact because of it acidity. 

  3. If the same adjective can be used to describe the food and wine it is likely a pairing that will work. For instance, sweet wines go great with sweet food. A great example is fruit based desserts or tarts and sweet wines. There are a few exceptions and we discuss them in detail below. 

  4. Some times it can be tricky to pair wines with meats or fishes that have a heavy sauce. The best way to approach a dish like this is to pair the wine with the sauce and not the meat. This allows for a better experience because some sauces can have bad interactions with wine. For instance you want to avoid pairing bitter sauces with bitter taste because of the bitterness will build, creating an unfavorable taste. 

  5. Ultimately drink what you enjoy, but also don't miss out on the ability to explore.


Pairing Methods


There are various ways to approach wine and food pairings, but every pairing falls within two categories. The first are congruent pairings and the second are complementary pairings.


Congruent Pairings


In a congruent pairing the food and wine chosen will share several compounds or flavors. This can be a sweet wine paired with a sweet dish, a red wine with a buttery after taste paired with a buttery pasta dish. The important tip when creating congruent pairings is to ensure that the wine is not overwhelmed by the flavors of the food. 


When this occurs it can make the taste of the wine become bland. The benefits of a congruent pairing is to allow the wine and the food to enhance the flavor of the other. Red wines are a great go to when looking to create congruent pairings. With aromas and flavors ranging from cherry to smoky, red wines are very diverse and easy to match with like food pairings. Take a glass of a Syrah wine that is a full bodied and it will have a similar flavor profile of some of your favorite grilled meats, making it a great congruent pairing.


Complementary Pairings 


On the other hand complementary pairings are based on food and wine combinations that share  no compounds or flavors, but instead complement each other. The flavors in each are balanced by their contrasting elements.


Rosé ,White ,and Sparkling wine make excellent choices for contrasting pairings. A sweet white wine paired with a spicy dish will allow the sugar in the wine to cool down and balance out the spiciness in the dish.


Another common complementary pairing is white wine with salty dishes. The saltiness from the food actually decreases the sweetness of the wine and brings out the wines fruity taste and aromas. A glass of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio will pair perfectly with salty popcorn and specially well with fried dishes. 


The Wine Breakdown 


White Wine, Red Wine, and Sparkling Wine all have very diverse and complex flavor profiles. That means there are hundreds if not thousands of different ways to explore the different pairing possibilities of dry white wines to bold red wines. Here we will explore the various tips and tricks when creating pairings for specific kinds of wine. 




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White Wine




While the specific tastes and aromas of Chardonnay can change depending on the brand, the wine generally has strong fruity flavors. With hints of green apple, pear, melon, creamy lemon, and rounded out with vanilla it pairs well with a variety of food options. It serves as a great choice for shellfish, grilled lobster, tilapia, vegetables, and dishes with rich sauces.  Its bold body, lack of acidity, rich and creamy texture make it an excellent option for the above choices. 


Off-Dry Riesling 


This delicate white wine holds flavors of white peach, green apple, and lime. Its light sweetness makes it a perfect complementary pairing for spicy dishes. Its semi-sweet taste has the ability to tame the heat of spicy dishes. Off-Dry Riesling also pairs well with shellfish, pork, ham, and salads. Its lack of tannins and therefore bitterness make it a great pairing for salads with vinaigrettes.  This is the case because bitter vinaigrettes paired with bitter wine will only enhance the bitterness of both the food and wine. 


Sauvignon Blanc


As a light bodied white wine, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be high in acidity and offer a crisp white taste. This allows for it to pair well with tart dressings and sauces, cheese, oysters, fresh herbs and delicate fish. The pairing options here demonstrate how high acidity wine and food can compliment each other well. The acidity of the food and wine won't compete with each other and  instead they will allow you to notice the natural flavors. 


Pinot Grigio 


With a light and crisp taste, Pinot Grigio is the prefect option for light seafood. Its crisp and delicate taste is perfect in enhancing in the flavors of a dish. With hints of pears, lemons, melons, and sweet spice, it creates a delicious white wine.  It's important to pair delicate fish with delicate wines, because the wrong choice in food or wine can overpower the taste of the other. As a result you can end up with a great wine tasting bland because of the overpowering flavors of the food choice. Along with fish, Pinot Grigio also pairs well with pasta, grilled chicken and dishes with fresh herbs.


Red Wine


Dry Rosé 


Rosé is one of the most diverse wines with its ability to have characteristics of both red and white wine. This allows for Dry Rosé to pair well with almost any cheese because of its acidity and fruity traits. As a crisp pink wine it offers a refreshing taste with low amounts of tannin and therefore little bitterness. Dry Rosé's flavors include hints of strawberries, cherries, citrus, and herbs. This allows for it to pair well with grilled chicken and spicy seafood. 


Cabernet Sauvignon


As a full body red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is high with tannins, plum, black berry, and black currant flavors. This gives it its dark fruity taste that even becomes more mature with time. The strong tannins make it a great choice for steak or lamb chops because of its ability to refresh your palate after each bite. 

Pinot Nior 


Pinot Nior is known for its light body and earthy flavors. These flavors consist of dark berries, cherries, plums, violets, and warm spices. This red wine stands apart form others, with very few tannins it pairs perfectly with fatty fish. This includes salmon and tuna among others. Along with fish, it pairs well with lamb, venison, and pork chops. 



This red wine is the perfect congruent pairing for spicy dishes. With a spicy flavor profile itself, it pairs well with barbeque, lamb and grilled meats. The important thing to consider when pairing Syrah wines is the spice level of both the food and the wine. If the food is significantly spicer than the wine it will overpower it and cause the wine to lose its spicy profile and taste flavorless. 


Sparkling Wine 


Sparkling wine is commonly associated with celebratory occasions. However, sparkling wines pair well with a variety of different foods. Especially salty foods and even fried ones. This is the case because the carbonation in sparkling wine cuts through the saltiness and perfectly balances out the meal. Sparkling wine also pairs well with roasted vegetables and fish. 


Food Flavor Profiles


Another popular method to pair wine and food is by placing them into one of 6 food flavor profiles. This includes salt, acid, fat, bitter, sweet, and spicy. Below we breakdown each flavor and the important aspects to consider when pairing them with wine. 

 Food Flavor Infographic


Food Flavors




Salt is common in a variety of different foods but is common in fried foods, pasta sauce, and potatoes  among others. Salty foods can really have an impact on the taste profile of a wine. As a result the best pairings for salty foods include sparkling wines and acidic wines. Acidic wines serve as a great complementary pairing and will have the ability to balance the flavors within a dish. 



Acidity is a common in both food and wine making complementary and congruent pairings possible. Acidity can add freshness to both wine and food. When creating a pairing, the acidity of the wine should be at least equal to the food or the wine will taste bland. So the rule of thumb is for your wine to be more acidic than your food.  Salad dressings are very high in acidity, so when pairing salads its important to base the pairing off of the dressing and not the salad contents itself. A great pairing for acidic dressings is Sauvignon Blanc. 



 Fat is one of the few flavor profiles that can not be found in wine. As a result, when pairing fatty foods with wine the key is to create complementary pairings. One key aspect in wine that pairs well with fatty foods are tannins. The bitterness created by tannins in wine have the ability to soften the fat within meat and enhance the flavors. A great suggestion is a cabernet based wine. This is the case because the fruit and berry flavors of the wine will complement the smoky flavors within the meat. 



With the existence of bitter food and bitter wine there is one key rule to follow. Avoid congruent pairings, so pairing bitter foods with bitter wine. Pairing to bitter elements will only enhance the bitterness in both the food and wine making it an unpleasant pairing experience. One suggestion is to try more complementary pairings such as acidic wines, off-dry Riesling, and Zinfandels. 




The level of sweetness is key to take note when pairing wine with desserts and other sweet food items. The wine has to taste sweeter than the dessert or the wine will be overwhelmed ultimately stripped of its flavor. Sweet food can also enhances the bitterness in wine making the taste unpleasant to most. So avoid pairing sweet foods with wines high in tannins. 



Spicy foods can be complex but they allow for both complementary and congruent pairings. The main factors to consider is the ability of spicy food to increase the taste of bitterness and acidity and decrease the body and sweetness of a wine. Riesling is a great complementary match with a hint of sweetness and great fruit flavors. 



Overall food and wine pairings can be as simple or as complex as you would like them to be. The one thing to keep in mind is to have fun and ultimately drink what you enjoy!

Alayna Rouse

About the author, Alayna Rouse

Alayna is currently a marketing intern at Backbar. As a current graduate business student she stays up to date on all the newest marketing trends. She is also a wine enthusiast who has traveled the world studying wine and alcohol production.

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