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Wine 301: How to perfectly pair food and wine

Lisa Giovanella, assistant to the buyer at Everything Wine, explores the famous wine-making region of Burgundy, France. 

Lisa Giovanella, assistant to the buyer at Everything Wine, explores the famous wine-making region of Burgundy, France.

Once you learn how to taste wine like a pro, you’re ready to take it to the next level. Pairing wine with food can turn a great meal into an unforgettable one, and discovering exactly how to come up with winning combinations is part of the fun.

Lisa Giovanella, assistant to the buyer at Everything Wine, remembers the first class she ever went to through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a globally recognized certification program.

“We were all handed a plate with a cluster of grapes, a block of brie, a slice of lemon, and a spicy Dorito chip,” Giovanella said.

Granted, corn chips — never mind nacho-flavoured ones — may not be the first thing that come to mind when it comes to food-and-wine pairings. But the Dorito made sense once Giovanella learned more. “It was a really good way to explore a spicy flavour and how that affects the taste of the wine,” she said.

It turns out that to balance and contrast spiciness, you want a wine with a bit of sweetness. The point of pairing food and wine is to bring out the best of both, making each one taste better.

“There’s a saying that goes: ‘One plus one equals three’,” Giovanella said. “Both the wine and the food may be really good on their own, but when you can find that perfect match, it enhances the whole experience.”

While the best matches ultimately come down to your own personal taste, there are basic rules to follow.
The flavours of both food and wine can be enhanced with the right pairings.
The flavours of both food and wine can be enhanced with the right pairings.

“The initial idea everybody has is that you would have a white wine with a white meat or fish, and a red wine with red meat, but there are a lot of things to consider beyond that,” Giovanella said.

A key consideration is body. Also known as weight or heaviness, this refers to the way a wine feels in your mouth — whether it’s light, medium, or full. If you’re eating something light and delicate, you want the same qualities in your glass so that neither the flavours of the dish nor the wine are going to overpower each other.

“If you have a really robust red wine, you want a really robust structured meal to go with it,” Giovanella said. “You want to match the weight or intensity of the dish to the wine.”

Here are a few basic guidelines to get you started on your gastronomic adventures:


Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc — On the lighter spectrum of white grape varietals, these are terrific pairings for lighter white fish, such as cod or halibut. “You want something simple, not overly flavoured — no heavy sauces, but rather delicate, lemon, light herb flavours,” Giovanella said. “You don’t want anything too oily or heavy, because then you’re going to be out of balance.”

Chardonnay and Viognier — Whites with some oak or aging are a bit heavier and go nicely with cream sauces or foods with buttery, oilier, richer textures. Great with roasted chicken or salmon. These full-bodied whites work nicely with richer foods, but can’t handle the extra structure behind red meats.

Riesling — With a little bit of sweetness, this wine works beautifully with spicy foods or those with intense flavour. Cajun, Thai, and Indian foods are classic matches.

A robust red such as a Malbec or Shiraz will enhance the flavours of a red meat dish.
A robust red such as a Malbec or Shiraz will enhance the flavours of a red meat dish.


Pinot Noir and Merlot — On the lighter spectrum of reds, these wines are fresh and versatile. They can be enjoyed with bold, flavourful white meat such as roast chicken, duck, or pork, as well as with red meat and salmon.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Malbec and Shiraz — These reds tend to be heavier and more robust, pairing well with steak, roast beef, venison, and ribs.

Sparkling wine

“Sparkling is really nice and refreshing on its own, but it also pairs really well with a wide variety of foods throughout a meal. Try a white sparkling with starters, popcorn, and even deep-fried foods,” Giovanella said. Sparkling rosé pairs nicely with chicken, salmon and mushrooms.

There’s another simple trick that experts turn to: “What grows together, goes together.” Think of Italy, home to some of the world’s most flavourful tomatoes, for example. That fruit has naturally high acidity, just like wines from Tuscany. No wonder, then, that Sangiovese or Chianti works so well with pizza or a tomato-based pasta dish. More broadly, wines from the Mediterranean go beautifully with Mediterranean dishes.

While the pairing of food and wine may be a world unto itself, at the end of the day it all comes down to personal preference. “It really is a kind of trial-and-error exploration,” Giovanella said. “Just because something is a classic match doesn’t mean it’s the best match for you. You have to go with your preferences and instincts.”

If you’re still not sure of your instincts, staff members at Everything Wine are there to help you. Each and every one of them has completed the WSET Level 1, meaning they can help you pick a perfect bottle for your next dinner party or family gathering. Questions about wine and food pairings are the most common ones they get. “That’s one of our favourites,” Giovanella said.



This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Everything Wine and posted on Vancouver Sun.