Choosing the right wine to pair with any meal makes a culinary statement. Unfortunately, choosing the wrong wine with a meal makes one as well. Here’s how to get started off on the right foot.
Everyone loves a good meal. However, finding the right wine to pair with that meal can sometimes cause as much of a headache as having too many glasses of it. In the last few decades, science—especially chemistry—has caught up to the food and wine craze, dispelling some myths and explaining why some things just don’t go together. Use these ideas to help your Thanksgiving meal go down more smoothly.
Apples and Cheese
“There’s an old saying in France that you buy wines on apples and sell wine on cheese,” said Paul Wagner, Viticulture & Winery Technology Instructor at Napa Valley College. “It means that what is in your mouth before you taste a wine will have a big impact on how it tastes. Apples are sweet, and they make most wines taste tart and unappealing—so if you are buying wine, eating an apple beforehand will expose all the wine’s flaws.”
This led Wagner to a very specific but clever first tip of wine pairing: Never match a wine with a food that is sweeter than the wine. The worst offender, he said, is champagne and wedding cake.
On the other hand, cheese is a great help with wine selection. “Cheese has two things that are great to eat with wine: salt and fat,” Wagner said. “Salt makes [red wine tannins] go away. Fat, because it covers the surface of your mouth, does the same thing. That’s why we have the old saying ‘red wine with meat, white wine with fish.'”
Temperature and Age
Wagner also stressed the importance of serving your wine at just the right temperature.
“I am convinced that many wines that people have disliked over the years were simply served at the wrong temperature,” he said. “A red wine that was tight and mean? Probably too cold. A white wine that was soft and flat? Probably too warm.”
“When you chill a wine, you emphasize the acidity and the fruit. That’s perfect for white wines, but not so great for reds. When a wine gets a bit warmer, the acidity and tannins seem to soften up and the texture of the wine is smoother—but too warm and the wine tastes flat and dead.”
In addition to this, there’s often a real clamor made about what year a certain wine was made, but even this can sometimes be more of a product of wine snobbery than of the bottle itself.
“It used to be that you really had to follow the harvest report in every region to know which vintages were good and which ones should be avoided,” Wagner said. “That was true 50 years ago, but these days the time and attention in the vineyard, the careful sorting of the grapes, painstaking care in the winery—it all means that the variations from vintage to vintage are not nearly so big as they used to be. So don’t worry too much about the vintage on the bottle, because the differences are relatively small.”
However, there is a tip worth noting about age. “With white wines, aim for a recent vintage because you want those fresh fruit flavors,” Wagner said. “In red wines, you might choose older rather than younger, and take advantage of the softer nature of older red wines. But don’t sweat the specific years.”
So always ensure the wine is sweeter than its paired food. Buy on apples and sell on cheese. Pair reds with meat and whites with fish. Chill white wines, leave reds warmer. Finally, don’t stress over an exact year but consider more recent whites and older reds.
Paul Wagner contributed to this article. Mr. Wagner is a Viticulture & Winery Technology Instructor at Napa Valley College. He is also a guest lecturer at many universities, including the University of Rovira i Virgili, the University of Bordeaux, and the University of Porto.