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The age old question, “What do I pair with ….”

And if there is anything in the wine world that has been overwritten about, it is experts telling you what food to pair with what wine. So we too, decided to put pairings to the test. We gathered eight people to taste six different pasta sauces with nine different wines. We’ll share the highlights, draw some conclusions and make some suggestions for your next meal: 

First, sparkling wine is versatile.

Ours was a Prosecco from Northern Italy. It had the most positive pairings, except for the Mushroom Alfredo. The Albarino, a light bodied, zesty white had the fewest negative pairings. Only the Pesto dish scored poorly. The heavier style of our Russian River Valley Chardonnay paired wonderfully with the Mushroom Alfredo and Bolognese sauce, but fell flat with all the other dishes. The aromatic, slightly sweet white, a Kabinett Riesling from the Mosel River Valley in Germany, scored highest on the two spicier dishes, the Thai Curry and the Bolognese. 

The Rose we chose, from the Savoie region in Eastern France, was probably the hardest to pair with the six sauces, striking out often, but not the Puttanesca sauce with its briny, olive and caper infused flavors. The light bodied Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon brought out the best of the Mushroom Alfredo and Puttanesca dishes, but the higher acid made it struggle with the Curry, Pesto and Pomodoro sauces. 

Secondly, the medium-bodied.

Of the two medium-bodied reds we tried, the Merlot based Bordeaux Blend from France stood out as the best pairing with the Pomodoro sauce, offering nice, juicy flavors that complemented the bright tomatoes. It had enough body to match the weight and richness of the Alfredo and Bolognese sauces, but, like most of the reds, the tannins and alcohol were too overpowering for the Pesto and Curry. The other medium red, a Sangiovese from the Chianti Rufina region of Tuscany, Italy, was the ideal partner for the two richest dishes, the Mushroom Alfredo and Bolognese, with its acid, spice and tannins. 

And finally, full-bodied.

The final red wine was a full-bodied Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from California. It paired well with the meaty Bolognese sauce, but, in the biggest surprise of the tasting, it also paired beautifully with the Pesto sauce as well! Besides the Curry, which the group universally declared was not meant to be eaten with any red wine, the Cabernet performed “ok” with its other dance partners. 

What kind of conclusions can we draw from this? 

The stronger the flavor of the food, the harder the pairing. The Pesto and Curry, with their intensely focused herb and spice presented issues with all but a couple wines. The bright, acidic Pomodoro tomato sauce didn’t produce as many bad pairings, but had few winners as well. 

Lower acid wines need low acid foods. Every time we paired the oaked Chardonnay with food that didn’t have enough fat to balance the acid in the dish, the wine came out tasting flabby. 

The higher the spice, the lower the tannin and alcohol should be in the wine. Wines with a lower alcohol level and a little residual sugar (Riesling, Prosecco & Albarino) paired best. 

So, what are our suggestions?

If you’re picking both food and wine:

  1. Start by matching the “weight” of the wine and food. Big Food=Big Wine. Chardonnays, Cabernets & Syrah are bigger varieties. 
  2. Make sure the acid in the wine is at least equal or greater to the acid in the dish. A good rule of thumb is that if you would squeeze a lemon on the dish, serve a bright, white wine. 
  3. Finally, the greater the spice of the food, the higher the sweetness and lower the alcohol and tannins should be in the wine. Think Chenin Blanc, Riesling & Gewurztraminer. 

If you’re charged with bringing wine to a dinner and don’t know what is being served:

  1. Leave the big, high alcohol and overtly oaked wines at home. Remember rule number two above: pick a wine that has an acid that is equal to or higher than the food. 
  2. In red wine, light to medium body wines that have red fruit flavor profiles work well. In white wine, light bodied wines like Albarino, several Italian whites, Chenin Blanc, dry Rieslings from Alsace, France, or Chablis-style Chardonnays that have little or no oak. 
  3. Don’t forget about Sparkling! Our group found these to be incredibly flexible wines that paired well with most food. 

If you’re cooking a meal and guests are bringing a mystery wine:

  1. Keep the spice at a minimum and make sure there is enough richness to balance whatever acid the dish has. This will minimize the chance of creating a difficulty pairing. 
  2. To reduce any awkwardness, have a backup wine ready and ask your guests when they arrive, “Would you like to open this tonight or was this meant for another day?” 
  3. If the gift is meant for tonight and you are certain the wine will be an awful pairing with the meal, suggest that we enjoy the wine before or after the meal, and have a different beverage during the meal. 

Whatever pasta you find in front of you, and whatever wine you are served, remember that at the end of the meal, it isn’t really what’s in front of you that matters; it’s who you find across from you. So, enjoy, make it meaningful, and make it memorable!