By : Gary Landsman

The art of pairing wine and food can feel very intimidating, like many things where experts hold a title (“sommelier”) that most people can’t even pronounce (pronounced SO-Mal- YAY). But the truth is, it is very simple – drink what you like.

We are all familiar with the old rule that says drink red wine with red meat and white wine with chicken or fish. But THROW THAT RULE OUT! If you like red meat and white wine, have a nicely chilled glass of white with your steak! If you only eat chicken and not meat but love red wine, pour yourself a nice glass of Cabernet! A pairing is only good if you enjoy both the food and wine. If you are following a wine & food “rule” that doesn’t taste good to you, it is just plain wrong.

If however you enjoy all kinds of wines and want to learn about which wines truly ENHANCE your favorite dishes, you can follow a few guidelines (not rules), beginning by matching up like flavors with each other. So if you have a citrus flavored dish such as a citrus-salad, a lemon-flavored dish (such as lemon sole) or any other dish that you may think to squeeze lemon or lime juice onto, you should try these dishes with a wine that has citrus-like flavors, such as a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio

Staying with white wine, Chardonnay is another popular wine that often has creamy and/or toasty/bready flavors and aroma characteristics.This makes many Chardonnays a great match for foods with creamy or bready flavors such as penne-ala-vodka, chicken pot pie or turkey deli roll.

Moving on to red wines, Pinot Noir and Merlot are often known for red fruit flavors such as cherry or strawberry. Shiraz (also known as Syrah) can have blueberry and spicy-pepper flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon has black-berry and oak flavors that come from the barrel in which it is aged. And Zinfandel has jammy or dried fruit flavors.

Pairing these red wines involves matching dishes (and often sauces) with like-flavors.

In addition to flavors, many red wines have compounds known as “tannins” which come from the grapes skins and seeds as well as the oak barrels.The tannins generally give that drying almost cottony sensation that people feel in the front of their mouths when sipping red wines.

These tannic wines clash with spicy dishes, but do a great job with fatty cuts of meat and rich stews (or even chulent).

Much like the tannins in wine, weight is another issue that gets consideration when pairing wine with food. Whereas Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Zinfandel are usually considered big-bodied wines (think of how heavy cream feels in your mouth versus skin milk), Pinot Noir and sometimes Merlot are light or medium bodied wines (more like skim or 1% milk).Try to match the weight of the wine to the dish. So a Pinot Noir might not work well with a big steak as the weight and flavors of the steak would likely overpower the wine. But that lighter-bodied pinot noir will do very nicely with a grilled salmon – a dish that can be overpowered by a big Cabernet.

Finally, there are sweet wines. Light, semi-sweet wines such as Moscato are some of the most versatile wines, able to match up nicely with difficult to pair foods such as spicy foods, or salads. While sweet dessert wines go great at dessert time with other sweet foods such as fruit and pastries. These same sweet wines however can make foods that are not sweet taste bitter, so be careful when indulging your sweet tooth with courses other than dessert.

Though it may seem that there are many guidelines to wine & food pairing, remember, wine is a drink that can enhance your meals and the pleasures you derive when eating your favorite dish. The aforementioned guidelines are just those, guidelines, not hard fast rules. So the next time you cook up a special meal you want to enhance with the perfect wine, consider weight, flavor & tannin, and then go ahead and grab the bottle you think you will enjoy most!