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Food & Wine Pairing 101

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The right bottle of wine elevates any meal, and choosing the perfect bottle doesn’t have to be complicated.

Do you love to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, but find choosing the right bottle intimidating? With so many different varietals, selecting a bottle of wine can be daunting.

Over my years working in restaurants, I picked up a few tried-and-true tricks for creating great food and wine pairings regardless of your budget or what’s on the table.

When selecting wine, it’s helpful to think about general food categories — appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, etc. — because the foods in these categories often share many of the same characteristics, and the same wine pairing works every time.

Below you’ll find my top choices for most food categories, as well as a few basics to know before you make your selections. I hope this primer demystifies wine selection and helps you find your perfect pairings!

Before pairing food and wine, know the basics:

🍷 There’s a science to it: The aromatic and flavor compounds in wine interact with the fat, protein, and carbohydrates in food as we eat. It’s why restaurants design pairing menus and why some flavor combinations (like cookies and milk) are wonderful classics, while others (like grapefruit and milk) are, well, blech!

🍷 Simple is best: Don’t fret over the nuances of wine and food pairings. Instead, focus on overarching elements like sweetness, heat, or richness — and remember that opposites often attract. For instance, a zesty sparkling wine with crispy fried chicken or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with creamy pasta.

🍷 Focus on feeling: Sommeliers and chefs often talk about the “structure” of a wine, which is a fancy way of describing how the wine feels on the palate. Is it rich like cream or does it make you pucker like lemonade? Acidity, tannin (the chemical compound in red wine that makes your mouth literally feel dry), and body are elements in wine often referred to as “structure,” and have the greatest impact on food pairing.

🍷 Take flavor descriptions lightly: It’s highly unlikely that any of us can detect the “hints of Tahitian vanilla” or “gently toasted clove” listed on the back of wine labels or on store shelves — that stuff’s for the experts and doesn’t mean we have dull palates! Believe it or not, our taste and aroma receptors are uniquely tuned based on our own life experiences, and we all experience these flavors differently.

🍷 Drink what you love: It’s always more important to enjoy what’s on the table than to follow any sort of wine pairing rule.

Food Groups + Best Varietals

Appetizers or Potluck + Sparkling Wine

Sparkling wine is a sommelier’s secret weapon because bubbles in wine act like a sponge, wiping our palates clean between bites, which means bubbly can flow from simple cheese and charcuterie plates to hot dips to pigs in a blanket, elevating every dish on a potluck table. I like to reach for classic sparkling wines like Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, or French Champagne depending on the occasion — they’re all incredibly versatile!

Soups & Stews + Pinot Noir

Photo by Johnny Miller (Clarkson Potter, 2021)

Pinot Noir is beloved for its silken texture and light-to-medium body, and it pairs well with hearty soups and stews, which have a similar feel. Additionally, pinot noirs have earthy undertones that highlight the medley of vegetables and herbs that make these dishes so flavorful and comforting. When served together, the combination is (almost) better than your favorite cozy sweater.

Spicy Foods + Rosé

When spicy tacos, blackened fish, or anything Cajun is on the menu, I reach for a rosé. Rosés bring refreshing acidity and bright fruit flavors to the forefront, and their lower alcohol levels help tame the heat of chiles and spice blends.

Pizza + Barbera

There’s a saying in the wine business that “what grows together, goes together,” and it rings true when pizza is on the table. Italian wines from the Barbera grape are light- to medium-bodied and have high acidity, which complement rich, cheesy slices of pizza. The wines’ classic red fruit flavors also harmonize beautifully with traditional toppings like bell peppers, fennel-laced sausages, and mushrooms.

Salads + Sauvignon Blanc

Photo by Johnny Miller (Clarkson Potter, 2021)

A veggie-laden salad is one of my favorite weeknight dinners, and it’s a great match with vibrant Sauvignon Blancs from France, New Zealand, and California. Known for their citrusy flavors, Sauvignon Blancs add a zing alongside salad the same way squeezing lemon over fish adds a pop of flavor. Because Sauvignon Blanc is rarely aged in oak barrels, which can give wines bolder flavors that overpower delicate veggies, it pairs well with salads of all kinds, from a classic wedge to a loaded Cobb.

Classic Pastas + Sangiovese

Photo by Johnny Miller (Clarkson Potter, 2021)

With traditional pasta dishes, few wines are as satisfying as an Italian Sangiovese (aka Chianti or Chianti Classico). These medium-to full-bodied reds beautifully accent fresh tomato sauces, robust Bolognese, baked ziti, or olive-oil based sauces. Sangiovese is known for its bright cherry flavors and herbal aromatics, which add intrigue and nuance when served alongside pastas of all kinds.

Barbeque + Syrah

Ribs, pulled pork, and smoked meats are loaded with rich, smoky flavor, and few wines accentuate their characteristics as well as Syrah (also known as Shiraz). These wines are renowned for their spicy and smoky notes, which naturally parallel the flavors of barbecue and contrast well with sweet barbecue sauces.

Asian Takeout + Riesling

The spicy-sweet burn from traditional Asian stir-frys and zippy noodle dishes comes from a chemical called capsaicin found naturally in chiles and spices. The key to a great wine pairing with these dishes is to choose a slightly sweet wine because sugar naturally binds to capsaicin and eliminates the burning sensation of spicy food. Slightly sweet Rieslings, which feature vibrant, exotic fruit flavors are a natural match for spicy Asian takeout dishes.

Vegetarian Centerpieces + Red Blends

Photo by Johnny Miller (Clarkson Potter, 2021)

So much food and wine pairing literature focuses on animal-based proteins, but vegetarian recipes can have a perfect wine match too! Blends of red grape varieties sing when served with veggie-heavy fare. Medium-weight on the palate and boasting moderate tannins, traditional blends from California, France, and Australia don’t overpower the more delicate flavors of vegetarian dishes, yet have enough heft to stand up to hearty sauces, spice blends, and cheeses.

Burgers & Dogs + red Zinfandel

Red Zinfandel is one of California’s classic wines and is known for being full-bodied and ripe, with lots of wild berry and plum flavors and ample tannins. It’s a perfect match for classic burgers and hot dogs; the tannins in the wine cut through the heavy protein and fat content and make sauces and toppings pop.

Holiday Dinners + versatile red & white varietals

Photo by Sarah Plfug

When I’m entertaining for the holidays, I like to pour a red and white that complement the wide variety of foods on the table, from roast turkey to sausage stuffing to cranberry sauce. The key is selecting wines with moderate tannins and high acidity. For white wine, that means Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, or sparkling wine. For red, Pinot Noir or Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais in France) are both great options.

But what about Cabernet and Chardonnay?

Surprised some of the most common wines aren’t listed here? That’s because a few of the most well-known wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, aren’t so flexible with a wide range of dishes. While Cabernet Sauvignon will always be king with ribeye, it’s less flexible with other fare because of its powerful tannins and full body. The same goes for Chardonnay, which may pair perfectly with roast chicken, but can sometimes be a bit clunky with other foods. It’s best to save these wines for classic pairings.

Cheers!

Whether you’re deciding what to pour with appetizers for the holidays or a cozy pasta dinner for two, this guidance should take some of the intimidation factor out of choosing a bottle of wine. Remember, the recommendations above will help you understand the “why” behind the pairings, but they are just suggestions! The most important thing is to drink what you love rather than following any hard and fast rules. Cheers to good food and good wine!

Photo by Johnny Miller (Clarkson Potter, 2021)

Comments

  • Last year for our Christmas gathering with our adult kids (not Christmas dinner), we ended up doing a food and wine pairing where we assigned each kid a wine and they brought a food to pair with it. We had so much fun with this! We intended to have it as a fun appetizer activity, but we were so full that we ended up not not serving the dinner we had planned. The kids hit it out of the park with their research and the food they came up with to pair with their wine! So this year, we are just doing the food/wine pairing for our dinner and adding a fruit/veggie plate to round it out. Thank you….This is a great guide to help us with what I think will be a new holiday tradition!

    • — Christine H. on November 20, 2022
    • Reply
    • Love this idea!

      • — Jenn on November 20, 2022
      • Reply
  • Thank you so much! Your pairings make so much sense. A somewhat priceless guide for those of us with limited knowledge.

    • — Earl Williams on November 14, 2022
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  • Great advice! I would agree with all your wine pairings. The KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principal is best when pairing wine with food.

    I would add a Rose is great for a back yard BBQ with grilled steak and chicken on a warm summer evening.

    • — Alan Fritze on November 14, 2022
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  • What goes best with a Malbec?

    • — Sandy on November 14, 2022
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    • Hi Sandy, Here’s some good guidance. 🙂

      • — Jenn on November 15, 2022
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    • Hi Sandy,
      The finest Malbec Wines are produced in Argentina. Mostly Mendoza, which backs up to the Andes mountain range. The Argentinian people consume more beef per capita than any other country in the world, These facts should give you a clue to the answer to your question. Enjoy!

      • — Topper M on November 17, 2022
      • Reply
  • Excellent article! I have a good knowledge of wine and have spent some time investigating food and wine matchings, but there is nothing that I can fault in what you have written.
    PS: I find your recipes very good as well.

    • — Patrick (based in Australia) on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Oh my! Finally a simple wine pairing guideline that I can fully understand!! Thank you for putting this together without all the “fancy” wine-tasting jargon. This is a keeper!

    • — Karen M on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Would you pour a glass of each, Pinot Noir and Riesling or just one, either the Pinot or Riesling for the Thanksgiving dinner table?

    • — Judy on November 13, 2022
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    • Hi Judy, I would definitely have both options on the table and offer my guests red or white. Most people will prefer one over the other. Hope that helps!

      • — Jenn on November 13, 2022
      • Reply
  • Incredibly helpful. Grateful.

    • — Phyllis on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • This is an excellent and easy-to-remember guide to wine pairings. Thanks so much!

    • — Yvonne on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Thank you!
    Allthough a bit early: best wishes from us in the Netherlands.

    • — Elly on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Thank you, this is very helpful!

    • — Ruthie on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Thanks Jen,
    love to read your take on wine,
    good to know,
    and love that you share your knowledge, of your years in the food industry

    • — chrisie on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Nice summary of choosing wine! My husband and I own a vineyard in west Sonoma Coast. I always say Pinot Noir is a great choice for just about any food. Usually, these wines are lower in alcohol than other red wines so they won’t overpower food. And Chardonnay has gotten a bad rap due to the overuse of oak to age the wine. These days, more and more Chardonnay wine is made using stainless steel, concrete and neutral oak for aging. The result is a crisp white wine that is not cloying. We drink it often as it is very palate cleaning! Cheers!

    • — Margaret on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Loved this! I struggle sometimes with wine pairings, giving up to just drinking what I feel like with the meal. This article gives me plenty of ideas. Thank you!

    • — Lulu on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Amazing article with great tips for wines! Gorgeous pics also! Thanks Jenn!

    • — Lynne on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Wow, this post is incredibly helpful. Thank you!

    • — Andrea on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Dear Jenn,

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.
    This is exactly what I needed and you have brought wine pairings down to a level that I
    and the average person can understand. I will save this probably forever.
    Happy Holidays.

    Lynne

    • — Lynne McDonough on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • A very interesting and useful review of wine varieties. Thanks for the information.

    • — Phil C. on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Excellent article on wine pairing. Thanks!

    • — Marcos on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Great basic guide to wine pairings. Thank you. Always enjoy your suggestions and love your recipes.

    • — Margaret Taylor on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • I am not a wine connoisseur, so this is very helpful! Thank you! I have tried many of your recipes. The red wine braised short ribs…wonderful, and we love your blueberry muffins!

    • — Angela on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • What wines do you recommend for cheese or just for sipping?

    • — Carol MacIvor on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
    • Hi Carol, Choosing a wine to enjoy with cheese depends somewhat on the kind of cheese you’re eating. This piece provides a nice breakdown. And for sipping, I’d just go with whatever you like most. 🙂

      • — Jenn on November 15, 2022
      • Reply
  • Great post Jenn. We too love any of the sparkling wines here with fried chicken. Since there it’s just the two of us we are having a Pomegranate -and- Honey-Glazed Duck for T/G. A dry brine orange zest and thyme, the glaze has a small amount of balsamic vinegar and honey. What would you suggest to serve with this? The tart and sweet thing has thrown me a curve ball.
    Thanks for your suggestion in advance.

    • — lowandslow on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
    • Hi, I would go with Pinot Noir or Beaujolais. Happy Thanksgiving!

      • — Jenn on November 15, 2022
      • Reply
  • Jen:
    The wine / meal pairing segment was the best yet!! Your straightforward and “digestible” approach leaves the reader with a very good understanding of where to head when planning a more complete meal.
    So “Thank You” for this —“Molto, bene”!!

    Jim S
    Pasadena, MD

    • — James Sciubba on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
    • Thanks for this Jenn. I hadn’t heard it explained so clearly and simply before. But it makes sense, especially the opposites attract. One of my favourite things is watching a good movie with Champagne (maybe a knock off the real thing!) and popcorn! Makes sense now! Thank you much!

      • — Steph Down Under on November 14, 2022
      • Reply
  • What a wonderful article. I love how you simply something that can be so confusing. Thank you.

    • — Paula on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • Hey Jenn, great advice! Much appreciated!!

    • — Gary Kohl on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • This is great, Jenn!! I’d love to see wine pairing suggestions in each of your recipes, where applicable.
    Thanks!
    Tom

    • — Tom Grignon on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
  • This was excellent!! Thank you. What about dessert? Is there a wine that pairs well with dessert? Thank you.

    • — Tuffy on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
    • Hi Tuffy, It really depends on the kind of dessert you’re having. This piece provides some helpful guidance. Hope you find it useful!

      • — Jenn on November 15, 2022
      • Reply
  • Thank you! The basics are all I need. I will never love wine enough to figure this out on my own, now I have a go-to reference. Cheers!

    • — Donna Wentworth on November 13, 2022
    • Reply
    • Thank you for breaking down what I thought was so complex and making it easier to understand! I would always fret about “what wine would go best”, especially over holidays. You’ve made it much easier.
      Thank you! This is going into my collection.
      Happy y Hilodays!

      • — Lorie Hall on November 13, 2022
      • Reply

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