5 Secrets to Great Food and Wine Pairing

Matching wine to your meal can be an extremely rewarding experience. But it can also be confusing and overwhelming, especially when you're standing in front of a wall of wine deciding what to buy. Have no fear! Wine expert Tara Devon O'Leary has the 5 secrets for paring wine with your meal like a pro.

Tara Devon O'Leary
4-minute read

5 Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing

Have you ever found yourself in this situation: You're seeking a wine to go with your dinner. You walk into a wine shop and stand in front of a wall of wine. Hundreds of bottles call your attention. How do you know which to buy?

First things first: Don’t stress about finding the “perfect match” for your food!

A few of them do exist, but generally when pairing, we just want to find a combination that accentuates the flavors in both the food and the wine. You don’t need to be a sommelier or have an amazing palate to do that.

These 5 secrets to food and wine pairing will take your dining experiences to a new level:

Secret #1: Watch Your Weight

No, not your body weight, but the weight of the food. The simplest way to find a good match is to compare like with like – if the food is light, the wine should be too, and if the dish has lots of flavors, spice, and weight, then you’ll need a wine that can stand up to the food.

Light foods such as delicate white fish, salads, and veggies need light, bright wines such as Muscadet or Vernaccia. Foods with a bit more oomph need wines that can hold their own, but aren’t too overpowering – a Pinot Noir for the red and perhaps a Chardonnay for the white.

When you’ve got richer, heavier, bigger flavors, like lasagna or a T-bone steak, you’ll need a red wine with big tannins that can take on those tastes and give back just as much. You’re looking for a Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or Malbec.

Secret #2: Match Wine with Sauce

Let’s face it, many dishes call for some kind of sauce – even a grilled steak is often accompanied by béarnaise. So rather than pairing your wines with the chicken, fish, or meat you’re cooking, think about matching it with the sauce.

A chicken Florentine will need a wine that can stand up to the sauce’s creamy richness. A white with a bit of oak ageing, like a Burgundian Mâcon perhaps, would do the trick. Whereas the same chicken breast in a tomato sauce would need something totally different and would pair nicely with a fresh red like a Dolcetto d’Alba from Italy.

Secret #3: Color Coding

This is a great shortcut if you’re running out of time and into the wine shop for a quick buy.  Look at the color of the wine – it will help you determine what it pairs well with. For instance, a light bright white that may even have hints of green would be great with light green dishes like lettuce salads, fresh green vegetables, light white fish, etc.

On the other hand, a white with more of a deep lemon or gold color would be able to take a dish with a bit more weight – perhaps a lemon butter or caper sauce.

A rosé, or “pink,” wine, is a great pairing for pink food – like a tuna steak or charcuterie of salami and prosciutto.

Light reds pair with lighter flavors so that neither the wine nor the food dominate. Try a light red with pork with a cherry sauce or butternut squash risotto for instance. And dark, almost black reds, call for hearty, dark, robust food like stews and steaks.

Secret #4: Spice of Life

We all love a good Thai or Chinese meal from time to time, and if you like yours with a bit of spicy heat, it can cause a dilemma for your wine pairing. This is the perfect time to use the contrasting pairing idea from Secret #1.

With spicy foods, add a little sweetness – a slightly sweet Gewurztraminer or Riesling Spatlese would take the heat without losing any of the flavor of the wine. In fact, these two varieties often have exotic flavors like lychee and kaffir lime that pair well with exotic cuisine.

Whatever you do, stay away from big tannic reds – the tannins will accentuate the spice and you will lose all the flavor of the wine; and if you are a serious heat freak – a good cold beer goes great with five alarm food. (No, it doesn’t always have to be wine).

Secret #5: Back to the Land

The last secret to a killer food and wine union is actually almost as old as wine itself. For centuries people have made wine to accompany the traditional dishes of their land and you can do the same with great success.

Think of Italy. A lot of Italian dishes use tomatoes – like pizzas and pastas – so it makes sense that these foods would go well with Italian wines like Chianti, Primitivo, or Valpolicella. Similarly, an Argentinean Malbec is an obvious choice for a Churrasco steak – and it even works with a good old fashioned American burger and a California Cabernet!

So don’t forget, the ultimate food and wine pairing is when the flavors of both are good on their own, but together they make a blockbuster combination and accentuate the best in each other.  Food and wine pairing doesn’t need to be complicated or confusing, so next time you’re planning on opening a bottle of wine with your food (and why wouldn’t you?), use these 5 tips to find a great match.

And whatever you do, remember that you can’t get it wrong – so just have fun!


Tara Devon O’Leary is a sommelier, author of the popular blog WinePassionista.com, and co-host of the online wine show “The Punch Down.” Tara holds a Diploma certification from the world-renowned Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) where she is also a Certified Educator. She is accredited by the Society of Wine Educators as a Certified Specialist of Wine, is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers, and has served as judge at major annual international wine competitions. Tara's advice is delivered with a dash of flair, heaps of enthusiasm, and zero snobbery.

Connect with Tara on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

Tara Devon O'Leary

Tara is a former sommelier, author of the popular blog WinePassionista.com, and co-host of the online wine show “The Punch Down.” Tara holds a diploma certification from the world-renowned Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) where she is also a Certified Educator. She is accredited by the Society of Wine Educators as a Certified Specialist of Wine, is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers, and has served as judge at major annual international wine competitions.

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