Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: January 4, 2024

How to Pair Wine with Food [Wine and Food Pairing Basics]

wine and food

Every wine enthusiast and lover of food knows how important wine and food pairing is.

When deciding which wine to serve your guests, your personal taste and experience certainly matter but there are some important rules that should be followed too.

Over time, the best sommeliers, enthusiasts, schools and industry associations have worked out theories that explain how to achieve the best wine and food combinations.

Our ultimate wine and food pairing guide includes all of this advice so you can make the perfect pairings for your upcoming meals.

Wine and Food Pairing Techniques According to the Masters

Wine And Food Pairing

Many wine enthusiasts believe that wine and food pairing is a thing of the European elites.

It's true that Europeans did all the hard work but pairing a wine with the meal on your plate goes well beyond the associations of sommeliers and fancy restaurants.

The three main schools of thought in regard to wine and food pairing are English, French, and Italian.

The English school promotes personal taste and individual choices. According to them, the wine and food pairing depends exclusively on subjective and independent evaluations.

The French school is based on a stricter conception albeit with a few exceptions. French sommeliers invented countless rules to consider when choosing the right wine for your food.

According to the French rules:
  • White wine should never be served with red meat or game;
  • Aged red cannot be served with fish, crustaceans, and mussels;
  • During a meal you should pair different wines with the various types of food;
  • White wines should always be served before reds;
  • Light wines must be served before the robust ones;
  • Chilled wines must be served before the wines served at room temperature.

In addition to these rules, French sommeliers also added that wines with lower alcohol levels should be served at the beginning of the meal while the most alcoholic ones at the end.

Also you should drink water before transitioning to another type of wine to fully appreciate its aroma and bouquet. Drinking water can work as a palette cleanser but it's not the most effective way to neutralize your taste buds.

The Italian school, on the other hand, adopts a more balanced and complete “sensorial” pairing techniques.

According to the Italians, you should pair wine and food depending on the case, taking into account the specific characteristics of each food and by adopting various types of approach.

In particular, traditional dishes match with wines from the same area. The wine also pairs with food according to seasonal rules, intended that people should consume certain foods and wines depending on the natural availability of those foods.

Italians also define what they call a “psychological” wine and food pairing technique that is based on the centrality of the occasion.

For example, it is more likely to pair champagne with food to celebrate a special event. 

Lastly, the basic approach used by the Italian Sommelier Association is based on the principles of concordance and contrast that evaluate the harmony produced by a wine and a food.

According to this method, to each pairing is associated a score between one and ten that is assigned to the characteristics of the wine and the food during the tasting.

The four basic flavors of wine are sweetness, sapidity, acidity, and bitterness while the food sensations are associated with spices, bitterness, succulence, greasiness, and acidity.

To these sensations are added the effervescence and tannic sensation of a wine, its aroma and scent and also its softness and alcoholic content.

Although these are the methods used by the wine experts, there is to say that even the greatest sommeliers admit that no method has an absolute validity.

The best thing to do if you want to impress everyone with your knowledge and skills is to learn the techniques then use them by matching them to your personal taste.

Related: We cover Malbec food pairings in this guide.

General Wine and Food Pairing Rules

Wine And Food Pairing

Now that you know which are the main beliefs regarding wine and food pairing, it is time to get into detail and explain how to choose the right wine for your dish.

To make things easier, the Italian Sommelier Association has developed an analytical and complete method that establishes how to match food and wine to achieve the best result.

This methodology is based on two different criteria, of concordance and contrast.

 According to the experts, these criteria lead to a perfect balancing between the different sensations offered by the wine and by the food.

In fact, each dish has predominant characteristics that, once identified, allow to choose and pair the right wine with ease.

The sensations associated with the food are divided into two major categories referred to as softness and hardness.

We can speak about softness in the case of:
  • Greasiness: refers to the feeling given by solid fat such as butter, lard or even chocolate.
  • Sweet tendency: a sensation that shouldn’t be confused with sweetness given by the presence of sugars. The sweet tendency is often associated with potatoes, cheeses, fruits, and bread.
  • Juiciness: given by the presence of liquid in the preparation. The liquid can be present as gravy although the term also refers to the mouthwatering sensation produced by certain foods such as cheeses and fruits.
  • Oiliness: is given by the presence of fatty acids such as olive oil or other types of vegetal oils. Compared to greasiness, this tendency refers to the sensations given by liquid greases.

When talking about the hardness of a food we talk about its:

  • Sapidity: given by the presence of added salt. This term does not refer to the mineral salts present naturally in some foods.
  • Bitterness: a sensation typical of some vegetables such as radish, artichokes, and asparagus. Bitterness can also be found in many aromatic herbs and in grilled meat.
  • Acidity: is usually evident in foods containing vinegar or lemon juice such as salads or some fish dishes. In most cases, acidity is also present in many dairy products such as yogurt or sour cream.
  • Spiciness: as it is easy to imagine, spiciness refers to the presence of spices in the food. In most cases, this term refers to the presence of any spices and aromatic herbs.

To pair wine and food, the first step is to analyze the prevailing sensations of the food you want to serve based on the details above.

Once you've determined the dominant sensations, you should be able to pick the wine following either the concordance or the contraposition rule.

Related: Curious about corkage fees? You're not the only one!

Wine and Food Pairing Guide: The Concordance Rule

The concordance rule applies mostly to the sensation of sweetness. 

This means that you should pair a sweet wine with any sweet food.

This rule usually applies to the dessert and it maintains its position even in the case of sparkling wine.

This means that you can match a sparkling wine with the dessert only if the wine is sweet, which means that you can’t pair Prosecco or champagne with a chocolate cake.

Another rule of the concordance pairing is that the structure of the food and the structure of the wine must match.

This means that the intensity, amount of spice and overall sensations of the food must match perfectly with the dominant aromas of the wine.

Related: Don't miss our guide to food pairings with Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine and Food Pairing Guide: The Contraposition Rule

In all the cases when you can’t pair a wine following the concordance rule, you should follow the rule of contraposition.

According to this rule, you should pair the wines in the following way:

  • Greasy foods such as stews and roasts should be balanced with the sapidity or effervescence of a wine. This rule also applies to some fish dishes, such as salmon.
  • The sweet tendency is also balanced with the sapidity, acidity or effervescence of a wine.
  • Juiciness is usually balanced with tannic wines or with the ones with higher alcohol concentrations, such as Porto.
  • Foods containing raw oil, such as salads, pair well with white wines with high alcoholic concentrations. On the other hand, foods rich in cooked oil pair well with wines rich in tannins.

If the sensation of hardness prevails in your dish, the contraposition principles that apply are the following:

  • Sapidity is balanced with an alcoholic wine.
  • Bitterness is balanced with a wine that is either alcoholic or extremely soft.
  • Acidity is balanced with an alcoholic wine.

To pair a wine with spicy foods you should follow the concordance rule explained above.

 We should also mention that it is not possible to find the perfect pairing if the dish contains high quantities of vinegar or lemon or if the bitterness sensation is dominant such as in the case of raw radish or raw artichokes.

To put these rules into practice you should learn how to make an evaluation of the suitability of the pairing by tasting both the food and the wine.

Related: Get some great Pinot Noir food pairings in our guide.

How to Pair Food and Wine: 8 Sommelier’s Tips

Wine And Food Pairing

All of theory is nice but the topic of food and wine pairing can still remain a mystery. 

In fact, even if the two rules described above are simple, it is still easy to hear countless controversies about pairing fish with red wine or red meat with a white wine.

Furthermore, just as the British believe, wine and food pairing is a subjective matter and everyone can express their opinion in regard.

Nevertheless, sommeliers claim there are a few technical tips that can allow even the most inexpert wine lovers impress their families and guests with their pairing skills.

These rules are simple and it is easy to use them on a daily basis.

Tip #1: Spicy Dishes Are Better Served With Wines Rich In Residual Sugar

Spicy foods should be paired with matching wines but for an inexpert, it is sometimes a mystery to determine which wines are spicy.

This is where a wine aroma kit comes in handy, or you could simply consult a wine aroma chart.

However, since learning takes time, you can still make the perfect pairing if you choose a wine rich in residual sugar.

Residual sugar is sugar that was not converted into alcohol during fermentation and it is an indicator of sweetness in the wine.

The best wines to pair with spicy foods are Lambrusco, Muscat and Sweet Riesling.

We recommend some great sweet white wines in this guide.

Tip #2: Always Pair a Sweet Wine With Dessert

It doesn’t matter what event agencies suggest. Pairing Champagne or another dry sparkling with dessert is a big no-no in terms of taste.

To give you an idea of how awful such a combination could be, try to pair a sparkling brut with dessert.

The result is terrible and, for this reason, desserts should only be paired with sweet wines. Some great options are Madeira, Muscat, Moscato d’Asti and other sweet sparkling wines.

However, pay attention to choose a wine slightly drier than the dessert, or you might not appreciate the true value of the beverage.

Note: It's not that it's impossible to make a contrasting wine pairing with a sweet dessert, it's just really difficult and best left to a sommelier or a chef. Sweet with sweet works amazingly well and is so much easier to get right.

Tip #3: Tannic or Acidic Wines Pair Well With Greasy or Oily Foods

To appreciate the characteristics of both wine and food to the fullest, it is advisable to choose a tannic or acidic wine to pair with fatty foods.

For example, you could pair Sangiovese with grilled pork belly or Chianti with beefsteak. Trout and salmon would pair well with a tannic white, such as Zinfandel.

Tip #4: Fish Pairs Better With White Wines

If you’re not exactly an expert, the safest way to go is to pair fish with white wine.

Fish dishes usually go hand in hand with acid wines such as Chardonnay or Pinot, although other varieties, such as dry white Muscat are also an option.

If you choose to serve a fatty fish, you could even pair it with a rosé.

Tip #5: Don’t Forget Rosé Wines

Many wine enthusiasts believe rosé wines match with all those foods with which you can’t properly pair a red or a white. Even if this is far from the truth, rosé wines are still incredibly versatile.

Rosé wine usually pairs well with feathered game such as pigeons or wild duck, with poultry, a wide range of fish and even with risottos.

Tip #6: White Meat Pairs Well With White Wine

There is a strong belief that meat pairs with red wine. The truth is that only some types of meat pair with the reds and white meat is not part of that category.

In fact, white meat such as roast poultry, rabbit, or small game pair perfectly with white wines.

White wines also pair well with a wide selection of cheeses and salami, not to mention pizza and pasta.

Tip #7: Pair Acidic Foods With an Alcoholic Yet Acidic Wine

If you serve a dish with a strong acid sensation, such as lemon chicken or pasta with tomato sauce, then choose a wine that has enough acidity.

A wine that is much less acidic than the food will seem weak on the palate and the pairing will not impress anyone.

Tip #8: Sparkling Wine is Not Just For Special Occasions

Sparkling wines pair well with numerous foods and they can be served with countless dishes. 

The carbon dioxide present in these wines contrasts with the sapidity and greasiness of a dish, making it more pleasant to the palate.

You can serve sparkling wines with fatty fish or eel, with boiled meats or refined cold cuts.

Frequent Wine and Food Pairing Mistakes

Ignorance is bliss. But not when you pair the wrong wine with your food.

The last section of our wine and food pairing guide is dedicated to the most frequent mistakes inexpert enthusiasts make when choosing the beverage to serve with their dinner.

Mistake #1: Not Considering The Main Characteristics Of The Food When Choosing The Wine

By now you should know the basic wine and food pairing rules according to which you should pair a white wine with fish and a red wine with red meat.

Nevertheless, you should always choose the wine based on the dominant characteristics of the food.

This means that you can pair red wine with some types of fish. In the same way, some cheeses pair perfectly with white wine. To understand when to make an exception, taste the food and determine its overall sensations before deciding which wine to serve.

Mistake #2: Pair Wine With All Foods

We are all wine lovers but that doesn’t mean wine pairs with everything. In some cases, it is better to simply choose a different beverage.

For example, wine doesn’t pair with some raw vegetables such as asparagus or artichokes. Wine doesn’t pair with fresh fruits either. Pickled veggies also pair better with different beverages.

Some marinated foods and salsas made with vinegar or lemon juice are also tricky to pair with wine. As a basic rule, you should stay away from the wine if you plan to serve a dish that is too sour.

Mistake #3: Serving Wine With Ice

If you want to behave like a connoisseur, avoid serving wine with ice at all costs. Not only this, you should also learn what is the recommended serving temperature of the wine you intend to pair with the food.

Red wines are generally served at room temperature. During summer, you can maintain the wine at serving temperature by keeping it in a wine cooler or using a wine bottle chiller.

White wine is usually served chilled and it is kept on ice until serving.

However, this means that you should keep the bottle in a bucket of ice and avoid at all costs putting ice in the wine.

Mistake #4: Serving Sweet Wine After Coffee

As mentioned above, the dessert should be always paired with sweet wine. But dessert doesn’t include coffee.

If you plan serving coffee after a meal, remember that it is a mistake to serve it while your guests are still sipping a glass of raisin wine.

If you really want to serve some alcoholic beverage after coffee, choose a liquor or at least a fortified wine.

Mistake #5: Serving Wine in the Wrong Glass

You can master the wine and food pairing technique but if you serve the wine in the wrong glass nobody will fully appreciate your knowledge.

Different wines require different glasses for a reason. Often, that reason is that a certain type of glass can help appreciate the true characteristics of the wine.

Water glasses are never an option and you should use stemware in all cases. Choose flute glasses for sparkling wines and large stem glasses for the reds to fully appreciate their body.

Also, don’t forget that red wines usually need decanting before serving.

Final Thoughts

I really hope this ultimate wine and food pairing guide helped you understand the importance of pairing the right wine with the right food.

I also hope that you now know the basics of this art and that you’ll be able to use your knowledge to brag in front of family and friends with your wine pairing skills.

And in the end, don’t forget that wine and food pairing should be a personal matter. Follow the rules but don’t be afraid to break them every now and then!


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About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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