Vines and Wines: Food and Wine Pairing Basics

For many of us, pairing food and wine can be somewhat of a mystery. We all know that we are “supposed” to pair white wine with fish and red wine with meat, but outside of that, is there a science? What if I told you that pairing food and wine has nothing to do with the type of meat/protein, but rather in the way it is prepared? For example, imagine a piece of locally caught summer flounder, prepared two ways. The first preparation is lightly sautéed in butter, brushed with a lemon-butter sauce, and served with steamed vegetables.

The second preparation is roasted with tomatoes, capers and olives, sauced with a light tomato broth, and served with roasted squash. We have two distinct flavor combinations: the first is light with fresh, citrus notes that are delicate to eat, and the second is much more robust with salty, roasted flavors. Although they are both fish, something may get lost in translation if both dishes are served with the same wine.

Here is how I approach the situation:

Preparation is everything.


preparation one: We are looking to pair this dish with a wine that will complement the delicate flavors without overwhelming the fish. The wine I want to select will have characteristics of:

  • High acidity: The acid helps to balance the richness of the butter and to complement the flavors of the lemon.
  • Low alcohol: Alcohol determines the richness of the wine. Low alcohol (13% or lower) is considered a light wine.
  • High amounts of fruit: In this case, citrus fruits, lemon, lime and/or grapefruit flavors work best.
  • Low sugar: Sugar in wine can make the wine taste “flabby” when paired with acidic food.

When we take all of these elements and add them up, they equal one perfect pairing for this dish: Sauvignon Blanc, either from France (Sancerre) or New Zealand. A light, crisp white wine is the perfect complement for this dish. My recommendations are: Pasacal Jolivet, Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France and Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.


Preparation #2: This dish contains olives, capers, and tomatoes with a roasted (smoky) fish. These flavors are salty and umami in nature. We are looking for a more robust wine that can stand up to the heavy flavors of this dish. The wine we want will have characteristics of:

  • Medium acidity: The acid in this case helps to balance the saltiness of the dish, but we don’t want too much so that it completely negates the salt.
  • Medium alcohol: Alcohol determines the richness of the dish. We want a medium bodied wine (13.5%-14.5%), a wine that can stand up to the rich flavors of the dish but also  gentle enough to not overpower the flounder.
  • Low amounts of fruit: We want some fruit flavors here, but perhaps on the drier side (think pomegranate instead of strawberry). Too much fruit with this dish can make the saltiness overpowering.
  • Low sugar: The salt in the dish can make a sugary wine taste flabby and off balance.

When considering all of these elements a few wines come to mind as ideal partners for this dish: Sangiovese (Chianti) from Tuscany, Italy, and Pinot Noir either from France or Oregon. Yes, red wine with fish! Red wine is a great pairing in this case. The briny flavors of the sauce and the caramelization of the fish beg for a bolder wine. If you still can’t get past the “white with fish” association, I recommend a richer white such as a Pinot Grigio from Italy.

My recommendations are: Antinori, “Peppoli” Chianti from Italy and Willamette Valley Vineyards, “Whole Cluster” Pinot Noir from Oregon. For the Pinot Grigio, I recommend Bortoluzzi from Venezia.


Pairing food and wine is a science, and there is a good amount of thought that can go into it. Many say that if you eat what you like and drink what you like, then you will be fine. I don’t disagree with this statement at all, but if you are looking to make a simple meal a true experience – or take an experience and make it magical – then spending a few minutes to create a perfect food and wine pairing is worthwhile.

Learn more about food and wine pairings at From Vine to Wine: Pairing Basics May 19-20!