Demystify Wine Pairings with This Obvious Yet Brilliant Trick

Rachel Tepper Paley
April 17, 2014

Photo credit: StockFood/Eising Studio

Food and wine pairings aren’t picked out of thin air—there’s an art to it, a fact that’s helped keep sommeliers and wine educators in business for years. Not everyone knows the difference between a grape grown in Burgundy and another in Bordeaux, and even fewer understand the interplay of their flavors with various dishes. But here’s a trick to point you in the right direction: If it grows together, it goes together.

"We tend to think that wines are grown [in particular regions] because they’re well suited to that place, and that’s absolutely true," said Tess Lampert, who runs the wine education service PalateTrip. “But what’s overlooked is that part of why it’s well suited is because a human chose to put it there.”

When traditional wine regions in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe were first beginning to develop hundreds of years ago, Lampert explained, people grew what they liked to drink—and they liked to drink what went along with their food.

"It goes back to old world culture, where you don’t drink wine on its own,” Lampert said. In Germany, vintners grew aromatic and floral wines like Gewürztraminer because it paired extraordinarily well with fermented, tart sauerkraut, spicy mustard, and smokey sausages, which were originally made with ingredients grown and raised nearby.

The principle is also at work in the French town of Sancerre, which is famed for its tart, high-acid Sauvignon blanc. It pairs best with cheese produced with local goat’s milk, Lambert believes, better than a similar goat cheese hailing from elsewhere. The Sancerre wine and cheese “both have this fresh, herby grassiness,” she said.

In the Piedmont region of Italy, Lampert pointed to the well-suited pairing of local, earthy white truffles with Barolo and Barbaresco, two full-bodied red wines made from the nebbiolo grape. And on the coast of Croatia, the light-bodied, floral red wines made from the plavac mali grape pair exquisitely with another local product: oysters.

But wine enthusiasts should take pairing rules with a grain of salt, Lampert stressed. “You should not take them as gospel,” she said. “The most important rule is to eat and drink what you like together and experimenting.”

How else, she noted, would we have learned that a sweet Riesling is a match for mouth-searing Thai food? Or Vouvray for hearty Cajun fare? ”They have nothing to do with classic pairings, and they’re really good,” Lampert said.

The only way to know for sure, of course, is to take a stab at food and wine pairings yourself. Go forth, drink, and take notes.