Wine is made to be drunk with food, its taste and structure perfectly complementing and enhancing the eating experience and ingestion, as well as the process of digestion.
The pairing also dictates a measure of moderation, as the drinking stops (or should) when the last bite is taken. A marriage made in heaven, and something you can optimise at home, matching the type of food to the age and variety of wine (particularly if you have invested in a cellar).
Other alcoholic drinks don’t come close, as the flavour profiles of beer and cider are much more limited, and fortified wines and spirits are overpowering in their pace of inebriation, which to me takes away from, rather than adds to, the experience of sharing a meal.
If you are eating out, the modern day reality is a little more complicated. It goes something like this… you walk into a restaurant and immediately smell the food. Maybe you have even picked the place because of a particular dish they serve. Unless it’s a wine bar, or allows BYO, the next thing you notice is the stratospheric price of the wines. They are usually young wines, even the reds, and if you are used to drinking riesling, semillon and just about any red in their prime, you’ll be like me and order a beer with the meal. (If you like a chardy, pinot gris, sav blanc or pinot noir you will be ok, as they are often more approachable when they are young).
But let’s imagine for a moment this restaurant has some affordable aged wines. you really do have the full palate of flavour matches available. As with any good marriage it works better among equals. So the first thing to sort out is the weight of the wine. By this I mean the intensity of flavours, particularly tannins, as a big tannic wine (think McLaren Vale reds) will need a flavoursome steak or a stew to arm-wrestle it into submission.
Conversely, a fragrant, ethereal WA riesling will be easily overpowered, and thus demands a delicate match such as crab or whiting. Alcohol often parallels the other components, and that McLaren Vale Shiraz will often be at 15%, the riesling 12% alcohol or less.
Once you have a balance of power, you’ll taste both the food and the wine, which gives you immediate bang for your buck.
Next for me is the fat and acid equation. For example, I prefer a high acid wine like riesling or semillon with a fatty pork dish, as the acid cuts the fat beautifully, like a sorbet between every bite! That’s why fish and chips goes with champagne! If you prefer a red, pick a medium bodied red with good acid, maybe from the high country (Seppelts) or the Hunter (Tyrrells). Pinot noir is a standout with meals of mid-weight, such as stir fries, although it goes with duck particularly well. It’s really a white wine in disguise.
And then on to the flavours within the food, such as lime (riesling), lemon (semillon), buttery sweetness (chardonnay), and the flavoursome proteins of lamb (shiraz) and beef (cabernet). You should think of foods that have those flavours embedded in them, like Asian dishes, and pick your wine accordingly.
The age of the wine is critical here, as a wine should ideally be in its drinking window for you to get the best from it. Think 3 to 7 years for most Aussie whites, and 5 to 10 for the reds, if they sell at a median price point. You wouldn’t eat undercooked food, would you?
If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a higher shelf 10+ year-old Barossa GSM, Coonawarra cabernet or Eden Valley shiraz to go with your main, your pleasure multiplies, as the tannins start to soften while the fruit flavours develop, significantly broadening the possibilities of food matching.
It’s like waiting for roses to open. As for desserts and cheeses, wines with high sweetness levels (think ice wine or botrytis affected grapes) can put both in a good light, but the wine must be sweeter than the food!
Finally, there is no better way to understand the relationship between wine and food than to ponder the old wine trade adage of “Buy on apple, sell on cheese”. Apple contains tartaric acid, and this exposes any wine faults which may be present, while the fats in the cheese coat the tongue and hide these same faults. You’ll never find an ‘apple platter’ at the cellar door, that’s for sure. And something I don’t need to tell you is that the company you are enjoying is the best sauce for the match, enriching the experience immeasurably. A joy shared is a joy doubled, after all.