Look, food and wine pairing is a hot topic around here. No surprise since we focus on regions like California, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, all of which have world-class wine.
Here in our home state of California, April is Down To Earth Month, when we focus on all things wine and sustainability. California is a global leader in sustainable wine growing, with 80% of the wine in California produced in a certified sustainable winery. And, as a consumer, you can support sustainability by looking for and buying wines from California.
More Than 14 Essential Food And Wine Pairing Tips
Yet, while we’ve discussed sustainable wine and our tips for holiday food and wine pairing, we’ve never shared a basic food and wine pairing guide. Until now. So, we’re sharing a food and wine pairing guide with a California slant in partnership with Discover California Wines.
This essential food and wine pairing guide covers everything from how to get started to classic pairings. And it even covers how to pair spring produce like artichokes and asparagus, some of the most challenging food and wine pairings of all!
Why Does Food And Wine Pairing Matter?
Simply put, food and wine bring out the best in each other! A successful pairing is symbiotic; both flavors seem more saturated and complex than when consumed alone. Keep these three things in mind when doing a food and wine pairing:
Think Of Wine As An Ingredient
Remember, wine is just another ingredient in the mix of your meal. So, like a peppercorn cream sauce will add spice and creaminess to a steak, a wine can similarly add acidity, bitterness, or sweetness, depending on its style.
Learn Classic Pairing Rules, Then Break Them
Some basic rules are worth mastering regarding food and wine pairing. But, when it comes to specific pairings, while some are classic (see below), they aren’t the only option.
There are enough things to stress out about — don’t add food and wine pairing to the list. Head to a quality wine store to ask for help when in doubt.
Get Started Food And Wine Pairing
Here are the four steps to essential food and wine pairing:
Identify The Food’s Primary Flavor
If you cook, you’re used to tasting your food and balancing its main flavors (i.e., acid, bitter, sweet, salt, sour, spicy, umami). So do the same here! While a classic Cheese Soufflé‘s flavors are salt and fat, a traditional coconut curry will be spice, fat, and salt.
Choose To Complement or Contrast
There are two main ways to pair: either the wine and food can complement or contrast each other. To master this, it’s helpful to remember classic flavor combos that balance each other, like sweet-salty, bitter-sweet, bitter-fat, bitter-salt, salt-acid, salt-spicy, and fat-acid.
Go For A Broad Style Of Wine
Now find a style of wine that balances the food’s flavor. A complementary pairing would be BBQ and Zinfandel since they both have spice and are bold. A contrasting pairing would be serving salty potato chips with sparkling wine since the wine’s acidity will balance the fat and salt of the chips.
Look At The Food’s Subtler Flavors
Now get more specific about the food’s flavor. Is there a sauce with fruit or capers and lots of herbs? Then find a wine within your chosen style with similar notes. For example, salmon with a savory strawberry salsa would work great with a fruit-forward rosé of Pinot Noir.
Six Tips For Food And Wine Pairing
Here are six principles to keep in mind when it comes to pairing:
Salt and Acid Are Friends Of Wine
These flavors increase the qualities of wine that people like, such as fruit and sweetness, while decreasing offputting flavors like bitter or tart.
Sweet And Umami Are Foes Of Wine
Sweetness and umami do the opposite, making them harder to pair.
Wine should be more acidic and sweeter than the food
Remember this, especially when dealing with a tart vinaigrette or a decadent dessert.
The wine and food should be of the same intensity and texture
Meaning that bold-flavored, multi-layered foods like Oaxacan moles will want equally bold red wines like Syrah or Zinfandel. Meanwhile, a delicate scallop crudo will work with a similarly delicate white wine.
Fat tends to balance out high-tannin wine
For proof of this, look to Northern Italy’s Piedmont region, where they have classically paired hearty beef dishes with their high-tannin local Nebbiolo wines.
Fish oil and tannin don’t like each other
On the other hand, high-tannin wines will not work with fish oils. This is why you’ll classically see most seafood paired with white wine.
Classic Food And Wine Pairing Ideas
Speaking of all things California food and wine, here are some of the most popular wines you’ll find in the Golden State and their most-prized pairings:
Chardonnay With Creamy Sauces And Fatty Fish
Think lobster with drawn butter, shrimp scampi, or a dish like this Dungeness Crab Ravioli with a Meyer Lemon Cream sauce.
Cabernet Sauvignon And Red Meat
Many of California wines are rich in flavor, high in tannin, and minerally in character, making them a perfect partner to a grilled steak.
Off-Dry Riesling With Spicy Food
Try Riesling with Classic Pad Thai to taste one of the most iconic pairings.
Pinot Noir With Earthy Flavors
The combination of high acidity, low tannin, and its often earthy notes makes Pinot Noir a perfect match for mushrooms, lentils, and duck.
Sauvignon Blanc With Fresh Cheese
Sparkling Brut With Salty Snacks
Bring on the Gougères, cheese, popcorn, potato chips, and French fries because salty foods pair perfectly with Brut sparkling wine’s high acidity. A close second is the classic pairing of oysters and sparkling wine, but the truth is sparkling wine is so versatile you can drink it throughout your meal.
Syrah And Spices
This rich, fruit-forward wine is a dream pairing with heavily spiced foods like chicken shawarma, Indian curry, or Mexican food.
Zinfandel And BBQ Tri Tip
The classic California red meat cut is Santa Maria-Style tri-tip, and while it can go with a lot of red wine, we’re partial to Zinfandel’s fruit-forward, bold, jammy flavors.
Food And Wine Pairing For Spring Produce
Now that you have basic food and wine pairing down, let’s implement it! April is not only “Down To Earth Month” in California but also when our local farmers markets are flooded with spring produce.
What’s In Season In California In Spring?
You already know that the list of what is grown in California is extensive since more than 400 specialty crops are grown here. Come spring, the produce that is in season includes asparagus, artichokes, avocado, cantaloupe, cherries, cucumbers, fennel, figs, table grapes, herbs, leaf lettuce, peas, peaches, and strawberries.
Difficult Food And Wine Pairings Made Easy
Of that seasonal produce, a few are considered some of the most challenging food and wine pairings, so we’re addressing them here!
Artichoke Wine Pairing
You can thank the acid cynarin for making everything taste sweet after you eat an artichoke. That’s also why it is tricky to pair wine with artichokes! The best choices are dry, high-acid wines that can counteract the sweetness. You’ll often find artichokes served with Sauvignon Blanc or an unoaked Chardonnay. Some other pairings would be Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Grüner Veltliner, or even dry sherry.
Perfect Pairing: Lemon-Basil Chicken Artichoke With Sauvignon Blanc
Asparagus Wine Pairing
Meanwhile, the amino acid methionine found in asparagus makes wine taste grassy and vegetal. You’ll often see sauteed, steamed, or raw asparagus paired with wines that balance the vegetal flavor. Prime examples include Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel, or an off-dry Riesling. When the asparagus is grilled, roasted, or served with a sauce, you can pair it with a light to medium-bodied red wine like a slightly chilled rosé or Pinot Noir.
Perfect Pairing: Charred Asparagus Salad With Rosé of Pinot Noir
Avocado Wine Pairing
Avocados don’t have a strong flavor, so be mindful not to overwhelm them when pairing them with wine. Their high-fat content means you want a wine with acidity, but, as we said above, you want the wine should be the same intensity as the food. Choose brut sparkling wine, unoaked Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, or a rosé.
Perfect Pairing: Fried Avocado Tacos And Brut Sparkling Wine
Fennel Wine Pairing
The anise flavor of fennel can be puzzling for some when it comes to food and wine pairing, but it doesn’t need to be. To complement raw fennel, opt for Sauvignon Blanc (noticing a trend here?!), Pinot Gris, or Sémillon. If the fennel is roasted as a side dish or alongside roasted meat, it also works well with Barbera since that grape is known for having an anise note.
Perfect Pairing: Fennel Mascarpone Brie Puff Pastry Bites With Pinot Gris
Strawberries Wine Pairing
Finally, let’s not forget the berry that California is best known for strawberries. While strawberries are grown year-round in parts of Southern California, they come into the market across the state in the spring. Our go-to wine pairing with strawberries is sparkling rosé, which feels particularly festive if you’re toasting a spring holiday!
Perfect Pairing: Strawberry Cardamom Tartlets with Rosé Sparkling Wine
Monterey Wine Tasting Tips
Heading to Carmel or Big Sur on a California road trip? You may want to schedule some down time to do wine tasting too because Monterey County’s wine is well worth exploring. From what style of wines are made there to how to wine taste in Carmel and where to go, we’ve covered all Monterey wine tasting tips for you.
Have Us Plan Your California Trip
Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency specializing in California vacation planning? If you want to plan a trip to California, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.
Photo Credit: Person pours wine above a set table By Jarusha Brown; Woman pouring wine into glasses By David Prado; Cheese plate at a Farm To Table dinner party By Trinette Reed; Asparagus salad By Melissa Milis Photography