Food and Wine Pairing Basics for the Aspiring Sommelier
Pairing food and wine is one of the most exciting tasks for a sommelier. But it is also challenging: it takes a serious amount of expertise and experience to perform at the highest level.
The best time to study this craft is while earning your L4 sommelier certification; once you’ve mastered the basics you can learn how wine works to enhance food, and vice versa.
The challenge is most significant in a multi-course dinner. In both food and wine, the order of the pairings is as important as the pairings themselves.
Dinner with Wine Pairings
Imagine a meal of traditional Mediterranean dishes in a fine dining setting. The task here is to pair wine with the following courses: hors d’oeuvres, soup, appetizer, salad, main course, and dessert.
Here is the menu:
- Razor clams with Fennel
- Creamy Tomato Soup with Toasted Almonds
- Grilled Calamari with Lemon and Tzatziki
- Salmon and Mango Niçoise salad
- Slow Roasted Lamb Shank
Razor Clams with Fennel
Wine: Ruinart, Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne, France
The first step is to see, smell, and taste the dishes to make accurate pairings. Here we have a set of fresh razor clams, carefully cleaned and diced. The chef has sautéed them in butter with garlic, shallots, and fennel. Served on their shells, this is a delicate and enticing treat.
The traditional pairing would be a light-bodied white, something with crisp acidity. A dry Semillon or a Muscadelle would be pleasing. Butter also gives weight to the dish, so even a medium to full-bodied white wine would work on a textural level.
Food and Wine Pairing Basics
However, remembering that this is a multi-course dinner, an experienced sommelier will avoid pouring the traditional pairing, a dry white wine. Instead, a glass of Champagne will not only complement the dish but will enliven the palate.
The tanginess of the wine will contrast the buttery clams beautifully, and its subtle creaminess will complement the sweet shallots.
An emotional component is at work here, too: Champagne will elevate the dining experience and help build anticipation for the rest of the meal.
Creamy Tomato Soup with Toasted Almonds
Wine: Bodegas Hidalgo, La Gitana, Manzanilla, Spain
The starting point for many sommeliers is to think locally.
Reminiscent of an Andalusian gazpacho, the flavors in this tomato soup will work well with a dry and delicate Fino Sherry. The pairing creates contrast between the pungent wine and the soup’s creaminess, while the toasted almonds will reflect themselves in the nutty, oxidative notes of the wine.
The small “copita” Sherry glass also looks festive next to a Champagne flute; just like a chef, a talented sommelier works with presentation in mind.
Grilled Calamari with Lemon and Tzatziki
Wine: Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko, Santorini, Greece
For grilled seafood dishes like calamari, wine can be used as an additional component of the dish. Instead of serving fresh lemon alongside the plate, dry white wine with citrus acidity can serve the same function. It’s also the more elegant option in a fine dining setting.
A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a Chilean Costa Sauvignon are thoughtful selections. For an old-world style pairing, a smoky Sancerre will complement the brininess of the dish.
The ideal selection, however, is a Greek Assyrtiko: this wine boasts high-toned acidity and minerality that highlights the freshness of the seafood and the elemental nature of the dish.
Salmon and Mango Niçoise Salad
Wine: Leeuwin Estate, Art Series Chardonnay, Margaret River, Australia
This is a salad, yes, but a rich and flavorful one. The focus should be on the dominant flavor elements: salmon and mango.
Salmon is fatty enough to match with a rich, buttery Chardonnay. A warm climate offering from Australia or Chile will mirror tropical fruit aromas that lend harmony to the pairing. This selection from the Margaret River wine region is soulful and provides the maximum impact on the palate.
If you take the mango from the equation, a Provencal rosé would be a better option; but sommeliers know better than to try and change the chef’s recipe! One important element of food and wine pairing is knowing how to make all components of a dish work with one type of wine.
Slow Roasted Lamb Shank
Wine: Sine Qua Non, Stock Syrah, Central Coast, California
Lamb shank is a hearty dish that demands a full-bodied red. Lamb has a gaminess that works better with spicy reds like Syrah or a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend from the Rhône Valley in France.
This is where a sommelier can unleash their imagination and pull out some extraordinary bottles from the cellar. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a classic, but a cult California wine like the Stock Syrah from the legendary producer Sine Qua Non will make a grand statement.
This is the peak of the dining experience; it’s time to go big or go home.
Wine: Royal Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary
A honeyed baklava with pistachios and nuts is a heartfelt finish to the meal.
There is one cardinal rule when it comes to matching desserts with wine: the sweetness in the wine must be greater than the sweetness in the dessert. Otherwise, the wine will lose its nuance and complexity.
A full-force 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu, with assertive sweetness and acidity, will leave the diner on a culinary high. If possible, an older vintage would be best: oxidative aromas could further enhance the nutty flavors of the baklava.
As you can see, food and wine pairings go beyond matching flavors; they take the whole dining experience into account. We have used all our resources, from sparkling wine to fortified dessert wines, and from dry, mineral whites to full-bodied reds. The result is a gastronomic adventure never to be forgotten.
As in all endeavors in wine, pairing is a never-ending (and delicious) quest for knowledge. Ready to become a sommelier? Check out our wine school recommendations for more information.