My Food and Wine Pairing Decision Model

Taking the Next Step – the “why” of Food and Wine Pairing

The purpose of this blog is to have fun with food and wine pairing.  Underlying this goal is a basic principal of understanding why pairings work, and in opposition, why they don’t.  Those of you who are regular readers of Craig’s Grape Adventure know that I talk frankly about the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I faithfully report on not only the mind bending ecstasy of exquisite pairings as well as those that are less successful, or even worse – pairings I would not recommend.  The pinnacle, however, is the pairing that truly sums to an experience that is greater than parts.

I sincerely appreciate those of you who provide feedback and questions.  Common among the questions are requests to understand how I chose the pairing.  This post is dedicated to provide some thoughts that add depth beyond the red meat = red wine/white meat = white wine, the place where people normally begin their adventures in wine pairing.

A common next step for selecting pairings is the plethora of web sites that suggest pairings.  These come in three basic forms.  First, we have the wineries suggesting pairings to match with their wines.  This is a good place to start – the wineries want to show off the brilliance of their wines and have put some serious thought into the pairings.  Second, there are plenty of food sites that are increasingly suggesting pairings which can range from a type of wine to a specific wine.  I would rate these as secondary in terms of likely success to the offerings made by the wine producers.  Finally, there is a third group of suggestions that allow you to search on a main ingredient (like steak or chicken) and then suggest either a type of wine and in some cases a specific wine and vintage.

Common to each of these three approaches is a lack of information on “why” the pairings work.  In other words, you are asked to simply accept what they are recommending.  While you may arrive at a satisfactory or even spectacular pairing, the “why” is left to your judgment when you enjoy the meal.  Here, I want to focus on the “why” and give you some tools to make your own decision.  By doing this, you are in a position to form a hypothesis for a pairing and then test that hypothesis.  To me, this sounds like more fun than simply accepting a pairing suggested by someone else without knowledge of the basis on which the pairing is based.  Besides, exploration and discovery is much more exciting – and when you do it right, the reward is hugely satisfying.

From a macro perspective, food and wine pairing is about balance in composition.  Ok, I understand this is not helpful in itself, but like a golfer this is the “swing thought” to maintain when considering your pairing.  Quickly shifting metaphors, I find it helpful to think of food and wine pairing as a classic music composition.  The balance of highs and lows, the complimentary play between the instruments, the contrast between the strings and the horns, the luxurious flow from phrase to phrase, the tempo and tenor, and the repeating patterns that form the basis of the composition.  For a composition to be successful, a conductor must pay close attention to the balance of each component.

The definition of balance is further elaborated by understanding that it comes in two forms.  First is that of compliment.  An example would be the deep dark fruit flavors and sweetness of a ruby port paired with a chocolate dessert or a rich complex Zinfandel paired with grilled steak.  These pairings are complimentary in a number of dimensions.  The second type of balance is that of contrast.  An example of a successful contrasting pairing would be spicy dish such as your favorite Mexican, Asian or Indian dish paired with the contrasting sweetness of a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc.  The high acidity of a Suavignon blanc also contrasts well with dishes such as fish in a cream sauce – the contrast coming between the acidity and the sauce.  Contrast is a bit trickier than complimenting components, but nonetheless can be a satisfying component of balance.  If done correctly, the wine and food match will work, but this approach is much more complex and demands that the chef really knows the dish and the wine very well.  Approach contrasting components with extreme caution – this is PhD level pairing.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts, I will preface my model of food and wine pairing with the thought that this model can be entered from either the wine or the food side.  In other words, if you have a bottle of wine and you are deciding what to pair, you can use these recommendations equally well as if you were approaching it with a meal and mind and want to choose a wine.

In food and wine terms, the components of balance we focus on (in my order of importance) include:
  • Weight and Body
  • Acidity
  • Flavor
  • Complexity
  • Texture and Structure
Weight and Body

Weight and body is fundamental to all pairings.  Think of steak at one end of the spectrum and crab at the other.  The steak requires a bold weighty wine to balance.  A lighter bodied wine would be overwhelmed by the steak.  Conversely a heavy bodied wine would completely overshadow the delicate crab.


Acidity in a recipe is something a chef typically attempts to balance within the dish.  Although well balanced within the dish, high acidity can also be a challenge  for the wine.  If a wine is too low in acid, it tastes flat and dull.  If a wine is too high in acid, it tastes too tart and sour.  The acidity of wine is relatively easily manipulated by wine makers.  Wineries focused on producing food friendly wine tend to increase the acidity while stay short of the tart or sour range.  When pairing, the goal is to match the acidity of the wine with that of the dish.  An example would be a grilled lemon chicken paired with the high acidity common to Chenin Blanc.


Food and wine shouldn't act like children and engage in a battle for your attention. Instead they should help one another achieve something greater than the individuals, complimenting each other's best traits.  Why do the Italians love Chianti?  Chianti is great with Italian food because it seamlessly blends with the regional foods that are rich in seasoning, such as red sauces, red meat, parmesan cheese, poultry, goose, lamb, lasagna, pasta with tomato sauce, heavy veal dishes, and veal chops.  Similarly the deep rich flavors of a Cabernet Sauvignon wonderfully compliment the dark bold flavors of a perfectly prepared filet mignon.


Complexity is directly related to flavor, but, uh, more complex.  A complex wine has multiple layers of flavors and aromas.  Each sip, or the longer you let the wine linger, reveals something you didn't notice before.  Complex wines are more fascinating than their opposites.  A good example of a complex wine would be a Zinfandel.  The layers of flavors make Zinfandel one of my favorites.  On the white side, Chardonnay can often be complex.  The problem with complex wines is that you may experience flavors within this complexity that are not complimentary to the meal.  This complexity is normally revealed in strong, pronounced flavors followed by interesting and more subtle flavors.  To balance this complexity, you need a dish with bold flavors that allow you to enjoy the principal flavor components and yet savor the secondary layers as the bite/sip fades on the palate.  The fail safe approach to particularly complex wines is to enjoy them on their own, and rely on the less complex wines for pairing.  Reducing the complexity or layering of flavors in both the wine and the food presents a much more straight forward pairing decision that has a higher probability of success.  Complex pairings can work magnificently, but it demands a higher level of consideration.

Texture and Structure

Texture is a term we all understand with respect to food.  Structure is a term common to wine and refers to the tannins.  The tannins in a wine are principally responsible for “mouth feel.”  Tannins add a gritty texture and chalky, astringent feel. It can enhance the perception of "body" or weight in the wine. This is a bit of a tricky area in that your goal should be to achieve balance between the texture of the food and the structure of the wine.  However, there are plenty of exceptions, and matching the two is not sufficient to achieve a good pairing.  For this reason, I leave this component as the last consideration.  If you have matched the body/weight of the food and wine, there is a good chance you have already gone a long way toward balancing the structure and texture.  The point here is to avoid a strong imbalance between the two.

Other Important Things to Consider

Find the Principal Flavors:  It is not always the case that the principal ingredient in a dish presents the dominant flavors.  When considering a pairing, pair to the dominant flavors.  This usually happens with dishes using a sauce.  For example, curried duck is dominated by the curry flavors rather than the duck.  In this case, you want to make your pairing with the curry rather than the duck.

Advancing and Retreating Flavors:  Wine can amplify the flavors in food.  Wine can also diminish certain flavors.  In contrast, food has the same effects on wine.  You no doubt have had a wine that you totally loved, but when paired with your favorite food, you experienced flavors you did not expect, or one component of flavor completely disappeared.  For example, an oaky Chardonnay paired with spicy food can reveal flavors you did not know existed in either.  Sweetness is another common area for disappointment.  A sweet wine paired with an even sweeter desert can cause the wine to taste tart in comparison.  I don’t have specific recommendations for you in this respect, just know that it can occur and test a questionable pairing before serving to guests.  On the other hand, sometimes these new or amplified flavors can be a surprising treat.  May all your surprises be pleasant.

Beware of Spicy Food and High Alcohol Content:  High alcohol content wines tend to amplify flavors.  This is not a bad thing until you get to spicy food.  A high alcohol wine can turn a spicy dish into a mouth full of Bubba’s XXX Napalm Death From Within.  Exercise caution.

A Decision Model for Constructing Your Pairing

Being both an engineer and a management type, it is comfortable for me to think of food and wine pairing as a decision model.  Given my recommendations, the essence of food and wine pairing is one of eliminating those things that don’t work.  Following this decision model, you will be left with a menu of possibilities with a reasonably good chance of forming an enjoyable pairing.  Keeping balance at the forefront of your thoughts, here is the process.
  1. What is the appropriate weight and body?  Wine is generally categorized as heavy, medium and light.  If you want to split hairs, some wines fall between the cracks – medium/heavy or medium/light.  If you stick to the big three, your first decision point will be one of eliminating two classes of wine.
  2. What is the acidity level of the meal?  High acid dishes include things such as beans, eggs, organ meat, lentils, tomatoes, butter, aged cheese, yogurt, sour cream, wine based sauces, and vinegar.  Fruits with high acidity include citrus, most berries, cherries, plums and strawberries.  If these ingredients are present in sufficient quantity to raise the acidity level, look for a higher acidity wine to balance the acidity in the dish.
  3. What are the dominant flavor components of the dish?  Are they bright, light, delicate flavors?  Earthy (think mushrooms and truffle)?  Are they deep, dark, rich?  Spicy?  Sweet?  Bitter?  Once you determine the prominent flavors, look to mimic or compliment these flavors in the wine.  Importantly, remember that you are basing your pairing on the dominant flavors in the dish – not necessarily the main component.  Consider the possibility of advancing and retreating flavors if you care to think a bit harder.
  4. Is the food spicy?  If the food is spicy, stick with sweeter wines with higher acidity.  Avoid oak.  Beware high alcohol wines.  If piquance is not a significant flavor component, move on to the next step.
  5. How complex are the flavors?  As always, this is a matter of balance.  Straight forward (less complex)  is easy, while more complex flavors in either the wine or food become more of a challenge and require you to think about how the layers will interact.  The goal is to avoid conflicting flavors or a complexity in either choice of food or wine that overwhelms the other.
  6. Is the texture of the wine a concern?  If you have selected the weight and body correctly, this should not be an issue.  This question is most of all a reminder to ensure you are pairing delicate wines with delicate food, or balancing bold food with similarly bold structure.
Final Words

Through tasting notes from the winery, or even in some cases printed directly on the bottle, you will generally find a description of each of the components discussed here.  However, in a future post I will provide a bit of help and list the wine varietals that fall within each of these categories.  Finally, I think it is important to remember to drink and eat what you like – regardless of these or anyone else’s recommendations.  My only hope is that this will help you understand why you like what you do, understand why some combinations work better than others, and give you some food for thought to consider for your next pairing.