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Stew Cues: A primer on pairing wines with food

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

Wine knowledge is important to stews, and so is wine and food pairing. The goal of a successful pairing is to ensure that the flavors in the food do not overshadow the wine. Let’s focus on some tips for good pairings.

First of all, we must decide whether we want to match the wine with the food, or contrast it. One well-known tip is to match white wines with fish and chicken, and red wines with red meat. However, the way the food is prepared is often more important. We are better off matching the weight or body and intensity of the food with the wine.  Ask yourself if the food is super light or super rich, and whether the wine is light or bold.

There are over 20 different taste components in food, but we only need to focus on six when we are pairing wines and foods: salt, acid, sweet, bitter, fat and spicy. Certain elements of wine need to be considered as well: sugar, acid, fruit, tannins and alcohol.  Wine lacks the three tastes of fat, spiciness and saltiness, but it does contain acidity, sweetness, and bitterness to a degree. For our purposes, let’s use three different categories to group wines.  

1. Red wines have more bitterness (from tannin)
2. White, rose and sparkling wines have more acidity
3. Sweet wines have more sweetness.

The secret to good pairing is thinking about how their flavor elements are going to work, and creating a balance between the components of the dish and the characteristics of a wine.  

Chicken or fish served in a light lemon sauce is going to pair very differently from chicken or fish served in a heavy cream sauce. A light lemon sauce would need a wine with the right balance of acidity, while a creamy sauce would need a fuller-bodied, more complex wine. Smoky with oaky is a good match, so grilled fish will go well with an oaked Chardonnay. A dark, fruity Australian Shiraz would go well with rosemary-spiced beef or BBQ ribs.

Here are some of the basic rules of wine pairing:

Hors oeuvres are great with a dry rose. A rose has the light crispness of a white as well as the fruitiness of a red. It will accommodate many different flavors and textures

Acid needs acid. Any food that has a high acidic level, something you’d want to squeeze a lemon onto, is a great pairing with a light, citrusy, acidic white wine. If you have a dish like chicken piccatta or a roasted fish with citrus, a wine that matches that acidity –  a bright, citrusy pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, for example – will be like a splash of freshness in your dish.

Tannins need fat. If you have food with a high fat content – say, a marbled rib-eye steak, a braised duck, or grilled sausages – you really need a wine that has the right textural elements to balance it out. If you pair it with a bold red wine such as a Syrah or a Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannins in that red wine balance out the fat elements.

Heat needs sweet. If you’re serving a dish that has a little kick to it, or a little spice, you’re going to need a lighter, slightly sweet wine to pair with it. A good example would be a Riesling or a White Zinfandel. Riesling is very popular with Indian and Thai food.

Salty needs bubbles. It can be a hard to pair salty or fried foods with a wine, but similar to a beer, the carbonation adds a whole new texture and flavor.

Earthy needs earthy. If you have an earthy food like truffles or gamey meats, they’re going to be great paired with an earthy wine, like a Syrah of a Pinot Noir.

Have fun with it and don’t make it too complicated. People have different tastes, and we shall honor that. As wine educator Kevin Zraly says: “The best wine to pair with your meal is whatever wine you like. No matter what!”

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at www.yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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