For thousands of years, wine was a staple at meal times. Nobody put much thought into pairing beyond “Wine is good. So is food. They are nice together.” It wasn’t until recently, say the last 50 or 60 years, that the modern “art” of food and wine pairing became a thing.
More than just a thing, in fact. The ability to successfully pair food and wine was the mark of a true wine lover. For it can only be one so full of arcane oenological knowledge, so thoroughly perceptive in the ways of wine, that can pair food and wine correctly. So the very righteous thinking went, anyway.
Then it thankfully dawned on the wine-drinking world that not everyone has the same taste buds. Or preferences. And the word success in the context of food and wine pairing stopped being accurate. A better word is probably thoughtful.
So we’re back near where we started. We like wine. We like food. We like consuming them together. That’s about as complex as it needs to be.
The point of wine is to enjoy it, not to labor over correctness. So let’s look at how to create a food and wine pairing menu that helps people do just that.
What is a Food and Wine Pairing Menu?
A food and wine pairing menu is a menu that enables guests to easily experience thoughtful food and wine pairings. It can be virtually any type of menu. And how that happens varies. It can mean:
- Pairing one specific wine with one specific dish. Offering your sangiovese with your steak tartare appetizer, for example. Offer them together for a fixed price or simply recommend that they be purchased together.
- Suggesting multiple wine pairings with one specific dish. Similar to the above, but you’ll offer a selection of wines that you believe pair well with your steak tartare. Your sangiovese, a Napa merlot, and a Rioja could all be offered with the dish. Again, either together for a fixed price or simply recommended their purchase together.
- Suggesting general pairing guidelines for a specific dish. Let’s use steak tartare again. Instead of recommending one or multiple specific wines, you provide some guidelines you think will yield enjoyable pairings. Saying “pairs well with full-bodied, tannic reds” could be enough. Then, ideally, they’ll be able to locate such wines on your easy-to-navigate wine list or digital wine list.
Rules for Great Wine Pairing
There are some broad strokes of food and wine pairing that most people generally adhere to. But they’re not the official writ of the wine overlords. They’re casual, common sense observations about how some flavors and aromas interact with other flavors and aromas. Maybe those observations suit your preferences. Maybe they don’t.
Here are some general rules about how to pair flavor profiles and wine types. They help folks create simple, popular food and wine pairing menus.
Matching a food’s weight with a wine’s weight is the most fundamental part of pairing food and wine. The idea is that a heavy food will overshadow a light wine, and vice versa. In general, one side of the pairing should not completely dominate the other. That is what most people tend to prefer.
Heavy foods have robust, powerful flavors. Their flavor profiles are not subtle, nor are their textures or aromas. Think of a plate of beef stroganoff. A hearty pasta with red sauce. A smoked ribeye.
On the wine side, the fuller the body, the more the “weight,” in this context. The amount of alcohol in the wine, along with its tannin levels, determines a wine’s body. Think of big tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignons or Super Tuscans.
The theory goes that a food’s weight and a wine’s weight should be similar. And if they’re not paired that way, there should be a strategic reason why. You could pair a full-bodied wine with a medium-bodied dish, for example, if you intend to showcase the wine. Likewise, you can pair a heavy meal with a medium-bodied wine if you want the food to take center stage. What you should stay away from, though, is a completely uneven weight pairing. Very heavy with very light. At that point, it’s so imbalanced that the purpose of pairing wine and food—to experience both together—is arguably lost.
Combine Flavor Profiles
There is an ongoing conversation in the wine pairing world. Should one pair food and wine with complementary flavors or contrasting flavors?
And, again, because taste and preference are subjective, both have their value.
One school of thought thinks that like-with-like is the most pleasant way to pair wine. An oaky chardonnay would pair well with a cedar-plank salmon dish, for example. Or the cut-grass aroma of sauvignon blanc would pair well with a bean-sprout heavy stir fry.
It’s the reason we top cake with frosting or eat fruit salads. When similar flavors interact, they can enhance each other. Their similarities end up additive to each other, while their slight differences are playful and interesting.
The idea here is that a rounder flavor profile is ideal. Where complementary flavors combine to excel in a specific area, contrasting flavors fill in each other’s gaps. Think of a creamy havarti cheese with a relatively acidic wine like a Chianti. Or a lightly sweet grenache with a lemony chicken piccata.
Both complementary and contrasting pairing strategies work wonders. There is no right way to do it. And your food and wine pairing menu should experiment with both approaches to find the pairings you think your guests would enjoy most.
And to help you start drawing lines between food flavors and wine flavors, we’ve got a handy method.
The Three Primary Wine Flavor Components
There is an exhaustive vocabulary of wine tasting terms that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to direct parallels with the flavor profiles of most foods. But, thankfully, there’s an easier way. There are three primary flavoring components in wine: tannins, sugar, and acid. Let’s look at how each corresponds to and interact with flavors in food.
Tannins in wine correspond to the primary flavor of bitter. The maceration process extracts tannins from grape skins, seeds, and stems. Or leached from oak barrels during aging. Given that grape skins are primarily what make red wines red, it follows that red wines are more tannic than whites.
Tannins interact with high-protein and high-fat dishes by binding to the protein, which softens them. Hard cheeses and red meats are great examples. Tannic wines also, according to the strategy of complementary flavors, pair well with grilling and blackening preparation methods. Those add a bitter char to dishes.
And finally, tannins are astringent. They give off a slightly medicinal aroma and create a drying sensation in the mouth. This drying sensation is, according to the strategy of contrasting flavors, often enjoyable with greasy or oily foods. It seems to dry and clean the mouth of oils, in a way.
The sugar in wine corresponds to a food’s sweetness. No surprise there. Residual sugar left from the fermentation process is the culprit.
The sweetness of a wine is often categorized by its level of dryness. A dry wine’s residual sugars are completely fermented into alcohol. Off-dry wines are a touch sweet, semi-dry wines a bit more, and dessert wines quite so.
If you approach pairing a wine’s dryness from a complementary aspect, a wine should always be sweeter than the dish it’s being served with. And if you approach pairing this flavor from a contrast, a wine’s sweetness tends to balance spice, peppers, and salt.
And finally, acidity. In wine, more acidic wines cause the mouth to water more. It’s the exact opposite of the drying effect tannic wines have.
From a complementary angle, acidic wines often cancel out the sourness or tartness of acidic food dishes. They cancel each other out, in fact. The classic example is an acidic wine neutralizing the acidic brine of oysters. It leaves the natural flavor profiles of the oysters and the fruit of the wine front-and-center. And from the contrasting side, acidic wines can counter oily, rich, and fatty dishes by cutting through them.
If you embrace restaurant technology and opt for a digital wine list, you’ll be able to swap out wine suggestions almost instantly. That way you can have an agile food and wine pairing menu that reacts to sales patterns quickly. Plus digital menus are the future. You’d be wise to embrace them.
Wine Pairing Chart
We constructed a wine pairing chart that employs the principles laid out above. It is not an exhaustive wine pairing chart because wine pairing is subjective. But we considered weights, complementary flavors, and contrasting flavors. Then we picked one pairing we like. This wine pairing chart is more meant to show you how wine pairing works. And to inspire you to discover your own wine pairings using the information in this post. Click it to download the printable PDF version.
How Wine Food Pairing Can Help You Upsell
Food and wine pairing is a massively effective upselling tool. It’s similar to what makes prix fixe menus so special. And the more successful (or not) your staff is at selling certain pairings, the more menu engineering you can do to lean into your success.
Food enjoyed thoughtfully together is a memorable, enriching experience. A glass of wine and an appetizer pairing is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a unique and visceral layer of context that creates a connection. It adds immediate value to any diner who considers dining more than refueling.
The key to upselling wine is twofold.
The first is context. You should impart knowledge. People are naturally curious. People naturally value narrative. If what we do has meaning, it’s inherently more valuable to us. So give menu choices meaning. Educating guests about wine lets them become a part of the story. Because they’re about to drink it.
The second is to deliver your suggestions confidently and enthusiastically. In a world where wine pairing is subjective, folks aren’t necessarily looking for “the right answer.” They’re looking for someone who is excited about the pairing.
Your staff should commit to memory the basics above, then star to familiarize themselves with the wine pairing chart provided. Then they’ll be able to quickly and confidently deliver some solid pairing suggestions.
Multi-Course Food and Wine Pairing Menu Example
Here’s a multi-course food and wine pairing menu example we put together for our fictional restaurant, Le Sanglier Brûlant. It should give you a good idea of how this all works in practice. The wines on this menu are suggestions that aren't included in the price.
Wine and Food Pairing Menus Made Easy
Creating a wine and food pairing menu doesn’t have to be difficult. You can include pairing suggestions on your table d’hote, prix fixe, or a la carte menu. You can include them on your static or cycle menu. If you follow these general guidelines and come up with a thoughtful combination, your guests will appreciate it.
One way to make wine and food pairing menus even easier is to digitize them. QR codes in restaurants allow you to update your wine list immediately. That way you can swap out pairings all you want. No sunk costs on paper and printing. If one pairing isn’t selling, it’s on to the next one. Until you find pairings you like that sell well.
And it’s worlds more hygienic than paper menus, which is fast becoming more and more of a consumer expectation. If you haven’t looked into a digital wine list or QR code wine menu yet, you probably should. It’s where the industry is headed.