Pair Wine Like You Would a Sauce

close up of red and white wine glasses on a circular dining table

The parts are greater than the sum. 

by Erin Henderson

I’ve been teaching various wine and food pairing classes for more than a decade, and while there certainly are guidelines to maximize your culinary success, I often find these ideas further confuse the cook or diner.

Until you’ve really studied wine, trying to “contrast structures” like fat with acid, or protein with tannin, isn’t the clearest direction. “Compliment flavours” just brings us back to square one, as novice wine drinkers haven’t yet developed their palates to pick out the subtle fruit or spice flavours in a wine (“tastes like wine,” they usually shrug.) As for the old maximum of, “what grows together, goes together” well, that’s all fine and good when matching Pinot Noir with boeuf bourguignon, or Barolo with osso buco, but what happens when we’re eating sushi, vindaloo, or hamburgers?

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My solution is to break down the dish into its various parts and then think about what sauce or spice you might slather on those parts.

Let me explain further with the below examples. 

Thanksgiving Dinner

When the holidays roll around, naturally, frantic questions start to pour in about what to pair with the turkey dinner. While our first answer is always, always to relax – you will never, ever find one perfect pairing, so disabuse yourself of that errant notion right now – considering the wine as another condiment on the buffet helps to select some good wine pairings. 

What are the two sauces that are most commonly served with a traditional turkey dinner? Gravy and cranberry sauce. 

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Gravy is rich and decadent with a smooth texture and creamy flavour. What wine has those same characteristics? For me, Chardonnay, with its silky feel and buttery taste, will pair with anything you like to douse in gravy. 

Meanwhile, cranberry sauce is bright, tart, and juicy. It works to liven up a dry bird and give a little energy to heavy mashed potatoes or stuffing. A wine that is often described the same way is Pinot Noir, with its cran-cherry flavour, mouth-watering acidity, and smooth tannins, a vibrant Pinot Noir is a terrific table mate for the Thanksgiving spread. 

Macaroni and Cheese

As hedonistic as it is, macaroni and cheese really just boils down to two things: the cheese and the pasta. The raw ingredients are not that much different from a cheese board served with crackers or baguette.

What do people often put on cheeseboards to compliment the offerings? Fruity jellies, spicy chutney, tart apple slices, and/or sweet honey.

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With this in mind, select a red wine that works like a strawberry jam or cherry preserve. A red wine with flavours of sweet and ripe red berries, a touch of spice, and a fresh, smooth, juicy, texture. For me, I think of a village-level Beaujolais, Crianza Rioja, basic Chianti, or a medium-bodied Cab Franc out of Loire. Avoid anything too tannic or powerful as that will dominate your cheese, blowing it right out of the water, and all your time, money, and effort spent making the dish is wasted.

If you’re a white wine fan, think about a juicy wine that reminds you of tart apple or sweet honey. Riesling is a no-brainer here and would be absolute dynamite to cut through all the richness of the oozy cheese. Gewurztraminer could also work for its exotic fruit and spice flavours, replicating the character of a chutney.

Chana Masala

A chickpea curry that's a staple dish in Northern India, this vegetarian stew braises robust chickpeas in a mildly spicy ginger-garlic-tomato sauce that is flavoured with warming spices like cumin, corriander, and bay leaf. 

Breaking down the parts: tangy tomato, earthy chickpeas, punchy herbs... a wine with similar character is Chianti Classico, a Tuscan red with flavours commonly described as sundried tomato and bay leaf. Chianti Classico also has the tangy acid to match that of the tomato, and the subtly rustic flavour to match the herbs. 

Moules Marinières

This one is a touch harder, but let's see if we can do it.

A traditional seafood dish from Normandy, in France's cool northern shores, "sailor's mussles" as it's translated, has now spread around the world, ubiquitous with delicious bistro dining. 

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A simple method of braising fresh mussles in white wine with herbs, the pairing nearly speaks for itself: we have shellfish with the fresh salinity of the ocean, and mineral note from the shell, whatever wine you've braised the mussles in, and a scattering of verdant herbs. 

What wine also echoes that same, seaspray and bright herbal flavour? Look to wines from coastal regions: Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is the obvious choice. You could also go with Assyrtiko, the white wine from Santorini that tastes like an ocean wave. Muscadet Sur Lie, a terrifically under-rated wine from the Atlantic banks of France's Loire region is chockablock with salinity and mineral. 

Obviously these examples are just the tip of the culinary iceberg. But try it for yourself and see how you do. Remember, nothing is ever a real disaster, and if it is, well, you won't do it again. But once you get anough practice shots in, pairing will be come second nature.

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