Navigating an extensive wine list or cocktail menu should be a journey in experimentation to find your favorite flavors - and never a daunting feat at the table. With a few basics and simple tips, you can ensure that you enjoy your meal to the fullest.
"Whether you're dining out or cooking at home, the trick to a satisfying pairing comes from understanding the fundamentals and understanding your personal palate," says Leigh Merritt, director of bar innovation for Bonefish Grill restaurants. "Keep in mind that pairing isn't an exact science, and personal preference is always most important. When you drink what you enjoy, the entire meal comes together."
Here are Merritt's top tips to consider when creating a great pairing:
Understand wine flavors
Three factors influence the taste of wines: the type of grape, where that grape is grown, and how the wine is processed and handled will affect the flavor notes. The same species of grape grown in California will have different characteristics than one grown in Chile. Grapes fermented in oak will differ from wine in stainless steel. Don't be afraid to ask questions when purchasing spirits or ordering drinks at a restaurant, and enjoy learning about the flavors you like.
Assess the whole dish
In general, light-styled wines do pair better with lighter styles of food such as shrimp or scallops, as their delicate flavors harmonize better. However, it's important to pay attention to all the ingredients on the plate. For instance, grilled shrimp may have a subtle flavor by itself, but when served with the bold flavors of a Chimichurri sauce, the dish takes on a different profile that can taste great with a richer, deeper wine.
Why care about the pair?
A good wine and food pairing will work together to bring out the best flavors in each. The wine shouldn't overpower the food, nor should the food overpower the wine. This delicate balance can be achieved by using either complementary or contrasting flavors.
Some pairs come naturally, like fresh seafood and lemon, or fresh sashimi and wasabi. The similar flavors work together to create a classic duo. When dealing with libations, complementary flavors similarly yield a symbiotic, balanced result. This strategy brings wines together with dishes that share similar notes, such as an earthy pinot noir and robust Chicken Marsala or Fontina Chop. The combination of tastes has a lot of synergy and smooth transition from food to drink.
Wine can also have a cleansing effect on your palate, and using contrasting flavors can make a meal very exciting. To create a good contrast, remember that opposites attract, and pair foods and wines that have divergent traits, such as a crisp sauvignon blanc and a fresh Grilled Grouper with a Lemon Butter sauce. The crisp acidity of the wine cuts through the creaminess of the sauce and gives a different, refreshing sensation for the palate. Another example of this contrast effect would be a sweet wine, like gewürztraminer with fiery Bang Bang Shrimp or Diablo Shrimp Fettuccine.
Several restaurants will even let you sample wines or explore half-pours to expand your oenophile experiences. Remember to have fun and experiment with your food and drink pairings to find your own personal preference. You may be surprised by the different flavors of food and wines that work well for your palate, creating a great experience every time.