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30 June 2020

Matching food and wine: The A-Z of wine pairings

From spag bol to curry, barbecue food to desserts, discover the best wine pairing for your food favourites
By Rebecca Marcus

Wine expert Kathryn McWhirter has been writing about food and wine matching for decades. She shares some of her A-Z of the perfect pairing for popular foods with us…

Baked beans

On toast or potato with lashings of butter they are magical with an inexpensive off-dry German riesling.

Fresh berries

Strawberries

Strawberries, sugar and cream taste wondrous with sauternes and sweet semillons, also with very sweet riesling.

And the rest

Sweet riesling or muscat go best with raspberries, blackcurrants and blackberries.

Beef

Beef is brilliant with wines from the gamay grape, such as beaujolais (beef doesn’t need a massive, beefy wine) as well as malbec, the touriga nacional grape of Portugal, southern Italian primitivo or red zinfandel. Horseradish sauces all make wines taste flat.

Learn how to cook roast beef with our expert advice

Cheese

We think of cheese as a red wine thing, but there are actually more excellent matches with white wines. Cheeses are so different. And wine is picky. 

Emmental

Socially distances itself from wines.

Gruyère

Will get up close and personal with riesling, red rioja, tempranillo, montepulciano d’abruzzo, red bordeaux, beaujolais  

Cheddar

Try chardonnay, sauvignon or semillon or a blend from those, or touriga nacional or a douro blend from Portugal, or pinot noir. 

Mozzarella

Melted on pizza, mozzarella is yummy with dolcetto (red, Italian) and with sauvignon blanc.

Discover what our tasters named the best frozen pizza.

Chicken

Chicken is easy with lots of wines, but it’s super-fond of frascati, merlot and the sangiovese grape of Italy (the main variety in chianti).

Chilli

Chilli doesn’t interfere too much with wine, but maybe this is not the time to open your finest bottle. Choosing an ideal wine may be difficult if you are dipping into a variety of dishes. And sweetness may interfere.

Chilli con carne

Chilli con carne, with or without cumin, is great with beaujolais and valpolicella, and Portuguese bairrada.

Chinese food

It’s hard to generalise about Chinese cooking, but red wines may taste tougher than they really are, dry whites may taste flat. Inexpensive off-dry German wines may cope best.

Chocolate

Chocolate likes sweet muscat and port of all kinds.

Coffee

All sorts of sweet wines go well with the flavour of coffee, but muscat and sauternes (and other semillons) are dreamy.

Find out the best Nespresso-compatible coffee pods

Cottage pie

Make a cottage pie with beef and the best wines could be gamay (perhaps from beaujolais), côtes-du-rhône or other southern French red.

Creamy or egg-based sauce

Both are best with white wines. They make red wines taste bitter. 

Eggs

Eggs are not easy with wine. Reds and rosés make a bitter clash. Among whites, there’s something about the flavour of un-oaky chardonnay that makes it a really good foil for the flavour of eggs. Try adding basil, another of chardonnay’s best mates. 

Gazpacho

On a hot summer’s lockdown day, try sancerre or other sauvignons with a green pepper gazpacho, or go all Spanish with a bottle of verdejo or rueda.

Indian food

There could also be sweetness in that Indian/Bangladeshi take-away, and a wine-challenging array of simultaneous dishes. But the spices find good wine partners, as do ginger, onion and garlic. 

Many Indian dishes over-emphasise the tannin (bitterness, astringency) of red wines. Rosés can work, but best may be aromatic whites. Try viognier or sauvignon blanc, or if you’d really like a red, a light one from the Loire Valley, especially from the cabernet franc grape.

Ketchup

If your wine choice trumps your craving for ketchup, best to avoid the ketchup altogether, along with other sweetish, vinegary sauces: brown, tartare, chutney, BBQ, sweet chilli dipping sauce…

Find out which our tasters preferred to find the best ketchup.

Horseradish, wasabi and smooth, yellow English mustard likewise make wines taste flat and boring.

Lamb

Loves red grapes – garnacha and tempranillo, perhaps from rioja, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (red bordeaux blends of these grapes too)… But mint sauce makes the wine taste flat.

Lasagne

The milky sauce of lasagne makes it harder to partner perfectly, but it should be pretty good with barbera or shiraz.

Lemon 

In sweet dishes, it goes with sweet muscat and Hungarian tokaji. In dry dishes, lemon zest can really enhance the flavour of loads of white wines. It’s especially great with riesling, dry muscat, gewürztraminer, sauvignon and picpoul.

Lime

Pair sweet dishes with riesling. In savoury dishes, lime zest tastes wondrous with muscadet, riesling, chenin blanc and gavi.

Mustard

Dijon and wholegrain mustards are friendlier to both red and white wines. Dijon mustard can magically make a tough red wine taste softer.

Orange

Enjoy desserts with sweet Muscat. Orange zest in savoury dishes links to pinot grigio or pinot gris, dry muscat, riesling, rueda, gewürztraminer…

Pasta sauce

With a fresh tomato sauce, perhaps on pasta, try sauvignon blanc, or add some chopped peppers and switch to gewürztraminer.

Peppers

Sweet peppers partner certain wines to perfection, both red and white. You can add peppers, cooked or uncooked, to wow your household with your wine-matching skills. 

Peppers of all colours are a stunning match with (in whites) gewürztraminer, dry muscat and alvarinho/albariño, and red peppers are yummy with shiraz or beaujolais.

Pesto

Pesto loves Chardonnay or pinot grigio.

Pork

A promiscuous meat that goes with so many wines. Beaujolais is brilliant, and syrah, shiraz and pinot noir are great, or an alentejo red from Portugal, or chablis for a white. Apple sauce won’t help the wine, unless you switch to German riesling.

Salad dressing

Salad dressing works with wine so long as the dressing is not too acidic – add extra oil, or choose a sharper wine such as vinho verde or muscadet.

Find out the best olive oil as rated by our experts

Sausages

Sausages like the same wines as their meat, but herbs and spices will make all the difference. If flavoured with sage, go for sauvignon blanc or syrah/shiraz. 

Wondering what to drink with toad-in-the-hole? What flavour are your toads? Cumberland likes pinot noir. Pork and herb and pork and leek like carmenère. Toulouse goes for South African pinotage or Spanish rueda.

Shepherd’s pie

Make shepherd’s pie with lamb mince, and the answer could be merlot, or inexpensive bordeaux. 

Soy sauce

Soy makes little difference to the taste of wines, although like other salty foods it matches well with wines with higher acidity.

Spaghetti bolognese

Spag bol is also an easy one with plenty of red wines – you might try primitivo or its American cousin zinfandel, shiraz/syrah, maybe barbera from Italy or Argentina.

Thai food

Thai food may have high acid, some sweetness, super-charged chilli, fish sauce, ginger, and a delicious complexity of herbs and spices. Except for the sweetest dishes, sauvingon blancs cope with many Thai dishes, or off-dry Riesling or pinot gris/pinot grigio.

Tinned fish

Sardines 

Sardine Saturdays have become a feature of our family lockdown: sardines in olive oil mashed with chopped parsley, lemon zest, capers and a bit of caper juice, spread on crispbread – so far starring with alvarinho/albariño or godello grapes from Northern Portugal and Spain.

Smoked oysters

Ah, those tins squirrelled away from near-empty March 2020 shelves. Even curious ones were selling out, such as smoked oysters, delicious as an evening nibble with chilled fino sherry.

Tinned tuna

Bright, salty tinned tuna is better with white wine – try sauvignon blanc or un-oaked white rioja, but in a risotto or bake, think about the other flavours too, herbs or spices. 

Tiramisu

Moscatel de Valencia

Tuna (fresh)

Tuna when fresh is a surprising red wine fish.

Veg (also salad)

Vegetables often have a touch of natural sweetness, especially root vegetables. They can go well with wines with a similar hint of sweetness – think inexpensive vinho verde or German riesling. 

Whites tend to go better than reds, indeed some vegetables make red wines taste extra bitter… celery and spinach among others. 

Vegetable lasagne 

Try picpoul de pinet or chianti. 

Find out the Best vegan wines as rated by our expert judges

What are the top five tips for perfect wine pairing?

1. Match the biggest flavour(s) in a dish

That’s likely to be herbs, spices, tomatoes, garlic, ginger or vegetables rather than any fish or meat. At very least, herbs and spices could skew the ideal wine.

2. Be led by the grapes

If New Zealand sauvignon blanc tastes wonderful with dill or sage, so will other sauvignons, such as sancerre. You might also try similar-tasting grapes, like verdejo from Spain or bacchus from England

3. Match sweetness

Try this at home: think about the taste of your dry white or red and then try that wine with dessert. The wine will taste dull and fruitless. It’s best to match the sweetness of food and wine. Ideally, don’t drink your poshest wine with sweet and sour sauce.

4. Acidity matters

If your dish contains sharp elements such as lemon or lime juice, tomato or vinegar, then a zingy wine with good acidity will taste better alongside it, while rounder, softer wines may taste flabby. A wine with higher acidity can also cut through the fattiness of a dish, like vinegar through fish and chips. A wine may have higher acid because it comes from cooler places by the sea, or high in hills or mountains.

5. Don’t overpower

Big flavours overpower tiny flavours.