It’s Valentine’s Day, and you know what that means: chocolate, fancy dinners and, of course, wine!
What’s that? You don’t know the first thing about wine? You rarely ever drink it? This just won’t do. Skimp on the wine for your candle-lit dinner and it’s game over, pal.
But don’t worry, we have your back. This crash course will blow through the basics of food-wine pairing and let you get back to planning for the big V.
First things first: Red and white
Even if you don’t know anything else about wine, you probably know that wine comes in two colours: Red and white. (There is also rosé, but time is short and let’s not get into the weeds.)
Red wine is made using more of the grape, including the skin and even, sometimes, bits of stem. It has a much richer taste. It’s more acidic and tannic (a tart taste caused by the presence of tannins. But again, let’s stay focused here.)
White wine is made without the skins, and sometimes only the grape juice. It usually has lighter, subtler flavours than red.
Here are a few basic white wines you’ll see on any shelf or menu:
- Sauvignon blanc
- Pinot gris
- White port
And a few basic reds:
Sweet and dry
The next two flavour variables to know if you’re scrambling for the big day are sweet and dry.
(There are a lot of other ways to describe wine flavour, but let’s keep it moving.)
Sweet wine is, well, just what it sounds like. It’s often fruity and usually more palatable for people who haven’t acquired much of a taste for hard beverages. Dry wine is less sweet and more tart and alcoholic-tasting because it was made using low-sugar grape varieties and/or in such a way that consumes more of the grape’s sugar. (But bear in mind: Dry wine doesn’t necessarily have more alcohol content than sweet wine.)
Both red and white wines can be more dry or more sweet.
Some basic whites, from dry to sweet:
- Sauvignon blanc (very dry)
- Pinot gris (dry)
- Chardonnay (dry)
- Riesling (dry-ish)
- Moscato (sweet)
- White Port (very sweet)
And some basic reds, from dry to sweet:
- Chianti (very dry)
- Bordeaux (very dry)
- Cabernet (dry)
- Merlot (dry-ish)
- Shiraz (sweet)
- Port (very sweet)
Here is a more detailed wine sweetness/dryness chart from Wine Folly.
Now for the food
Wine and food pairing is all about enhancing both the food and the wine, bringing out the best of all flavours involved. Rich foods with a strong flavour might overpower a subtle white wine, and hearty, sweet red wine might demolish lighter, more delicate foods.
Two VERY ROUGH rules of thumb:
- Pair white wine with rich, fatty foods, and red wine with light, lean foods
- Pair dry wine with bitter and crisp flavours, and sweet wine with sweet, salty flavours
Some foods you might want to pair with white wine:
- Light cheese
- Pasta with light sauce
Some foods you might want to pair with red wine:
- Sharp cheese
- Pasta with tomato-based sauce
- Chicken (yes, chicken is listed for both. Chicken doesn’t know what it wants.)
Desserts are usually paired with sweet red wine, although chocolate, which can be rather bitter at times, is a bit of a wild card. But since it’s only a few days before the big night, play it safe and choose a bottle of red with dessert.
This is all far too simple. Sometimes a light red goes best with shellfish or a sweet white with stuffed portobellos. But it should give you a rough idea.
Restaurant pro tip: Make a few guesses, then let the server decide
You’ve decided to go out for the big date, but then disaster strikes: the wine list is a kilometre long. Don’t panic. Once you know what dishes you’ll be ordering, use our rough guide to make a few educated guesses, including one merlot – a versatile red that goes with a lot of food.
Then when the server arrives, tap into your inner sommelier. Say: “Is this merlot very dry? Ok. Then would you recommend the merlot, [wine option 2] or [wine option 3]?”
Voila! Not only have you given your date the illusion that you understand wine, but (provided the server knows the wine list) you’ve ensured a decent wine for the meal.
Stay-at-home pro tip: Fake it ‘till you make it
The power of suggestion is very real, especially for wine tasting. Even if you’re totally unsure of your wine selection for your home-cooked meal, convincing your date of your total confidence can actually make the wine taste better.
How do you pull this off?
- Practise uncorking ahead of time on some cheap bottles so you don’t look like a klutz
- On the night, uncork the wine, pour yourself a tiny amount, and sniff it a bit
- Taste it, nod approvingly, then pour a glass for your date
- Ask, “What do you think of this red/white?”
- Agree with whatever your date says