Here's what to look for when choosing a 'food-friendly' wine

Pinot noir (left) is a good go-to for a variety of foods such as this modern-Asian spread from Chin Chin.
Pinot noir (left) is a good go-to for a variety of foods such as this modern-Asian spread from Chin Chin. Photo: Supplied

The language of wine can be poetic, perplexing or nonsensical – sometimes all at once. The oenoscenti extol their favourite vino in flowery verbiage that can leave more practical and sober people scratching their heads, thinking, "Elderberries? Nirvana? It's just fermented grape juice".

Some wine terms might seem self-evident, but their true meaning can be fraught with nuance and subjectivity. "Food-friendly" is a common description that should seem obvious, but what does it really mean?

We're told that wine is food, meant to be consumed with food. Nowadays, however, we often drink wines as cocktails, on their own, without thinking about what we eat alongside. Or we enjoy them as trophies, for the experience of tasting a rare, expensive wine that won a 100-point score from some critic or is available only to the lucky few on the winery mailing list. In these contexts, food doesn't matter. Wine is the star.

As cocktail and trophy wines became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of a "food wine" became a pejorative – a wine that didn't taste good on its own and needed food to compensate for its flaws. That's not what we mean today by describing a wine as "food-friendly".

Any good wine will be friendly – as in, pair well – with at least some foods. Cabernet sauvignon is a natural with steak, because tannin in a big red cuts through the thick fat on our palates. An oaky, buttery chardonnay is a classic with chicken in a cream sauce or buttered popcorn. And as the traditional "rules" of red with meat, white with fish have been debunked, if you prefer that chardy with your steak, go ahead.

A truly food-friendly wine plays nicely with a wide variety of foods, from sweet to savoury to spicy, from meat to fish to vegies – not a unicorn wine for a "perfect pairing" with a specific dish.

Chardonnay with this chicken with mustard cream sauce is a classic pairing.
Chardonnay with this chicken with mustard cream sauce is a classic pairing. Photo: William Meppem

"I've had A-plus perfect pairings, where every note in the wine and dish sync and amplify each other, but those are rare experiences, and I don't think they are the point most of the time," says Matt Stamp, a master sommelier who used to try to orchestrate such pairings at the French Laundry in California's Napa Valley wine region. Today, Stamp is co-owner of Compline, a casual restaurant, wine bar and retail shop.

"I think people would rather focus their attention on their dining companions, and allow food and wine to amplify their overall experience with others," Stamp says.

Two factors make wines versatile with food. The first is acidity. A wine with pronounced acidity (which is different from wine being sour) will cleanse your palate and leave you wanting more. A tart yet fruity rosé will cut through garlicky, briny and spicy dishes with equal aplomb.

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"Food-friendly wines are those that don't bulldoze the food," Stamp explains. "They tend to be thirst-quenching and they drive with acidity – a refreshing quality and brightness – instead of the weight and heat of alcohol," he says. "They can work well with a broad range of dishes because acid in wine gives life to the palate, much like a spritz of lemon gives life to a dish."

Along with rosé, riesling, pinot noir and barbera are wines noted for their acidity and versatility with food. This can result in surprising pairings. Beef braised in riesling is a traditional German dish, and pinot noir makes an exciting partner to sushi, roast chicken, pork or grilled salmon. When in doubt at home or in a restaurant, look for these types of wines for challenging food pairings.

Or go for bubbles, the second characteristic that defines food-friendly wines. As I'm fond of saying, bubbles go with everything. The effervescence of a sparkling wine effectively scrubs your mouth and readies you for the next bite of food or sip of wine. Sparkling wines also tend to be refreshingly acidic. We do ourselves an injustice by relegating champagne and other bubblies, such as Italian prosecco or Spanish cava, to celebratory toasts or pre-meal aperitifs.

Food-friendly wines are those that don't bulldoze the food.

"Champagne can be had throughout a meal, even with the right steak," says Nadine Brown, former sommelier at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington.

"Fried chicken and potato chips with grower champagne is hot right now," Brown says, referring to the ultimate high-low combo.

I usually don't agree with the "drink the wine you like with the food you like" school of thought, because it can be lazy. But if you pay attention to the wines you drink and the foods you pair them with, you'll develop your own corps of wine styles to draw on when wondering, "What on earth should I drink with this?".

And as Brown advises, "Stay curious". You might find something new and unexpected.

The Washington Post