Matching wine with food

I know a leading chef – he's scored a hat or two – who has a very simple philosophy when it comes to matching food and wine: everything goes with pinot noir.

He's almost right. Burgundy's famous grape is pretty versatile and stands up well against a wide variety of food styles. It's a good red to drink with fish and, most famously, takes to duck like Ricky Ponting to any ball short of a length.

The point is Chef likes pinot, so he drinks it come what may. When it comes to matching wines with food, there really aren't any hard and fast rules about what's "right" – forget the old whites with white meat and reds with red meat rule; it doesn't always work.

Fat, oaky Aussie chardonnays can be too big, while French Beaujolais, Italian Valpolicella and some fruity pinots are simply too light.

My view, much like that of Chef, is that, first and foremost, it comes down to personal taste.

While New Zealand sauvignon blanc is staggeringly popular, my view is it's best used as a bathroom cleaner.

And when you hear buffs pontificating about a “food wine”, it's code for “I wouldn't drink that on its own.”

Keep it in mind, because chances are you'll drink most of the bottle without food, so pick a drop you'd happily knock off before dinner. That way, even if it's not a marriage made in heaven when the meal is served, you'll still be having a great time with the wine.

Aside from that, trust your gut feel and go with what you fancy.

In recent weeks, I've had a couple a fascinating insights into just how versatile the drinking choices can be, starting with a revelatory 15-course dinner with matching Japanese sakes (rice wine). Then came a seven-course meal matched with malt scotch whiskies. Imagine scallops with sesame and pickled ginger accompanied by a fruity and floral Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX whisky. It was superb.

Both meals were revelations about what's possible with a little imagination.

I've had meals drinking nothing but champagne too. So if you want to drink Penfolds Grange with a Thai curry, do it and to hell with anyone who tries to say no. (And a big alcohol red might work well with the spice, but more on that later.)

Does matching food and wine matter? Well, when you nail it, it creates wonderful new flavour harmonies and brings out hidden components in both the food and the wine.

Sometimes it brings out what the Japanese call umami – the fifth “meaty” taste (after salty, sweet, bitter and sour).

The first thing to decide when looking for matches is whether you want to contrast or complement the food. Sweet wines go well with sweet foods – for example the richness of foie gras and sauternes – but a sweet wine can also work well with something salty to balance the palate.

What sommeliers look for now in a match is what they call weight. It starts with lighter styles such as Italian soave and sauvignon blanc, ending with full-bodied heavy hitters such as cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.

The common thread to classic pairings, such as champagne with caviar, duck with pinot noir, and lamb with cabernet sauvignon, is that, like a couple of prize fighters, they're in the same weight division. Got a big, hearty dish? Call in the shiraz big guns. Light, delicate entree? How about a dainty, zesty young Hunter semillon? The fun part is experimenting and discovering something new. If the lamb has a little spice, look for a spicier wine. If you've thrown a few chops on the barbie, try an Italian Chianti.

Now let's consider a few curve balls.

The unmatchables


Many believe it's the grim reaper for wine. Lush, full-bodied wines tend to taste metallic. Tannins (found in reds) react like fingernails down a blackboard. Too much alcohol (a lot of Aussie wines are guilty here) and you're heading for the divorce courts. Try an aromatic wine with good acidity, such as sauvignon blanc, riesling or pinot grigio.

Chilli and spice

I'm a big fan of rose with spicy foods such as Thai and Sichuanese. You're looking for acidity and sweetness to mollify the heat and a lot of Australian roses are made in that style. Avoid French rose, since it tends to be drier.

Try aromatic, lighter, low alcohol white wines, especially gewurztraminer, riesling or pinot gris. Sweeter reds can work well too, such as a fruity Kiwi pinot noir. If the dish is rich and spicy, surprise, surprise, shiraz works well, because the wine's inherent spice notes are a good complement. Consider merlot and grenache too, but be wary of too much tannin (it's the stuff from the grape skins that makes the wine age well but, when you drink it, makes your mouth pucker).


Watch out for any dish splashed with lots of vinegar – salads are tricky. It gets along with wine about as well as an ex mother-in-law. Head for the beer fridge.


I mention it because tannic and high alcohol wines react with salt like Barry Hall when niggled, so don't go young cabernet with duck confit. Contrast can be good with salt, so consider wines with a little sweetness, such as chenin blanc and German-style riesling.

Think outside the box

When you're deciding what to drink, consider the setting, occasion and company. If it's a sunny afternoon lunch, lighter, crisp and acidic whites are better suited than big, high alcohol reds, unless a long siesta is part of the plan. But it doesn't have to be wine, either.

Sometimes beer does the job well. Explore the wide range of Belgian beer styles – some rich and meaty, others floral and feminine. Even Australian brewers are getting in on the act with wheat and honey beers, pale ales, porters and stouts.

Sherry is enjoying renewed interest, especially as an aperitif, but it also goes well with food, especially Spanish tapas. Consider a dry (fino) sherry with soups, a medium style oloroso with beef and pastry (sausage roll anyone?) and sweet Pedro Ximenez with chocolate desserts.

As I mentioned earlier, consider sake if you really want to have some fun and do something different. Pair it with lighter style foods.

One final small piece of advice: if you're going to serve a cracker wine you want everyone to appreciate, keep the food simple. If the food is complex, it ends up shouting for attention, too, and can drown out the wine. That's the philosophy behind Rockpool Bar & Grill, where there's a 3500-bin wine list that includes great French wines costing tens of thousands of dollars. I doubt I'll be trying any of those soon, but it's fun looking at the list and wondering what would go best with roast chook.