5 Basic Pairing Concepts

5 simple guidelines for wine pairing this holiday season

We’re heading full steam into the holiday season, the time of year most people find themselves in front of seemingly endless shelves of wine wondering what to buy.

You know what you like, that’s not the problem, it’s trying to figure out what to bring to a dinner party or what to serve the in laws or friends who look up to you as the wine guy or gal.

Relax, it’s not all that difficult. Just remember some simple guidelines and you’ll be fine. The “art” of pairing wine and food has been totally overblown by the wine and food industry. It’s really not that hard, the guidelines you should remember are simply common sense. Remember these and get ready to rock your next party with wine pairing made simple.

Wine and Meat image via Shutterstock

Season it with citrus?

Whether it’s with seafood salad, tacos, or fish and chips, if you’re going to put citrus on your food to make it taste better, go with a high acid, high citrus wine. There are so many to choose from, it’s hard to narrow down the list. For something familiar and easy to find, there’s always Sauvignon Blanc with its snappy lemon/lime flavors and grassy undertones. Albarino from Spain blends citrus and peach flavors with more body than Sauvignon Blanc. Two less familiar wines, Assyrtiko from Greece and Muscadet from France, are all about citrus and refreshing mineral flavors. Take your pick!

Citrus image via Shutterstock

Light meat? It’s the preparation.

Chicken and pork tend to be mild, lean meats so you should look for a mild, lighter-bodied wine to pair with them. Sometimes chicken and pork can be quite assertively flavored, like in Chicken Mole or Chicken Curry. Spicy, peppery and deeply flavored, they would obliterate most mild, lighter-bodied wines. So what can we do?

Pair your wine with the preparation. Remember the basic rules:

-Pair texture, rich to rich and delicate to delicate.
-Pair the intensity of flavors.
-Look for flavors that can build a bridge between the wine and dish, like the green pepper flavors of Cabernet Franc with Mole or the spicy crunch of a black peppery Syrah.

Chicken and Pork image via Shutterstock

Speaking of Spicy...

Spicy dishes can be difficult to pair with wine as they tend to make tannic or oaky wines bitter. The key to taming the spice in a dish is moderate alcohol, good acid to wash away the oils that deliver the heat, and a touch of sweetness to help balance that heat. Riesling is a go-to wine for spicy dishes, and it does meet all these criteria, but off dry Chenin Blanc like Vouvray can work even better with its richer mouthfeel and more assertive flavors. Taking it one step further, you might explore some Alsace Pinot Gris, which often has a bit of residual sugar sweetening the wine along with rich and lightly spicy orchard fruit flavors. Yum!

On the flip side, if you have a spicy dish that calls for a red wine, many Zinfandel, Shiraz and Malbec wines have a bit of sweetness to them. Find a lighter-bodied style since you don’t want to have a tannin bomb wreck your pairing. Check the alcohol content of the wines and try to stay under 13.5 percent, or 14 percent in the case of Zin, which tends to produce alcoholic wines.


You’ll be hearing a lot about pairing wine with Turkey starting, well, probably weeks ago. Here goes 2 cents worth of advice. Don’t worry about the turkey, focus on the stuffing. Will it be spicy? Well, we just went through the simple pairing suggestions for spicy dishes.

Will it be herbal? Herbal stuffing loves herbal wines. Reach for an Oregon Pinot Noir or Loire Valley Cabernet Franc if you prefer a red wine. A rich Sauvignon Blanc from Pouilly Fume or a powerful Grüner Veltliner from Austria would be my choice. Keep the basic rules in mind and you’ll be fine.

Turkey image via Shutterstock

Rich Meats?

Rich meats need acidity and tannin to help combat the fat and intensity of flavor they bring to the table. In fact, rich meats are ideally suited for young red wines if they are particularly fatty, like skin-on duck breast or lamb chops, for example. In either case, a red wine with some tannin and good acidity is in order. A young Pinot Noir for the duck and Bordeaux for the lamb chops are both natural partners.

If you are having rich meats that are leaner, be on the lookout for a wine with some age on it. The mature wine will have softer tannins. The easiest route to take here is to opt for wines that have seen extensive barrel aging, such as Rioja’s Gran Reservas or Chianti’s Riservas. Both tend to be smoothed by barrel aging and offer a medium-bodied style with bright acidity, another tool to help balance the richness of a dish.

One thing to remember is that there are very few wine and food pairings that are truly bad, most work just fine. Stop worrying and make an educated guess based on these simple pairing guidelines. I’m sure you’ll do just fine!

Duck Breast image via Shutterstock


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Mentioned in this article


  • Gewurztraminer works well with indian curries and spicy dishes. We have also had good experiences with aromatic whites like viognier, albarino, colombard with prawn and white meat curries

    Nov 30, 2012 at 5:23 PM

  • Snooth User: Steve Mirsky
    1105166 232

    Great suggestions...would be most intrigued with pairing the Viognier!

    Dec 01, 2012 at 3:34 PM

  • not only Gewurztraminer, but also high acidity whites pair well with spicy foods

    Dec 03, 2012 at 12:25 AM

  • The most acidic white variety is riesling and that can work very well.
    Those ones that are a little disappointing as aperitifs on an empty stomach, because they are "off-dry" or "too grapy", work great with thai and vietnamese style spicy food.
    Another acid white is Txakoli (basque wine) and I know that goes with cod with garlic and chorizo, fish baked in cider with shallots and garlic, and when am i going back on holiday!.

    Dec 03, 2012 at 9:19 AM

  • Thanks William for the great advice. I am developing a great fondness for Rieslings, especially late harvest and ice wine. What is your favourite old world Riesling? I know Alsace has some great Rieslings, but I haven't really studied up on German wines or any of the regions. could you shed some light on the manner.

    Dec 03, 2012 at 11:52 PM

  • If you love these late harvest and ice wine styles your palate may be more advanced than mine. I started off liking the driest end of the spectrum (citric Alsaces with that telltale whiff of gasoline, or limey and tart Clare Valley and Polish Hill, but also Watervale and Margaret River Aussie Rieslings) and am moving towards the middle a bit these days (german)
    My current two favourites are dry, but have the extra grapeyness, and alcohol about 11.5% rather than 8 or 9. They are Theodorus Riesling 2008 (Pfalz region) and the Donnhoff 2011 (awaiting the 2011 for Christmas).
    I also liked the Mount Brown Riesling 2010 from New Zealand - it was definitely off dry and full of life in the mouth. Mount Brown has been a hit before.
    These are wines on sale here in UK< I dont know your location
    You will have great fun if you appreciate the botyritised styles too; Alsace is the obvious place. The top makers will have them in years when the fungus ggrows
    I liked late harvest gewurztraminers on holiday there, and these are more likely to be found on Paris Menus, as are l.h.jurancons from the South West (De-licious, and coteaux de layon, the latter great with apple pie or tarte tatin). Alsace wines are an underrated joy, consistent high standard across the makers like Leon Beyer, Zind Humbrecht, Trimbach, Zusslin and all the main families, and each vintage. Always good with Chinese food. Pinot Gris out there is special and unusually for a white can cope with lamb, and the dry whites all go with all the pork products, smoked food and hearty dishes like choucroute served localy.
    There are Grand Cru vineyards, usually called Clos-something, e.g Clos St. Hune. These command the highest prices and are celebrated wines. The drier ieslings also last for ages and become honeyed a few years down the line

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