I have a number of friends who will drink any wine with any food and the combination does not seem to matter to them, but then many of them are drinking for the alcohol effect, not the taste. Any many other friends know and can appreciate the basic and simple rule of ‘white wine with fish, red wine with meat’. However, there are a number of nuances the make a food eating and wine drinking experience even more pleasurable. There are certainly wide variances between the taste of different white grapes such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and so on. The same goes for various red grapes.
Wine tasters believe that the Sauvignon Blanc grape is the easiest to determine in a blind tasting and stands out as being the most different and distinguishable from other grapes. And it is a classic to go with fish, making it a safe bet for most fish. However, for a gamy, more solid fish such as swordfish, I find a good Pinot Noir is a perfect match, especially if the swordfish has a bit of light salsa or tomato sauce with it. Therefore, people may look at what you are eating and drinking and believe you have made the ultimate wine / food matching mistake in pairing a red wine with fish, but I can assure you that this is a most pleasant pairing!
The sauce (and amount) and the method of cooking (broiled, roasted, BBQ, steamed, etc.) also has a big impact on what wine goes best with a particular food. Even the difference between different styled wines from the same grape can make a huge difference. And the aging of the wine changes the wine greatly over time, so it is important to select the wine close to the optimal time for drinking it. You may find a white wine more acidic when young and more buttery and smooth when older.
While this may seem like a lot of effort to understand and rightly match food and wine, it really does make a great difference. Even if you do not understand it, you will usually recognize it and notice the difference in how good the food and wine tasted (even if you cannot describe it).
However, what I really want to focus on today is much easier to appreciate. A good first step to educating your palate is to just try different foods and taste them with your eyes closed and focus on what the flavor is telling you. Try to pick out how dry or sweet the food is, is it acidic?, or bitter and so on. This makes you more aware of the common taste characteristics of food.
Tonight I was a bit hungry, but it was a while until dinner, and my wife had an open bag of sour cream and chive potato chips. I had just poured a glass of a Cabernet Sauvignon. I grabbed a handful of the sour cream and chive potato chips, ate them and then took a sip of wine. I thought the flavours would be competing against each other and it would be a horrible match, but it worked far better than I thought.
Then I poured a glass of a Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend (I had both bottles open from a day or two before) and tried it with the sour cream and chives potato chips also. I would have expected this to be a better combination, but found out that was not the case as the Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blend was a bit acidic, and did not work well with the sour cream taste. Then I opened a few more bags of different potato chips and tried them with both wines.
Why do I suggest potato chips for this? Because it is a lot cheaper to open a few bags of potato chips than it is to used real honey-glazed ham, chicken, etc. Of course, you could always go the sliced meat route for another lesson.
By trying several different wines with several different flavors of potato chips, you can quickly educate your palate and zone in on grape and food flavor combinations you like and don’t like I will not tell you my findings of the various combinations of grapes to potato chip flavors to let you focus better and really learn more by tasting than reading. I would also suggest you do this in the company of friends and discuss your findings. You will be amazed at how quickly you will learn to identify tastes and combinations that work or not. And talking about it while doing the tasting is a great way to learn (and socialize!).
When doing this, I would suggest using Kettle or Red Rock brand potato chips as they tend to have more intense flavors than other brands, and also have a wide variety of flavors including sweet chili, peri peri chicken, caramelized onion, honey coated, etc. These wide contrasts can help you quickly zone in on categories of combinations that work – or don’t!
Let me know what combinations of flavors and wine grapes work for you! I am anxious to hear your feedback.