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What Is A Good ‘Food Wine’ Anyway?

Posted on  | January 22, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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It’s only natural: As long as people have had questions about wine, people have had questions about what wines go with what foods. Perhaps as an exercise in verbal shorthand, wine professionals have come to define some wines as “food wines,” denoting that some types of wine are more tailored to enhance food than others.

With the proliferation of available wines in recent years, it makes sense to revisit the concept of wine and food pairing. The best “food wines”—whether the liquid is dry or sweet; still or sparkling; white, pink, orange or red—share certain characteristics:

  • Significant acidity
  • Tannin that is neither flabby nor astringent (for reds)
  • Reasonable and integrated alcohol
  • Pure flavors
  • No to moderate oak use

These attributes render wines more flexible with food pairings. Additionally, these factors must work together. Overall balance is a critical component. Over-use of oak is the number one disqualifier. A lavishly oaked Chardonnay or Sangiovese may make for interesting sipping, but often not for good food matching.

Furthermore, some wine styles may make good “food wines” but be fairly restricted in their pairings. Amarone for example, complements a raisiny dessert or a blue cheese, and that’s about it. Muscadet works with seafood like oysters, clams and sole. Period. The wines detailed below, while not exhaustive,  represent some of the most consistently successful “food wines,” highlighting not only their key characteristics, but also the rationale that makes specific pairings work.


Brut Champagne (France)
Best Food Wine Style: Light body, marked acidity, fine persistent bubbles, layers of complexity.
Aromas & Flavors: Yellow apples, red berries (when black grapes used), chalk, brioche, toasted hazelnuts.
Top Food Matches: Popcorn, baked oysters, smoked salmon, caviar.
Reliable Brands: Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Krug, Taittinger.
Why This Works: Ultimate “food wine,” given the double, palate-cleansing effects of racy acidity and CO2.

Dry Lambrusco  (Emilia-Romagna, Italy)
Best Food Wine Style: Purple-red in color, medium- to full-bodied, refreshing acidity, dry, faintly bitter, lightly tannic, exuberant and medium-sized bubbles, medium-low alcohol.
Aromas & Flavors: Forest berries, violets, pencil lead, roasted coffee beans.
Top Food Matches: Salumi, barbecue, duck terrine, mushroom pizza.
Reliable Brands: Cantina di Sorbara, Ceci, Lini 910, Medici Ermete.
Why This Works: Hearty and earthy in flavor, Lambrusco holds its own against rich, gamey foods with its vivacious acidity and refreshing bitterness.


Dry Riesling  (Alsace, France; Austria; Australia)
Best Food Wine Style: Medium- to full-bodied with an oily texture in Alsace and Austria with medium-plus to racy acidity. Light-bodied, searingly crisp and rather low alcohol in Australia.
Aromas & Flavors: Honeysuckle, chamomile, stone fruits and leesy notes in Alsace and Austria. Lime peel, grapefruit, peaches, shale and hay in Australia.
Top Food Matches: Alsace and Austria: baeckeoffe, choucroute garnie, spaetzle, pot roast and baked apples. Australia: sushi, shellfish, salad, Pan-Asian foods.
Reliable Brands: Hugel, Zind-Humbrecht; Hirsch, Brundlmayer; Grosset, Yalumba.
Why This Works: Alsatian and Austrian wines have the heft to match rich foods along with the high acidity to cleanse the palate. Australian wines work best with light, lean dishes. Dry Rieslings pair with all the foods sweet ones do and more. (Note: Currently trendy in Alsace to make off-dry wines; double-check if wine is dry or off-dry.)

Off-Dry Riesling  (Germany; Washington State)
Best Food Wine Style: Light-bodied, light sweetness balanced by crisp acidity
Aromas & Flavors: Peach, white flowers, citrus, petrol.
Top Food Matches: Spicy food, creamy cheese, pork sausage, butternut squash soup.
Reliable Brands: Dr. L, Nik Weis Urban; Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest.
Why This Works: High acidity allows Riesling to pair widely, from light to fairly rich foods, because it cleanses the palate. Its low alcohol is good for spicy food since it doesn’t spike the heat. Sweetness complements creamy dishes well.

Albariño (Rias-Baixas, Spain)
Best Food Wine Style: Mineral, medium-bodied with modest viscosity and bright acidity.
Aromas & Flavors: Apricots, apple peels, minerals, fresh herbs.
Top Food Matches: Crab cake, shrimp salad, glazed ham, double and triple crème cheese.
Reliable Brands: Burgans, Condes de Albarei, Martin Codax, Pazo de Señorans.
Why This Works: Albariño has a generosity of pit fruit aromatics that lend it to pairing with foods containing sweetness. Its viscosity also matches with moderately creamy foods.

Grüner Veltliner
(Niederösterreich & Wagram, Austria)
Best Food Wine Style: Light- to medium-bodied, chiseled acidity, no viscosity, taut mouthfeel.
Aromas & Flavors: White pepper, lentil, grapefruit, crushed rocks.
Top Food Matches: Wiener schnitzel, flakey fish, green bean salad, steamed artichokes.
Reliable Brands: Domäne Wachau, Grooner, Hirsch, Leth.
Why This Works: Grüner’s neutral fruit character helps it work with hard-to-pair veggies like asparagus, artichokes and fresh green beans.

Fumé Blanc / Sauvignon Blanc (Napa & Sonoma, California)
Best Food Wine Style: Medium-bodied, refreshing acidity, creamy mid-palate, light oak, supple fruit.
Aromas & Flavors: Citrus, passion fruit, honeysuckle, cut grass.
Top Food Matches: Grilled chicken, smoked trout, sushi, pasta primavera.
Reliable Brands: Chateau St. Jean, Dry Creek Vineyard, Frog’s Leap, Robert Mondavi, St. Supéry.
Why This Works: Faintly smoky (fumé means smoked), this style of Sauvignon Blanc works well with grilled & smoked foods. Pronounced acidity helps cut through heavier foods with cream sauces.

Online Bonus! ORANGE WINE

Pinot Grigio (Italy)
Best Food Wine Style: Hazy appearance, medium- to full-bodied, medium acidity; tugging tannins, broas palate.
Aromas & Flavors: Apples, ale, saffron, sherry vinegar.
Top Food Matches: Cider-braised pork, chicken with Calvados, roast rabbit with cinammon.
Reliable Brands: Gravner, Radikon, Vodopivec.
Why This Works: Pinot Grigio is a red-skinned grape that gives generous color when vinified with its skins. More “orange” color comes from aging the wines without sulfur protection, oxidizing the cuvée. Ale-like wines result & work well with medium-rich, savory dishes with hard spices.


Grenache Blends (Southern France & Provence)
Best Food Wine Style: Pale pink to deep salmon, medium-bodied with medium alcohol, bouyant acidity, no tannin.
Aromas & Flavors: Strawberries, watermelons, raspberries, garrigue, laurel leaf.
Top Food Matches: Pasta with tomato-based sauce, quiche, fatty fish, Indian curry.
Reliable Brands: Château d’Acqueria, Château d’Esclans, Château Minuty, Mas de Gourgonnier.
Why This Works: The perfect crossover between white and red, rosés are great for moderately weighty foods with a pepper spice component.


Pinot Noir (Burgundy, France; Willamette Valley, Oregon)
Best Food Wine Style: Medium- to full-bodied with pronounced acidity, smooth tannin and little to moderate glycerol.
Aromas & Flavors: Cherries, herbs, roses, forest floor.
Top Food Matches: Meaty fish, truffle risotto, pork roast, beef bourguignon, beet salad.
Reliable Brands: Joseph Drouhin, Marquis d’Angerville; A to Z, Willakenzie.
Why This Works: The ultimate red-for-food wine given its powdery, inobtrusive tannins and mouth-watering acidity. A vast array of delicate aromatics.

Cabernet Franc (Loire Valley, France)
Best Food Wine Style: Pale colored with brisk acidity, lean mouthfeel and lightly grainy tannins.
Aromas & Flavors: Soft-stemmed herbs, fresh-cut firewood, blueberries, plums, wild blackberries.
Top Food Matches: Fowl (pigeon, partridge, pheasant, Cornish hen), Portobello burgers, mole-marinated flank steak
Reliable Brands: Bernard Baudry, Catherine & Pierre Breton, Olga Raffault.
Why This Works: Loire Cabernet Franc shows a rusticity that seamlessly works with earthy or umami-heavy foods. Lifted acidity keeps the palate refreshed.

Online Bonus! Montepulciano (Abruzzo, Italy)
Best Food Wine Style: Generally unoaked, quaffing wine, soft acidity, supple tannins.
Aromas & Flavors: Red and black plum, damson, damp earth.
Top Food Matches: Rigatoni alla carbonara, eggplant rollantini, lasagne, wild boar ragu.
Reliable Brands: Dino Illuminati, Nicodemi, Quattro Mani, Umani Ronchi.
Why This Works: Montepulciano’s supple fruit makes it flexible with many mid-weight dishes, especially as its pleasant, acidic tension cleans the palate.


Chianti / Chianti Classico
(Tuscany, Italy)
Best Food Wine Style: Medium-bodied, bracing acidity, sandy tannins, well-structured mouthfeel.
Aromas & Flavors: Red cherry, fresh cranberry, underbrush.
Top Food Matches: Spaghetti à la Bolognese, baked cheese-stuffed shells, bistecca Fiorentina, pizza.
Reliable Brands: Antinori, Badia a Coltibuono, Castello di Ama, Fontodi.
Why This Works: Highly structured by acidity and tannins; the wines are so refreshing that they usually require food.

Tempranillo (Rioja, Spain)
Best Food Wine Style: Often pale in color and medium-bodied with balancing acidity, dusty tannins and a plush mid-palate.
Aromas & Flavors: Mulberries, strawberries, leather, tobacco leaves, dill.
Top Food Matches: Baby lamb, potato stew with chorizo, mushroom empañadas, Manchego cheese, lentil stew.
Reliable Brands: Baron de Ona, Marqués de Murrieta, Conde de Valdemar, Ostatu.
Why This Works: Often moderate in acidity and in body with gentle tannins, Rioja works broadly with succulent foods.

Online Bonus! Merlot Blends (Right Bank Bordeaux & Côtes de Bordeaux, France)
Best Food Wine Style: Medium-bodied with bright acidity, lightly gripping tannins and plump mid-palate.
Aromas & Flavors: Plum skin, mulberry, black cherry, dusty earth, Chinese tea, fresh herbs.
Top Food Matches: Côtelette de veau, coq au vin, veal Marsala, Alpine-style cheese.
Reliable Brands: Bellefont Belcier, Château Cantenac, Château de Sales, La Vieille Cure.
Why This Works: Merlot from Bordeaux takes a middle-of-the-road stance in body and in tannin, making it flexible with moderately weighty meat dishes.


Cabernet Sauvignon Blends  (Napa & Sonoma, California)
Best Food Wine Style: Full-bodied with mouth-filling fruit, high acidity & strapping tannins.
Aromas & Flavors: Blackberries, cassis, eucalyptus, bell pepper, cedar.
Top Food Matches: Prime rib, ribeye, beef chili, venison.
Reliable Brands: Beaulieu Vineyard, Clos du Val, Heitz, Jordan.
Why This Works: Cabernet Sauvignon has the brisk structure to clean the palate of dense and fatty foods. Its full-on flavor works best with robust food.

Mourvèdre / Monastrel (Bandol, France; Jumilla & Alicante, Spain)
Best Food Wine Style: Full-bodied with elevated alcohol, broad and sometimes aggressive tannins, sinewy texture in French wines and voluptuous texture in Spanish versions.
Aromas & Flavors: Full-bodied with elevated alcohol, broad and sometimes aggressive tannins; sinewy texture in French wines and voluptuous texture in Spanish versions.
Top Food Matches: Steak fajitas, braised short ribs, meatloaf, Peking duck (Spanish only).
Reliable Brands: Domaine Tempier, Château de Pibarnon; Bodegas Juan Gil, Primitivo Quiles.
Why This Works: This grape’s leather quality lends well to red meat pairings. French wines tend to show firm tannin, while Spanish wines are softer.

Online Bonus! Syrah (Northern Rhône Valley, France)
Best Food Wine Style: Full-bodied, generous alcohol, marked acidity, fine-grained tannins.
Aromas & Flavors: Blackberries, black plum, black olive, game, black pepper.
Top Food Matches: Venison, lamb shank, shawarma, beef stroganoff
Reliable Brands: Alain Graillot, Auguste Clape, E. Guigal, Jean-Michel Gerin.
Why This Works: Rhône Syrah’s “funky” notes allow it to match well against hung game and dry-aged beef. The well-etched tannins and pronounced acidity clean up the meat’s greasy qualities.


Madeira (Portugal)
Best Food Wine Style: Pale to deep brown in color, turbo-charged body, titillating acidity, pleasant sweetness, warm alcohol.
Aromas & Flavors: Toffee, sweet spice, toasted walnuts, malt, raisins, figs
Top Food Matches: Pecan pie, chocolate soufflé, blue cheese.
Reliable Brands: Barbeito, Blandy’s, Rare Wine Company.
Why This Works: Madeira’s high acidity provides refreshment for decadent desserts.

Tokaji (Hungary)
Best Food Wine Style: Deep gold, invigorating acidity, medium-plus body, unctuous sweetness.
Aromas & Flavors: Honey, marzipan, laurel leaf, tangerine zest, dried apricot
Top Food Matches: Foie gras, spice cake, fruit puddings.
Reliable Brands: Royal Tokaji Company, Chateau Pajzos.
Why This Works: Like Madeira, Tokaji’s pair-ability stems from its vibrant acidity that keeps sweetness from becoming cloying.


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