Approaching this subject is often painful and controversial as you have to battle habits, traditions and tastes. The easiest way to avoid this discussion is by saying that there are no rules. We don’t share this opinion because we often find that some wines are perfect with some dishes and are an awful pair with others. In fact, everyone should know some principles that that can turn a meal (and paired wines) into a more pleasurable event. The first concept to understand is the harmony between wine and food, which can be described as wines that respect aromas and flavours of food, or the opposite. The great Jean Cocteau once said in a much more poetic fashion that “harmony is the reconciliation of opposites and not the squashing of differences.” While this concept may sound fairly obvious, it’s not easy to put into practice as many Portuguese food habits are a living proof. One of these habits is eating ripened sheep cheese with a full-bodied red wine. This combination may sound good for most Portuguese, but is far from perfection. If you look closely, you find that the salt and spices of the cheese turn the wine bitterer, creating a rather unpleasant feeling in the end. If you replace the red wine with a smooth white wine and low in alcohol, the salt and spices of the cheese won’t make it so bitter and the end result will be much better. It’s worth trying it out. And there’s nothing better than red and white wines from the Dão region to do it.
The most important aspects to take into account about the harmony between wine and food are: weight, aromatic intensity, acidity and sugar in food and wine, salt in food and tannins in wine. We’ll now analyse all these elements. The weight, easily identifiable by most, should be balanced between food and wine. In other words, light dishes with light wines and heavy dishes with full-bodied wines. If you don’t follow this simple rule, the wine will “crush” the food or the other way around. However, the concept of “weight of food” doesn’t depend solely on the main ingredient. Let’s take the example of chicken. The way it’s cooked has influence in its weight. When boiled in salt and water, it becomes light, more fit for a diet than to be accompanied by wine. If you garnish it with a salad and season it with mayonnaise or cocktail sauce, the weight of the meal will increase and can now be accompanied with a light white wine, like a young wine from Bucelas. If it’s roasted in the oven or barbecued, it will be even heavier. And if you eat it with French fries, even more, begging for a dry rosé or even a light red wine. In a stew with bacon, onion and mushrooms, the weight of the meal increases once more and it should be paired with a good red wine from the regions of Estremadura or Ribatejo. A cabidela dish, typical of the region of Minho, with lots of vinegar, is perfect to be served with red vinho verde. And finally, if you eat stewed curry chicken with chilli, then you should forget the wine and grab a fire extinguisher. One with the shape of a cold beer. In a nutshell, the weight of a dish depends on the main ingredient, type of cooking, seasoning and garnish. The example of the chicken also shows that the misconception of pairing fish with white wine and meat with red wine makes little sense.
The aromatic intensity is another determinant factor on the harmony between wine and food. But in this case, it’s hard to establish a general rule. We already wrote about how aromatic spices increase the weight of a meal. But they also add to the aromatic intensity of a dish. Curry, for once, completely overturns the aromas and flavours of wines. When the aroma of an ingredient is not too intense, you should search for wines with similar aromas as it will balance both wine and food. The classic example is game accompanied by old wines. Their heavy aromas make it possible to tell apart notes of game, wet earth and mushrooms. But you should take caution when a wine is heavily aromatic as it can spoil the dish, or even worst, turn it cloying. Can you imagine eating a typical Portuguese dish with a white wine with a heavy muscat aroma?
The acidity in food is also very important when choosing wines. The rule of thumb here is that the wine should be more acid than the dish. And the reason is simple: when a dish is more or just as acid as the wine, the wine loses interest and acidity. This is the main reason why it’s not easy to find good wines to drink with marinated-like dishes as escabeche. On the other hand, when the wine is acid, the dish doesn’t need to be. In this case, the dish must be fatty. And this is why bacalhau à lagareiro (grilled codfish with baked potatoes) should be paired with an acid wine from the region of Dão, Bairrada or Extremadura, and not with a less acid wine (and with more alcohol) like the ones from Alentejo or Algarve.
Salt is another important element. There are many typical Portuguese snacks that are clearly salty: some sausages, olives, ripened cheese or raw shredded cod. In this case, we recommend light wines, with few intensity and acidity, like most white wines, palhetes or young red wines with notes of fruit. As the main function of salt is to increase flavours, if you select a full-bodied wine with an intense flavor this will be a bad choice, just like when we mentioned the ripened sheep cheese.
You should also be careful when selecting wines to pair with sweet desserts, as the wines have to be even sweeter. If you fail to respect this rule, the wine will lose its flavour as the mouth needs time to “recover” from the sweet of the dessert. This is why you should never eat chocolate mousse with wine. Only vintage or LBV port wine are sugary enough to keep the pace with cold mousse, but this combination is too heavy. The best choice to accompany mousse is fresh water. If you want a perfect combination, try crème brûlée with a Setúbal muscat or a 10 or 20 year old tawny port. Sweet wines can also be served with strong, salty or spicy kinds of cheese. As Jean Cocteau used to say, the secret is in the “reconciliation of opposites”, like pairing Roquefort cheese with vintage port. Slightly semi-sweet wines are a perfect combination to pair with fish or slightly sweet meat. This is the number one reason why many oriental dishes like sweet and sour pork or Peking duck are perfectly combined with Mateus Rosé or similar wines.
The tannins in wines are the main responsible for the astringency caused by plonk wines, and they are the last important factor. If a wine is too tannic, it shouldn’t be served with acid food or ingredients rich in proteins like fresh cheese, eggs, thin white fishes or ripened cheese as it will react with the proteins and become intensified by the acidity, causing unpleasant flavours. However, this should be no problem if served with fatty food like buttery sheep cheese or fatty fishes. Theses tannic wines, if they have a positive acidity (young red wines of Bairrada, Estremadura, Ribatejo, Beira Interior or Dão), are highly recommended to be served with strong fatty dishes as they opposite their heaviness.
If you never paid attention to the harmony between wine and food and read every paragraph, you are now ready to discover a brand new world. You just need to go from theory to practice. You’ll easily select wines to serve to your guests in no time. And better yet, you’ll find the wine list as exciting as the food menu.