I recently had the good fortune to spend some time in Napa at a class at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). And even though I'm pregnant, I did my fair share of swirling and sniffing (and even a wee bit of sipping).
Wine is pretty easy to enjoy on its own. So is food. But for some reason, putting the two together can flummox people. I've taken wine seminars and classes before, but CIA's Sophisticated Palate program explained pairings to me in the most basic, easy-to-understand way.
First we took a look at the aroma wheel and did a sniff test of eight wines. Our task? Determine the main aroma in the wine simply by smelling it. I'd recommend trying it at home on a cold night with a bunch of friends. You can even turn it into a game—like we did—and make the losers wash the dishes. Good thing my team won!
Then Chef John Ash walked us through some typical pairings using the principle of similarity—pairing food with wine that has a similar flavor profile. Keep these tips in mind when dining out or cooking at home. I'll bet you'll impress the pants off all your guests.
Flavor profile: Flavors of fresh fruits like white peach, plus honey and a bit of spice
No-fail food pairing: Dried apricots bring out the subtle acidity in this wine, so try it with a dish of grilled pork with apricot chutney.
Flavor profile: Grassy, fresh, with lemony undertones
No-fail food pairing: Sauvignon Blanc is amazing with the tangy creaminess of goat cheese. It's ideal with a goat cheese tart, or a salad or pasta dish with goat cheese.
Chardonnay (if it's aged in oak barrels)
Flavor profile: Buttery, toasty, vanilla aromas
No-fail food pairing: Working off the nuttiness in chard, go for something like an almond- or pistachio-crusted fish. If you're dealing with an unoaked Chardonnay, you'll have a lot more flexibility with the food pairing.
Flavor profile: Spicy, peppery, blackberry, earthy flavors
No-fail food pairing: Nothing is earthier than a mushroom, which makes a mushroom risotto or mushroom pizza the perfect companion to a glass of Pinot. This wine is also fantastic when you're serving a cheese plate.
Flavor profile: Leathery, oaky, flavors of licorice, black cherries, and other dark fruits
No-fail food pairing: Cabernet has lots of tannins—the compounds that cause the dry and puckery feeling in your mouth—and acid, but the richness in the olives helps to temper that intensity. Try a big glass of Cab with pasta puttanesca or another richly flavored dish like eggplant Parmesan.
My top three wine and food-pairing tips
1. Chew with your mouth open. Miss Manners may not approve, but you can smell the flavors in food better.
2. Pair low-sodium food with low-tannin wine. The less salty your food is, the more the tannins in red wines will come out. Try a low-tannin red like Pinot Noir.
3. When in doubt, just pick up your glass and enjoy it!