WINE PAIRING 101
So the dining room is packed, your manager is nowhere to be seen and your section is suddenly full of people squinting at their wine lists, looking confused. They all want to know – what bottle do you recommend if they’re having the halibut? Or the aubergine? A little glass of what with their dessert? If you’re not super confident about your wine knowledge yet, this is the kind of question that can really bring you out in a sweat – the world of wine can seem scary, full of rules and weird tasting notes. But fear not! The brilliant Rebecca of Kinsbrook, fresh from her Code 30 under 30 award, has put together a cheat sheet to keep in your back pocket over the crazy festive season – and far beyond. It’s aimed at giving you a little knowledge to build your confidence, allow you to trust your instinct and, in Rebecca’s words, “back yourself”!
- While there are certain universal flavours that dictate traditional tasting profiles, wine tasting is often subjective and entirely personal – trust your instincts.
- There’s a variety of quality, sparkling wines for all budgets which pair beautifully with fatty, creamy foods and salty profiles.
- White wines range from dry to sweet; consider pairing based on similar characteristics in foods, or pairing with foods and dishes from the same region.
- The acidity in rosés make it optimal for pairing with fatty and salty dishes. Light rosés are great with seafoods and salads, while fuller-bodied ones go well with grilled pork.
- Natural orange wines have unique flavour profiles that go well with foods boasting a touch of sweetness to counteract the astringency.
- Medium to full-bodied reds go wonderfully with red meat, their tannins helping to break down proteins to make the meat more digestible.
- With tartares or carpaccios, opt for less punchy, silkier reds – and for more fragrant meats like duck or lamb, go for lighter, fruitier ones.
- Consider the sweetness level of your dessert when pairing with a sweet wine – and go for a fortified wine or sparkling red to stand up to a chocolate dessert.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge peoples’ perceptions about pairings!
Let’s face it, the prospect of wine pairing can be daunting, and there’s often significant pressure to make that ‘perfect match’. When running tastings at Kinsbrook, we always encourage guests to shout out whatever they think they are getting from a wine, as ultimately there is no wrong answer if you’re partial to a certain combo – wine tasting is subjective and personal, and I believe it should stay that way.
The tricky part comes when recommending wine to other people, because you have to take their personal tastes into consideration as well as your own, which can be a minefield if you don’t feel confident in your wine knowledge… But fear not – here are some simple rules of thumb to help you along the way!
The sparkling category is very close to my heart. Sparkling wine is often pigeon-holed as a special occasion drink only, in part due to its price point, but also due to its associations with luxury and celebration. However, it’s extremely versatile and can be paired with all kinds of dishes from canapés to desserts and everything in between. It also doesn’t always have to be super pricey; many establishments now list great alternatives to Champagne, such as Crémant, or the increasingly popular natural sparkling Pet Nat. Both these wines will have similar flavour profiles to traditional method sparkling, but without the price tag.
Sure, sparkling wine goes well with fancy foodstuffs such as oysters (the saline quality of the oysters brings out any fruity notes in the wine) but it also pairs remarkably well with naughty, fried things high in fat content. As an example, we like to pair our own KIN Sparkling White, which is a dry traditional method white, with loaded fries on the terrace throughout the Summer months. The lightness of the bubbles and the high acid content works well with the salty, fattiness of the fried food…it goes very well with fried chicken, too! A Brut Sparkling Rosé works well with a creamy, fruity dessert such as a Pavlova – the flavours of red fruits in the wine will accentuate the berry flavours in the dessert and the high acid content will cut through the cream nicely. But let’s not neglect the sweeter sparkling varieties when talking about sparkling pairing; there’s nothing quite like a Demi-Sec with smoked salmon and cream cheese on Christmas morning.
In essence, when thinking about pairing a sparkling wine try to come back to the flavour of the wine itself rather than worrying about its status or price point; sparkling wines are usually high acid, light and bubbly, creating a unique sensation on the tongue. This means they work well with foods that will counterbalance those qualities – creamy profiles, smooth textures, and salty flavours work fantastically.
Whites: a versatile category
White wines are usually categorised on a spectrum from ‘dry’ to ‘sweet’, with a dry variety such as a Sauvignon Blanc at one end and a super sweet dessert wine such as a Hungarian Tokaij at the other. The grape variety itself, coupled with its ripeness at harvest, is what determines where a wine sits on this scale. On top of that, you sometimes have to consider secondary tasting notes which come about as a result of certain winemaking techniques applied, such as oaking or malolactic fermentation (usually used in Chardonnay production to convert malic acid to lactic acid, giving the wine a buttery smooth finish).
When thinking about pairing a white wine with a dish, first consider the flavour profile of the food and then of the wine. You want to look for similar characteristics in both that will compliment each other. For example, pair a light, zingy tomato salad with an equally bright, crisp white wine such as a Vermentino. If you have a heavier, creamier dish, look for a white wine that is slightly fuller in body but still retaining that high acidity. An oaked Californian Chardonnay will work well with anything that accentuates its toasted, buttery quality – a rich fish dish in a Beurre Blanc, or Comté cheese.
You can also think about pairing wines with foods from the same country or region! A creamy, nutty pasta dish such as Cacio e Pepe works well with a medium bodied white such as a Pecorino, where the wine will lift the food and the food won’t overpower the wine. Spicy food, particularly with Thai or Asian flavour profiles, is well matched with high acid, low-alcohol white wines. Steer clear of anything with a high ABV (12.5% or above) as the alcohol will fuel the fierceness of the chilli. Your guests probably won’t thank you for that!
When thinking about dessert pairings, remember that aromatic whites work well with aromatic foods, so try a Riesling with a lemon tart or try a Bacchus with elderflower sorbet.
Orange and rose wines both bridge the gap between white and red, but they are very different!
Rosé (or ‘rose’ wine, as we call our own Kinsbrook wine – we are English after all!) is usually a favourite during the Summer months – think those light, pale rosés typically found in Provence. Ask yourself, what would you like to eat in the Summer, with a cold glass of this in your hand? The freshness and lightness of this wine means it’s great with similarly profiled foods like seafood or salads. Like with whites, the acidity of a rosé means it can also be paired with fatty foods like chips and aioli. The rose wine we produce in England is usually slightly fuller-bodied and richer, so it can carry slightly heavier dishes including light meats. We’ve paired our Pinot Noir Rose with grilled pork at a supper club before and it’s a match made in heaven.
Orange can be challenging, not just because people tend to be less familiar with it, but because natural wines tend to have quite different flavour profiles than traditional ones. When trying to pair an orange wine, you’re not really looking for foods to accentuate fruity qualities, because that’s not really what orange wine is about. These wines tend to have an oxidised, almost medicinal quality from extended skin contact – they’re thus great paired with a caramelised onion tart whose sweetness can counteract this astringency, or desserts containing marmalade or burnt caramel.
Red wines are really well-suited to pairing with food. It’s often hard to drink a heavy-bodied, tannic Cabernet Franc on its own, but paired with perfectly cooked steak it’s about as good as it gets! Did you know that the tannins in red wine help to tenderise the proteins in red meat, opening up the flavours and making it easier to digest? If you’re unsure how to know whether a wine is tannic or not, think about whether it’s causing that ‘grippy’, drying sensation on your tongue – tannins are the compounds responsible.
If someone asks you to recommend a red meat pairing, you’re in luck – there’s such a broad spectrum of red wines that work well. Anything medium to full bodied with some oaking is a pretty safe bet – I love a good, full-bodied and structured Ribera Del Duero with a steak. When it comes to raw meats like steak tartare or carpaccio, try pairing a slightly less punchy, silky-smooth red with some gentle oaking like an Oregon Pinot Noir, where the delicate flavours in the wine will match the delicacy of the dish. Lamb or duck dishes are slightly lighter and more fragrant so they’ll work well with equally lighter, fruitier wines like a Sangiovese or a Grenache, both of which won’t overwhelm the dish and have a touch of sweetness to accentuate the more subtle aromas in the meat.
When pairing reds, try not to get into your head too much. Just back yourself! But because this is such a broad and versatile category, it’s not all about the meat – and it’s often fun to challenge people’s perceptions about pairings! A Nebbiolo – which isn’t super heavy due to being fermented in steel tanks and with a shorter maceration period – pairs fantastically with fish, a tomato pasta dish, or a truffle pizza. In this vein, umami flavours in food work better with lighter, fruitier reds to balance the heavy earthiness – a Fleurie or Beaujolais Nouveau works well with a Ramen.
A general misconception is that the best wine to drink with a cheeseboard is a robust red. Whilst a tannic red wine such as an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon is well-suited to an aged hard cheese such as a mature Cheddar, it will completely overwhelm a more subtle, soft cheese. Instead, opt for a sweet wine: you can’t go far wrong with a Monbazillac, very similar to a Sauternes but without the price tag and gorgeously smooth, full-bodied and fragrant.
You may have heard that dessert wines should always be paired with sweet desserts – whilst they are a suitable match, you have to carefully consider the sweetness level of the dessert and check it against the wine. If the dessert dish is sweeter than the wine, it can flatten the flavour of the wine or cancel it out altogether.
Be careful with chocolatey desserts as they mute the flavour of most wines; opt for a fortified wine such as a port, a red dessert wine made with Syrah or Grenache, or if you’re feeling adventurous, why not a sparkling red? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
There are universal flavonoids in wine that dictate traditional tasting profiles, such as ‘leather’ or ‘vanilla’ in an aged, heavily oaked red, or ‘elderflower’ and ‘citrus’ in an aromatic white. These are the most commonly known tasting notes, but beyond that there’s a wide spectrum of flavours to explore. At Kinsbrook we always try to pick out more unusual, quirky tasting notes in our own wines, such as parma violets, sour cherry, or pineapple – this helps bring a wine to life and makes it stand out from the crowd.
The greatest food and wine pairings of all time have been discovered via trial and error… someone had to do it first, right? Often, it’s just about simplicity; if you think a wine makes sense with a food, that’s because it probably does. Don’t be afraid to trust your instinct and get creative!
Rebecca Dancer (29) and her partner Joe Beckett (30) are the youngest English vineyard owners in the UK, having founded progressive West Sussex vineyard Kinsbrook in 2019. Set in the heart of England’s most influential wine making area, Kinsbrook’s creative, low intervention approach has resulted in a range of hand-crafted wines which goes from strength to strength. The couple have recently launched ‘Kinsbrook Farmhouse’ – a split-level farmhouse building within the vineyard’s grounds, boasting stunning panoramic views of the vineyard estate and sprawling West Sussex countryside and hosting a farm shop, cafe and restaurant where they are able to manifest their deep love of great food, great wine and great hospitality.