Confused about pairing wine and food? The CIA Wines instructors, Professors Michael Weiss and Steven Kolpan, have developed a streamlined chart for comparing the intensities of the most commonly found wine varietals. It’s called the “Tower of Power” and helps to “match the power of food with the structural intensity of wine”.
Reds are on the left, whites on the right. Obviously the most full bodied white wine could only ever be as powerful as the lightest red (due to tannins in the reds), thus the staggered positioning. In general, the cooler the climate, the lighter and more acidic the wine. Hotter ripening conditions result in riper, sweeter grapes, which translates into lower acid, higher alcohol, and a fuller body.
Of course the vintner doesn’t leave it all up to the grape – the winemaking process plays a huge role in the final outcome of the wine.
Chilling the vat halts fermentation, resulting in lower alcohol wines that are semi-dry to sweet (usually Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc; sometimes Muscat). Wine can undergo malolactic fermentation (harsher malic acid converts to lactic acid, producing a creamy, smooth wine – all reds go through this to some degree, some whites do), or carbonic maceration (whole grapes ferment internally, producing very low-tannin wines meant for immediate consumption – Beaujolais noveau). I’m only touching the surface here – the possibilities are endless!
Back to food pairing. Low intensity wines should be paired with low intensity foods; high intensity with high. Foods are low intensity when they are low in fat, mild in flavor, and not salty, sweet, smoky, or spicy. Think light seafood dishes – ceviche, delicate poached fish. Fatty, rich, flavorful foods should be matched with powerful red wines. A big rib eye with seared mushrooms and scalloped potatoes? Choose an intense Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Vegetables and starch vary in intensity as well. Iceberg lettuce and white rice are about as weak as you can get, while beets, mushrooms and creamy polenta are very dense and need a fairly powerful wine.
Sauce has the ability to change a whole dish. Salmon poached in a light, acidic broth would need a super-acidic light or medium intensity wine, while salmon topped with hollandaise would need a much bolder wine with some tannin to cut the richness.
The shaded area represents the “Crossover Wines”, that in-between area where the strongest whites and lightest reds meet. These wines are extremely flexible, able to go with filet mignon or tenderloin carpaccio at one meal and fatty seafood (salmon, tuna, lobster poached in butter) the next. Rose is also a crossover, and according to Mr. Weiss it works in many situations where no white or red will.
Other important factors:
Any food that is sweet must be paired with a wine that matches or surpasses that sweetness. Semi-sweet Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chenin Blanc, and very fruit forward New World Zinfandels often work well. For desserts and cheeses, go with a sweet or fortified wine.
Tannins and fat/blood balance each other. The tannins are reduced and the flavors of both are enhanced.
Foods that are spicy, sweet, salty and/or smoky should be paired with a contrasting wine – acidic Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, cheap/mild Zinfandel, Gamay, or Rose (still or sparkling). Acid reduces the perception of sugar, acid, and salt, and tames spice and smoke. Sparkling wines are great for battling spicy foods.
Very salty with high tannin
Vinegars (except balsamic and very old sherry)
Many green vegetables, especially brassicas, artichokes, and asparagus. These should be prepared with fat of some sort – cream or butter or bacon (but why wouldn’t you do that?!) – or “bridged” by using some of the wine in the dish