Napa Valley Wine Train’s Guide to Wine Pairing

May 1, 2018
Tasting & Learning

It's no secret that here in Napa Valley, we love wine. Or, that aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, expert chefs prepare the highest quality gourmet food. So, of course, pairing wine and food together is one of our favorite pastimes.

Why bother to pair your food and wine? What is it that makes some pairings work so well? More than personal preference, it comes down to molecules. The way the wine interacts with the food changes the way it interplays with your palate, changing the chemical makeup and overall taste of what you’re ingesting. The award-winning wines of California are delicious on their own, and the fresh seafood and produce the region produces make for some dynamite meals, so when you perfectly pair a wine and a dish together, you get an outstanding dining experience.

Two women smile as red wine is poured into their wine glasses during a wine tasting in Napa Valley.

Here are some of the basic tenets of wine pairing, so next time you’re planning a dinner party, or even just coming up with a dish to pair with your favorite Napa Valley wine, you can use these tips to guide you.

Rule: When pairing multiple courses, go from light to heavy to avoid overloading your palate. Drinking a robust, full red or heavy white before dialing back to a lighter varietal often causes the delicate flavors of a lighter wine to get lost so if you’re planning to pair a variety of dishes in a multi-course meal, start light (with a nice Napa Riesling perhaps?) and work your way up to the heavier wines, like our beefy Cabernet Sauvignons.

Rule: Opposites Attract. Think: sweet and sour or salty and sweet. This is where molecules come into play. There’s something about the sweetness of a wine like a Zinfandel that compliments rather than competes with a salty dish.

Rule: Acid with Acid. Salt also highlights the acidity in wine, so if you’re serving a salty dish, avoid a highly acidic wine. There is, however, something about a highly acidic dish that will stand up to the acid in the wine, balancing and mellowing it out. Think of the bright, citrus notes of an unoaked Chardonnay. Pairing that with food that you would add some lemon or lime to will pair beautifully—the acid of the dish bringing out the citrus notes in the wine.

A close up of a grape vine in Napa, California with the Napa Valley Wine Train in the background.

Rule: If It Grows Together, It Goes Together. This is a golden tenet of meal preparation, too. It’s a safe bet that dishes prepared from food grown in the same region as the wine you’re serving it with will pair beautifully. Think of classic pairings such as Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese, or Barolo with tomato sauce. Each of these can’t-fail pairings was born in a place where the wine and food grew side-by-side. The hills of Sancerre, where Sauvignon Blanc grew throughout vineyards on the same French countryside where goats roam, and Italy where the same scorching sun that ripens tomatoes also nurtures the Nebbiolo grape on the vine.

Rule: Pair Tannins with Fats. The tannins in a full, rich red, like a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon, pair beautifully with a rich, high-fat protein. Think duck, sausage, or even rich cheeses. The tannins cut through the fat of the dish, which in turn softens the effect of the tannins on the tongue.

Rule: Heat = Sweet. Reaching for a hot wing or whipping up a spicy curry? The heat of a spicy dish is best mellowed with a sweeter wine which cools the spice and allows the more complex flavors of your dish to shine through. Even if a bold, tannic red is your most beloved libation, resist the urge to open that bottle of cab sauv…the tannins will actually amplify the heat of your dish and the heat in a dish often intensifies the tartness of a tannic wine.

Rule: Break The Rules. There are a lot of rules when it comes to wine pairing, and yet there really is no “wrong” pairing anymore—no wonder the prospect can be daunting to start! The old world adages like white wine with fish and red wine with meat still hold up, but today’s complex wines and creative chefs allow for more flexibility when it comes to pairing your favorite wines with dishes. So, break the rules!

Some of our favorite “new school” wine pairing rules are:

-       Keep it simple

-       Don’t overthink it

-       Don’t be afraid to try something new

In Napa, of course, you ‘ve got the added benefit of being able to talk to the winemakers themselves. No one knows the flavors of a particular bottle than the people who crafted it, so whether you’re on a winery tasting as a part of one of our Quattro Vino Tours, or aboard the Wine Train for one of our special Meet the Maker Dinners, don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Here on the Napa Valley Wine Train, we’re passionate about sharing the best food and wines of Napa with you, and with this beginner’s guide to wine pairing, you’ll be able to share that enthusiasm long after you’ve disembarked. Cheers!

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