Califonia Bountiful

The secrets to pairing meats with wine

Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine

Wine creates partnerships that harmonize and enhance to complement the food.

Chef Michael Tuohy

Pairing meats and other foods with wine is very much like coming up with a great new recipe. It’s all about creating partnerships that harmonize and enhance.

“A good match will bring out the nuances and enhance the flavors and unique characteristics of both the food and the wine,” said Michael Tuohy, executive chef at Grange Restaurant in Sacramento.

When you’re first trying your hand at pairing, Tuohy and other experts recommend starting with a wine and then building the menu around it.

“It’s much easier to tweak a recipe to make it more compatible with the wine than it is to start blending your own wines,” said Peter Palmer, wine director at Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco.

Palmer advises to pick a wine you know and love already. This way, you’ll already have a sense of its flavors, which you can use as a starting point. Plus, if the recipe experiments don’t work, at the very least you’ll be able to enjoy a nice bottle of wine!

When pairing food and wine, Tuohy points out that the goal is synergy and balance. The wine shouldn’t overpower the food, nor should the food overpower the wine.

“Think of wine as if it were a condiment—it should complement the food,” he said.

And while pairing food and wine can seem daunting at first, both Tuohy and Palmer offer this advice: Don’t be intimidated, have fun and experiment with all kinds of new combinations. You might be surprised with what you come up with!

Pairing meats with wine: A few basic rules of the road

By Peter Palmer and Michael Tuohy

1. Consider the animal
White or lighter meats such as chicken, pheasant, quail and pork will generally pair well with a white wine. Red meats like beef, lamb, venison and squab usually call for red.

2. Make the cut
With the above in mind, milder cuts usually pair best with milder versions of any specific color of wine. The subtle, rich taste and creamy feel of filet of beef might be best suited to an elegant pinot noir, but a rib eye or flank steak calls for something richer or bolder like cabernet sauvignon or merlot.

3. Feel the heat
Consider all the different ways of cooking meat—baking, roasting, slow roasting, high heat, low heat, frying, searing, poaching, smoking, grilling, etc. Some of these are gentle ways to cook and might call for lighter wines within the same category. But some treatments, like grilling or smoking, amp up the flavor of whatever is on the menu and thus can handle wines that echo the char marks, crustiness and flavor of the fire and smoke.

4. Rules are meant to be broken
Expect exceptions. Think outside the box. Experiment and have fun. You may be surprised by what works to perfection, what tastes just OK and what really doesn't fly. Magic happens when all the synapses are firing, brought on by stimulating conversation and an atmosphere that makes sense.

5. And finally...
Keep these three key attributes in mind when pairing meats and wine: the food item being paired; the cooking method of that item; and the additional flavors or sauces.

Peter Palmer is wine director at Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco ( Michael Tuohy is executive chef at Grange Restaurant in Sacramento (

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