Pairing Wine and Food – A Quick History and Some Useful Rules

Today, the idea of pairing different wines and foods comes so naturally to us that we don’t really think about why we do it. Usually, you’ll pick out a bottle of Italian wine based on what you’re planning on eating. Of course, you might do things the other way around too.

The point is that the idea of pairing wine and food is so ingrained in our culture that it’s almost second nature to us.

But it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, people didn’t put much thought into what they are with their wines.

Inspired by our look at medieval wines a little while back, we’re now going to delve deeper into the history of wine to see how pairing came to be so important.

The Early History

Even as far back as the early days of wine, the drink has always been seen as a dietary staple. Ironically, this was because of health reasons.

Today, we know that red wines, in particular, contain resveratrol and other antioxidants that can help our bodies fight off a slew of medical conditions.

However, in ancient times, wine was important to health for other reasons. It was simply cleaner than the water that people could drink at that time. The various processes undertaken to create wine resulted in a far cleaner drink than the untreated water that people used to have available to them.

That means there’s little evidence to suggest that people put much thought into their pairings during this period. They just drank wine with their food, no matter what that food might be.

However, born from this was the seed of the idea.

As is the case today, many regions specialised in their own foods and wines. And it’s fair to say that many of the classic pairings that we follow today come from these early pairings.

For example, Bordeaux is a city that’s known for its lamb. It should come as no surprise that the wines from the region just so happen to pair very well with lamb dishes.

This is a trend that you see in every region that produced wine and had its own delicacies hundreds of years ago. Pairings came about because winemakers started crafting wines that worked well with the foods that the region was known for.

Italy was a particular trend setter in this area. Rarely did Italians eat without drinking wine, so it became common practice to create wines with the specific aim of pairing with food. That’s why some wines may seem acidic or otherwise strange to the taste until you pair them with the food that the wine was made for.

Nevertheless, the various “rules” that surround wine and food pairings today didn’t really exist in ancient times. People just drank wine with their food. And it just so happened that they had greater access to locally sourced foods and wines, so it was only natural that they would pair them.

The Modern Evolution of the Idea of Pairing

The idea of wine pairing as we know it today has really evolved from the fact that we now have greater access to foods and wines.

As trade between nations both increased and became easier, people were more able to exercise choice in what they ate and drank. This led to people become more aware of the various ways that the flavours in their foods and wines combine.

Today, it’s not uncommon to see high-end restaurants employing sommeliers whose main job is to recommend wines that go well with the meals that patrons orders. While the idea of a sommelier, or wine expert, finds its roots in Europe, this particular practice can actually be traced to the United States.

In the 1980s, the wine industry as a whole started to make a concerted push towards marketing the drink as something to be enjoyed with food, rather than as a standalone alcoholic product like beer. This was already a viewpoint that Italy and France had adopted many years before. But it was a fairly new idea in the United States. An abundance of print magazines started to promote the idea, with many changing their reviews so they covered both the individual qualities of the wine and the foods that it pairs well with.

Today, it’s easy to source ideas for which wines pair well with particular types of food. Of course, many people go off instinct or have their own preferences too. The focus usually lies on the objective effects that the wine has on the palette, and how this affects the taste of the food or vice-versa.

Some Simple Rules for Wine Pairing

To the Italians, the idea of pairing wine with food has existed for so long that it seems like something that people just “do”. The real surprise comes in the fact that, for the rest of the world, it’s actually a fairly recent phenomenon.

We’ve moved on from the days where wine pairing just involved drinking a region’s wine alongside its delicacies.

Now, we have all sorts of rules about wine pairing. The key thing to remember here is that none of these rules is set in stone. Wine and food pairing is still very much a personal experience and one that should not be influenced by a stringent set of rules. Still, here are a few of the basics to help you along:

  • White wines tend to work well with foods that have high acidity. If you can squeeze a lemon onto the food to improve its flavour, it’s likely going to pair well with an Italian white wine.
  • Spicy foods pair well with wines that have a low alcohol volume.
  • The richer the red meat, the more tannic the red wine that should accompany it.
  • When eating a light meat, pair your wine with the sauce, rather than the meat itself.

That’s just a couple of the rules you can choose to follow. But in the end, wine pairing is all about finding what works best for you. It’s just interesting to see how the concept has evolved over the years.



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