Pairing wine with dinner can be intimidating, especially when you reserve wine for those special occasions. What people don't understand, though, is wine can go with anything—you don't need a fancy-shmancy dinner to justify drinking a glass of wine or two (or twelve).
So we asked Elana Abt, head sommelier at Mario Batali's OTTO Enoteca e Pizzeria in New York City for tips on how to pair wines with dinners we actually eat.
The best wine to pair with some old strawberry Pop-Tarts you found at the bottom of your purse is...
Off-dry Riesling, Germany, Mosel
WHY: "There is an unfortunate stigma about a little grape called Riesling. Riesling is one of the most amazingly versatile grapes on the earth. It can range from searingly dry to lusciously sweet. This is hands down the best white wine to pair with almost any type of food, so when presented with a strawberry Pop-Tart choosing an off-dry Riesling was a no brainer.
So what does dry and off-dry mean when it comes to wine? Good question. When a wine is dry that means there is no detectable residual sugar left after fermentation. When it comes to pairings, if you are eating something sweet you are going to want to drink something equally as sweet or even sweeter otherwise sweetness of the food is going to make a dry wine taste sour. Have you ever noticed your wine from dinner starting to taste different when eating dessert? Well, now you know why!"
Your slightly burnt grilled cheese sandwich pairs best with...
Oaked Chardonnay, California, Napa
WHY: "There is a lot of fat that comes from the soft gooey cheese and the melted butter on the bread, and one way to refresh your palate is to have a wine with high acidity. Fat coats your tongue, but the acidity helps to cleanse the palate leaving you ready for your next bite. Through a transfer of acids called malolactic fermentation, you get a byproduct produced called diacetyl, which pretty much creates a dairy-free butter flavoring, that—you guessed it— complements your grilled cheese perfectly."
That suspiciously vibrant yellow instant ramen you eat 5 days a week goes well with...
Pinot Noir, France, Burgundy
WHY: "Pinot noir is typically a high-acid, low-tannin grape. What is acid and what is tannin? Acid is found in the grape juice, hence why all wines have some form of acidity. Tannin is found in the grape's skin and it combines with the proteins in your saliva and absorbs them, so it gives you that dry mouth feeling.
Now, why is tannin only found in red wine and not white wine if all grape skins have tannin? There is a little-known fact that juice from both red and white grapes are clear in color which is desired for white wine, but in order to make red wine the grape skins must macerate, or steep, with the juice in order to extract the color, flavor, and tannin!
Now, when we think of ramen we think of all of those amazing savory flavors, but it also has a crap ton of salt. Salt in food increases the perception of body in a wine, typically pinot noir is light in body so the ramen will make it seem fuller. (When us wine geeks talk about the 'body of the wine,' we are referring to the actually weight present on our tongue, so something light in body can be compared to skim milk, medium body is similar to whole milk, and a full-bodied wine should feel like the weight of heavy cream—but back to salt). Salt decreases the perception of acidity in wine. The acid and salinity of the dish should balance each other out and make both the wine and food easier to drink and eat."
Your emergency gas station beef jerky should be served with...
Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Sonoma County
WHY: "What’s so great about Cabernet is that it is a really well-structured, high-acid, high-tannin wine that, when made well, can last for decades. Like ramen, beef jerky has a lot of salt and a high fat content. But it is that salt and fat combo that will help to soften the harsh tannins and acids of the Cabernet.
Remember the talk about tannins combining with the proteins in your saliva? Well, in this case, the tannins will combine with the fat from the jerky rather than your spit, and you don’t experience that dry mouth feeling as a result."
A super satisfying and totally filling handful of almonds pairs best with...
WHY: "Bet you didn't expect this curveball! Everyone should be drinking Champagne. Many people believe that bubbles are only appropriate for celebrating, but they are really great for pairing with food. The high acid and the bubbles are well suited with anything salty, fatty, or savory.
Almonds have these bitter skins and yet a high fat content and a good amount of salt, all of which can be broken down by the bubbles and acidity. The bubbles are formed by allowing a second fermentation in the bottle. Through the sugar and yeast mixture that makes alcohol, you also get a by-product of carbon dioxide. When you trap that carbon dioxide in a bottle—voila! Bubbles! Plus, alcohol makes all that healthy a bit more fun, no?"
Of course, you can always go for the dinner of champions and pair your wine with more wine. We won't judge.
Elana Abt has her Advanced Certificate in Wine and Spirits through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust where she is also a diploma candidate, and is currently the Head Sommelier at Mario Batali's OTTO Enoteca e Pizzeria in New York City.