Pairing the “Unpairable:” A Guide to Some of the Most Challenging Food and Wine Pairings

For many restaurateurs and chefs unfamiliar with the art of food and wine pairings, selecting which wines to pair with their cuisine can be a difficult subject to tackle. Designing a wine list is already a challenge, yet the task isn’t finished there. The next step is to now decide which wines pair best with each of your restaurant’s dishes. Wine pairings can be specific, such as at a seated wine dinner where one course is paired with a single wine, or more general, where a server offers several suggestions as to which wines pair best with a chosen dish.

It is important to note that there is no single wine to pair with a single dish. The wine world is a big place and there are plenty of options to consider. Additionally, wine pairing is also an entirely subjective process and depends on both the diner’s palate and individual preferences.

Yet despite the plethora of options available, even those in the wine industry will agree that there are some dishes that just don’t seem to pair well with any wine. These “unpairable” dishes have such strong, unique flavors they often clash with the majority of wine options available.

But fear not – there is no dish that is truly unpairable. Below, we offer you suggestions for some of the more challenging food and wine pairings

Vegetables

One of the more common food groups to run across in wine pairings are vegetables. Too broad a category on its own, generally it is the bitter vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, artichoke and Brussels sprouts that pose the largest challenge for a pairing.

While many chefs are now serving up these bitter veggies with sweet glazes, topped with salty nuts or bacon which serve to mask many of the bitter flavors, these vegetables still maintain their bitter edge, and as a result, can be difficult to pair with wine.

When looking to pair wine with any vegetable dish, preparation is key. Are the vegetables grilled or roasted? Fried? Are they topped with a sauce or glaze or just served plain?

When grilling vegetables, try looking for an herbaceous, high acid white such as Gruner Veltliner, or a savory, lighter bodied red. Cabernet Franc is an excellent option as the wine presents similar leafy, vegetal aromas. For fried vegetables, you want a wine (generally a white) with high enough acid to cut through the grease. Dry sparkling wines pair exceptionally well as their bubbly, mineral driven and high acid profile helps to balance the oily, dense quality of the batter.

A vegetable laden salad can be an excellent accompaniment to a category of white wines known as orange wines, or rather white wines that have been left to macerate on their skins for a prolonged period of time. These wines have the structure and body of a red wine yet the acidity and many of the flavor profiles of a white. Orange wines are extremely versatile pairing options and can even serve as a bridge to allow the diner to move back and forth between red and white wines throughout the evening.

Chocolate

Despite the popular notion, wine and chocolate are not the ultimate pairing – in fact, they don’t pair that well together at all. Chocolate’s sweet yet bitter flavor profile tends to clash with a large percentage of wines. There are, however, a variety of wines that would be better suited to chocolate pairings and they involve mainly sweet fortified or dessert wines.

For dishes featuring milk chocolate, look to Ruby Port. For dark chocolate dishes, try a Banyuls. White chocolate would be best served with a sweet sherry or a tawny port. For a pairing unlike any other, try pairing with Brachetto, an Italian wine from the Piedmont area that, when paired with white chocolate, creates a strawberry and cream flavor.

Soups

Incredibly common to see as one of the first courses on a tasting menu, soups are often a challenge when looking to pair with wine. When approaching wine and soup pairings, the first step is to think about the weight of the soup.

Is it broth-based soup or cream? Something cream based, such as a chowder, is going to need a higher acid wine than a broth-based soup to cut through the richness.

For broth-based soups, consider the broth – a seafood-based soup like a bouillabaisse can pair excellently with a light, crisp white wine such as a Muscadet, Txakolina or Vinho Verde. Tomato-based broths, similarly to tomato-based pasta sauces, go best with a lighter bodied, high acid red wine such as Barbera. Chicken broth-based soups work well with Pinot Noir and Gamay while beef-based broths require more savory red wines.

Sushi

Another incredibly broad category, sushi and wine have yet to take off as the next great wine pairing. Most diners instinctively reach for sake (albeit a type of wine) or beer when looking for an alcoholic beverage yet wine and sushi pairings are easier than one might think.

When pairing a wine with sushi, it is important to look for more subtle, lighter bodied wines as most sushi dishes are light and delicate and it would be a shame for the wine to overpower them.

With sushi pairings, first consider the protein. Lighter white fish, such as Hamachi, pair best with mineral-driven, somewhat sapid whites. Look to Vermentino, Muscadet, Albarino, or Gruner Veltliner. Salmon and tuna sushi, which can be a bit bigger and fattier, can go excellently with a lighter bodied Pinot Noir, which offers bright, red fruit notes and many times a mushroomy, umami quality of its own. For eel, look to Riesling for an utterly sublime pairing option. Spicy rolls can also go excellently with an off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc. Try a sparkling rose with a tempura roll.

The possibilities really are endless.