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Pairing Food and Wine in France

Some people say a good food and wine pairing is like a good wedding: it brings together a dish and a drink, which have a good balance of tastes and textures. When it’s well done, it’s a bit of magic…

However, pairing food and wine requires quite a good knowledge of wines and ingredients. In high-quality restaurants, an accord mets-vin (food and wine pairing) will be suggested according to the à la carte dishes. Instead of a unique bottle, the sommelier or waiter will suggest three to four glasses of different wines, one for each course, in order to sublime both the food and the wine.

What are the rules?

Suggesting pairings according to the type of dish would be infinite, but easy rules exist that make pairing choices easier.

According to the tasting rules, you should always begin with the lightest wine and finish with the strongest; you should also go from the youngest to the eldest (except with cheeses), so the flavours don’t cancel each other out. The order would then be: sparkling, dry white, light red, robust red and finally sweet wine.

The strength is not only related to the amount of alcohol, but also to the amount of tannins and the level of sugar. If you start a meal with sweet wine, your palate will be completely covered in sugar and you won’t be able to appreciate the fine, subtle flavours of the wines that follow. However, if you want to start with a typical Pineau des Charentes or a Rivesalte apéritif, we would recommend you drink a glass of sparkling wine before starting your meal. The acidity and the bubbles will rinse the sugar, stimulate your palate and make it ready for a longer tasting.

The main event

If you opt for a full four-course meal, it’s recommended to start with a dry white wine (perhaps an aged wine) depending on the starter you ordered, or a young, light red wine. If the starter contains red meat, game or spices, you’d better go for a young red from the south: the more sun the grapes have had, the more the wine will balance the spices or the strong taste of the meat.

If you want to order foie gras, you can try an old, structured dry white wine, but it pairs so well with an old sweet white that we recommend you order it after the main course, instead of, or before, cheese. You would then be able to keep the same glass for both cheese and dessert.

A style tip

Another tip would be to pair the style of wine with the style of meal, as much as with the meal itself; so it’s probably best not to order a Pauillac or a Nuits-Saint-Georges if you’re having a pizza or raw-vegetable salad. Firstly, the occasion perhaps doesn’t warrant those precious, expensive wines and secondly, the tannins, as velvety as they could be, will crush your taste buds and you won’t be able to taste anything else. For a quick meal like this, opt for a cheaper, young wine; there are good wines for all occasions and the price should tally with the tasting atmosphere. If you have a craving for an old, structured wine, then keep it for a special occasion and pair it with more elaborate food.

Colour pairing works as well. Go for white wine with fish, seafood, poultry and white meat dishes, and red wine with tuna, red meat and duck. The finer the food, the older the wine can be.

Pairing cheese and wine

Contrary to what many people think, red wines aren’t the best to pair with cheeses. Indeed, the thick tannins of reds don’t suit the acidity of the lactic ferments that cheeses contain. White wine is more polyvalent and will pair with a larger range of cheeses.

There is an easy, infallible tip for wine and cheese pairing: choose a wine from the same region as the cheese. The grass on which the cattle graze grows on the same ground as the vineyard, so there is a natural logic in pairing the cheese with a neighbouring wine – they are two expressions of the same terroir. There are, of course, many other options, but if you follow this principle you can’t go wrong.

Some tasty examples

Following our principle, the Valençay or Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese from the Loire Valley would pair perfectly with a Sancerre or a Pouilly-Fumé. As we are in the south of the Loire Valley here, and north of Burgundy, the Crottin de Chavignol would also complement a Petit Chablis or a Bourgogne Aligoté. The freshness and slight acidity of these wines will make the cheese express itself better and will offer a beautiful persistence in the mouth. The salty minerality of the wine will echo that of the cheese.

The fruity, matured Comté cheese, with its nutty touch, will magically pair with an old, smoky Jura Macvin, or an old vin jaune.

The Ossau-Iraty or the Tomme des Pyrénnées cheeses would pair well with a sweet Jurançon, while the Munster goes well with Gewürztraminer or a Pinot Gris.

As Normandy has no signature wine, pairing Camembert is difficult. So why not try it with the region’s cider? Similarly, matured cheese will be fully revealed by an aged Calvados (distilled cider).

Where can I enjoy a gastronomic experience?

You can enjoy a number of gastronomic holidays with Headwater. For French gastronomy take a look at our holidays in Burgundy, The Dordogne, The Loire and The Tarn.