Having a finger food-y gathering? Serving a tapas-style or app-oriented meal? Here’s everything you need to know about picking perfect wines to serve alongside—and some recipe ideas too!
Orienting a party or gathering around appetizers is a great way to go. Why? Because finger foods, snacks, and apps are festive! Because it’s fun to make a meal out of a bunch of little bites! And because you can do it all without spending a lot of time or money in the process!
But what about the wine you’ll serve alongside?
Long story short, pairing party food with wine is no different than pairing any food with wine. So for that, here are my super-basic food and wine pairing tips (which you can learn more about in my “100 Perfect Pairings” cookbooks).
Think About Wine In Terms Of Broad Characteristics
People may wax poetic about the dark cherry notes, woody aromas, or herbal flavors in a wine, but what matters most in food and wine pairing are a wine’s broader characteristics. By that I mean how sweet, acidic, tannic, heavy, and overall intense it is. Sauvignon Blanc, for example, could be characterized as dry (not sweet), high in acid, low in tannins, light in weight, and medium in intensity. Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, could be characterized as dry, high in acid, high in tannins, heavy in weight, and high in intensity.
What are tannins? Tannins are the slightly bitter compounds that give you that dry-mouth sensation that often comes with a red wine.
Two different wines, two different sets of broad characteristics, two different kinds of foods that pair perfectly with them.
Knowing Those Characteristics, Pair Like With Like
In other words, if a wine is super acidic and light, pair it with food that’s also super acidic and light. Sauvignon Blanc and salad with vinaigrette dressing, for example, is considered a classic pairing. And heavy Cabernet with rich, char-grilled steak works because both the wine and the food are heavy and rich, but also because steak’s charring adds slight bitterness that mirrors the wine’s tannins.
You can also engineer this the other way around. Think about the broad characteristics of your food—how sweet, acidic, bitter (versus tannic), heavy, and overall intense it is—and then opt for a wine that mirrors those characteristics.
(We don’t often think of foods as being bitter, but sometimes they have elements that add bitterness—like the charring on a grilled steak I mentioned earlier. Some greens are also a little bitter, as is the papery skin around a walnut, some olives, and a spice rub with coffee grounds, to name a few.)
It seems illogical that, say, an acidic food pairs best with an acidic wine. You’d think that acid plus acid would be too acidic. But actually the similarity helps the food and wine stand up to each other, balance each other out. And that goes for not just acidity, but for all the other broad characteristics as well—sweetness (or lack thereof), tannins, weight, and overall intensity. If your food doesn’t somehow mirror a broad characteristic of your wine, you run the risk of exacerbating that characteristic in the wine.
In other words, to use the same example, if your food lacks acidity, it could increase your experience of acidity in your wine—potentially making it unpalatably sour.
If you want to experiment with how different flavors in food can affect your experience of different flavors in wine, try these five one-minute projects I shared with TheKitchn.
Apply That To Appetizers
Serving an app that’s light and refreshingly bright? Look to a wine that’s also light and bright. Tuna Tartare, for example, goes great with light, bright wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. And to help ensure an especially perfect pairing, I’ve stacked the deck, adding light, bright ingredients like lemon zest, chopped chives, and minced jalapeno.
How about a meaty and rich appetizer? Those sorts of foods pair well with big red wines—not only does the combination work because both the food and the wine are heavy but also because fat in rich foods helps balance tannins in wine. My Stuffed Dates are a good example—the dates are meaty and the cheese they’re stuffed with is rich and fatty. The cheese also helps temper the sweetness of the dates—sweet dates alone could make a dry wine, one with no sweetness at all, taste sour.
What about something in the middle, like the apps pictured in this post, Rosemary Chicken Skewers with Garlic Aioli and Mushroom Flatbread with Caramelized Onions? Chicken can go with a heavy white or a light red—because it’s heavier than, say, fish but not as heavy as, say, steak. So how to choose for the skewers? As with any pairing, look to the overall characteristics of a dish, not just its main ingredient. Since the skewers are broiled and served with a mayonnaise-based aioli, the scales tip towards a heavy white, like Chardonnay. If they were grilled and charred, and served with olive tapenade—both adding slight bitterness and overall weight and intensity—they’d be better with a light, slightly tannic red, like Pinot Noir.
A dish like flatbread could also go with either a white or a red, depending on the toppings. Here, the mushrooms add meaty intensity and slight earthiness, both of which are better mirrored by a red wine. If the toppings included, say, sausage and a balsamic drizzle, a big red wine might even be best. But because the overall dish is still relatively light, it’s better with a light red like Pinot Noir.
An Important Caveat
All that said, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not critical or important – at all – that your food is perfectly paired with your wine. No matter what you serve, you and your loved ones are together and eating and drinking. So life is good!
It can be fun to experiment and play with pairings and find out what works for you. But what’s most important is to eat and drink what makes you happy.
A few more recipes coming up in this party food and wine series:
Puff Pastry Tart with Parmesan and Apples, to go with sparkling wine
Shrimp Scampi Skewers, to go with light white wine
Baked Brie with Chutney, to go with off-dry white wine
Pepper Poppers, to go with rosé