Grab a pen and paper to write down rule #1.
Rule #1 states that there are NO rules when matching your favorite wines with your beloved recipes, sure there are hints and popular, even “famous” matches, but ultimately the best match is what pleases your palate. It is truly personal preference. That said, here are some hints to help you determine what might be palate pleasing for you personally.
Wine and Food Flavor Interactions First let’s consider flavor interactions. You are only able to detect four distinct flavors with your tongue: sweet, sour, salty and bitter; while your nose is able to decipher over 200 different aromas. Between the combination of sensory uptakes from both your tongue and your mouth you are able to experience a vast array of flavor characteristics and nuances. As you begin to pair wines with foods, keep in mind that the flavors of the foods can both contradict and compliment wine selections, and both can be good. For example, a sweet Riesling can make a bag of salty chips taste even more appealing by contrasting the saltiness while yielding some of its intrinsic sweetness, or when paired with a rich dessert like cheesecake the sweetness of the wine would likely mellow in flavor due to the overriding influence of the cheesecake.
Wine and Food Pairings: Heavy vs. Light and a Word on Sauces Next, consider whether a dish is “heavy” or “light” in nature, the difference between a meal consisting of steak and potatoes or one that tends toward a chicken and vegetable stir-fry. In general, most people seem to prefer heartier foods paired with fuller-bodied red wines and lighter fare to be complimented by more delicate white wines. Again, these are preference generalizations, a place to start and then experiment with your own combinations. Some tend to find it easier to remember red wines with red meats and white wines enhance white meats as a basic starting point.
The same goes for sauces, which in reality often impact a food and wine pairing more than the basic meat or starch component. When pairing wine with a dish that is served with a thick sauce, place priority on the ingredients of the sauce over the all else. For example, if I'm serving Chicken Alfredo, I'll want to consider the butter, cream, and cheese - all mega dairy components before milder flavor interactions of the chicken or noodles. In this case, the cream and butter-based sauce call for the full-bodied, buttery complimentary components of a well-oaked Chardonnay.
Wine and Food Pairings: Sweet with Heat
With a wild rush of ethnic food choices available to the local foodie, plenty of unfamiliar spices sporting various degrees of heat can slam the unprepared palate. Adding a glass of wine to the mix can make interesting international wine and food pairings. Savvy oenophiles with adventurous taste buds tend to beat the heat with well-chilled sweet to off-dry wines. Residual sugar erects a quick shield against the flames of the often exotic spice found in Szechwan shrimp or Cajun cuisine. Spicy Asian fair finds a friend in the likes of German Riesling, Italy's Moscato d'Asti or an off-dry Chenin Blanc or aromatic Gewurztraminer. Keep in mind that dry wines, especially fuller bodied reds or more acidic white wines, will fan the flames and exaggerate both the heat in the food and the alcohol on the palate.
Red Wines and Red Meat
Food pairing 101 calls for "red wine with red meat," but why? The innate fats and protein structure in beef, bison, and wild game will tame the tannin structure of an uptight red wine. The fats and proteins act as a virtual buffer when they coat the palate and mellow the tannin profile in the mouth. Hard cheese like Parmesan, aged Gouda, cheddar and the like also work to soften the tannin found in big red wines. Strong blue cheese like Stilton have a similar mellowing affect on reds.
Local food partnered with local wines seems like a hip foodie trend, but it's been going on for ages in European wine-growing regions as a matter of pragmatic palate appeal. Check out regional tips for making the best matches for local food and local wine pairings.
Pairing Wine with Dessert
Two of my favorite delights: dessert and wine... and then of course there is "dessert wine" in a category of its own. Many dessert wines are derived from the foundations of botrytis, a friendly, functional "noble rot" as seen in Bordeaux's Sauternes or are made from frozen grapes in an ice wine scenario or the versatile fortified favorites of Port. In all cases, you'll want to make sure that your dessert is not sweeter than your wine. Super sweet desserts in the palate presence of semi-sweet wines will clash in rays of sour or bitter flavors, definitely a lose-lose situation. So opt for wines, fortified or not, that can handle the sugar load by maintaining an ambitious amount of its own residual sugar in the process.
More Wine and Food Factors to Consider Other factors to take into account when looking at pairing potentials is the foods acidity. Acidic foods, like a Greek salad or lemon-based sauce work well with wines that share an acidic undertone (Pinot Grigio for example). While foods that lean to the sweeter side, like a chicken apple salad, tend to pair well with wines that are just a bit drier than the food they are to compliment (for example an off-dry Riesling).
Specific Wine and Food Pairings to Try:
Whatever match you make with foods and wines, enjoy the adventure, and don’t get too caught up in the rumored regulations. Make a note of pairings you’ve enjoyed for future reference and keep mixing and matching to learn how each component offers influences, be they subtle or strong.