If you thought your taste buds were having fun with just Pinot Noir, wait until you try it with food that tastes like a Pinot’s soul mate. Pairing fine Pinot Noir to food that perfectly complements it is an art. When you get it right, good food brings out the best in good Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is probably the most versatile wine to pair with food. As one of the lightest bodied of the red varietals, with ample fruit, spice, and earthy gameyness, it easily breaks the rule that insists that white wine must go with seafood, and red wine must go with red meats. Pinot Noir pairs excellently with almost the entire spectrum of foods, though at the extreme ends (white fish & beef steaks) the way you prepare the dish can make for better or worse pairings.
Here is a list of foods that Pinot Noir can complement deliciously:
- Shellfish – in a pink sauce, bisque, curry or with seasoning meats like bacon or sausage (think about a nice crisp Pinot with a Lobster Bisque or Paella… mmmm!)
- Pasta & Risotto – with a pink sauce or pesto sauce or one of the below ingredients
- Ahi Tuna, Salmon
- Chicken, Turkey (turkey burgers too) – fried, roast, or grilled with herbs, Dijon mustard, mushroom or Pinot sauces (like the classic Coq au Vin or Chicken Marsala, or the Indian Chicken Tikka Masala)
- Duck, Goose, Squab, Pheasant
- Mushrooms, legumes (beans, lentils), wild rice, quinoa, cooked spinach & kale (Try a Pinot with Saag Paneer or Spanikopita.)
- Venison, Elk, Antelope, Ostrich, Buffalo
- Pork, ham, prosciutto, sausage, bacon, and other charcuterie
- Veal – parmesan not picatta
- Beef, especially Filet Mignon and braised (short ribs) or roasted beef (brisket, prime rib) – with herbs, mushrooms & truffles (classic: Boeuf Bourguignon)
- Cheese – Creamy Bleu (St. Augur, Castello, Gorgonzolla), Parmesan, middle-aged Dutch/Gouda, and very creamy Brie
Why does Pinot Noir pair so well with these foods? And how do I pair the Pinot Noir that I just purchased with the BEST one of these foods? Understanding how Pinot interacts with food is the key to answering these questions.
You’ll notice a common theme from the list, especially when it comes to the darker meats, is that they are leaner meats or cuts. Game meats, like venison or buffalo, tend to have little if any of the fatty marbled richness of typical beef cuts. And when it comes to beef, I’ve suggested the distinctively tender but lean Filet. This is because of the weight or body of a Pinot Noir tends to be light or thin in your mouth. So it does a great job of balancing its lighter juicyness with the minimal juicyness of the leaner meats.
Essentially you don’t want the heaviness of your food to overwhelm the lithe body of your Pinot, nor do you want your Pinot to overpower any of the subtleties of a well prepared dish. Pinot can be too heavy for Ahi if it is sushi. But simply searing or grilling Ahi, and perhaps using a soy based sauce, increases its complexity and can make for a perfect match. So if you have lighter meat, but insist on drinking Pinot Noir with it (as I do) just find a way to add complexity. You’ll notice the list above suggests this already.
SWEETNESS & FRUIT
Sweetness in foods is not the same as fruityness in wines. Sweet foods do not pair well with Pinot Noir because the sweetness will overwhelm the often delicate fruityness of Pinots. Some of the bigger, riper California Pinots can be an exception to this, but usually only if the sweetness of a food is partnered with an equal sourness or acidity – like in Moroccan barbeque sauces or a pasta with pink sauce. Pink sauce is a combo of tangy, acidic tomatoes and sweet cream, and the partnership can create a great pairing with Pinot because the balance of sweet & sour prevents either from overwhelming the Pinot’s fruit and minimal tannic structure.
Dishes prepared with fruit usually pair best with Pinot when the fruit or resulting sauce is on the lightly tart side. Venison with sour cherry reduction, or pork loin with raspberry balsamic glaze are two examples. Peaches (& stone fruit in general), strawberries, melons, grapes and other sweet fruit are best “tarted up” when it comes to pairing with Pinot. I do love Pinot Noir with roast pork and a tangy plum reduction. Tarting up usually involves adding a light touch of vinegar or citrus, or maybe mustard. But go easy. You don’t want to taste sourness… you want to taste balance.
Of course one of the best ways to get a fruit sauce to pair well with your Pinot is to add some of your Pinot to the sauce.
ACIDITY & TANNINS
Pinot tends to be a bit more acidic (crisp or tart) than tannic (bitter or astringent). The thin skins of the Pinot Noir grapes afford minimal tannins, but the cool Pinot growing regions allow for slow ripening and therefore maintain a lively acidity in the finished wine. Whereas highly tannic wines provide an astringent cleanse for your palate when eating rich, heavy, fatty foods, Pinot Noir’s more subtle tannins allow for more subtlety and leanness in your food. Thus the leaner meats – like game and pork – as well as richer vegetables – can be perfectly matched with Pinot, whereas a more tannic wine might wipe your palate clean of some of the lighter flavors of these foods. And extra-rich and/or deeply spiced foods (like barbeque or mole negro) can often need a bolder, more tannic wine than Pinot Noir.
There are at least two strategies for pairing the flavor of your Pinot with your food.
First, there is the “match-pairing” technique. Simply, you eat foods with your Pinot that taste the same as or similar to it. So if your Pinot is gamey with notes of truffle and lavender, you would sear a duck breast and serve it with a truffle, lavender sauce. This covers the main thrust of most of the pairing recommendations listed above. Pinot Noir tends to exhibit gameyness… so it goes well with gamey meats. It can have earthy, herbal, mushroomy flavors… so it goes well with herb sauces, herb roasted meats, and mushrooms of all types.
A second, and slightly more difficult, technique is “complement-pairing.” This means marrying two dissimilar elements, one in the food and one in the Pinot, to create a harmonious interplay, rather than a direct alignment. The reason this is more difficult is because we all have different tastes about what flavors intermingle best on our palate. For example, let’s say you detect a nice note of clove on your Pinot. The first thought that pops into my mind when I think of clove is Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie spice. So I might make a roast pumpkin soup to pair with the hint of clove in my Pinot. You, on the other hand, might think immediately of the clove in chai tea and the masala used in saag paneer. So you might make creamed spinach (saag) to pair with the same Pinot. As long as we’re both considering the other factors of body, sweetness, acidity & tannins, and other flavors of the Pinot, we could both create perfect but very different dishes to complement-pair with the same Pinot. Of course it’s most delicious when some combination of the two techniques are used.
THE BEST PAIRING
Finally, and most importantly, remember that the best things to pair with Pinot Noir are the people that you love… but no matter how delicious they may look, don’t eat them!
For a list of foods and things NOT to pair with Pinot Noir, visit Bad Pinot Pairings.
And of course the Recipes section gives some delicious ideas as well.