Two of a Kind: Pairing Wines with Proteins

Helping customers determine what wines pair well with proteins can be a matter of overcoming misconceptions.

With wine/meat matches, some people are inclined to plate chicken or fish with a white, or heavier meats with red.

“It’s somewhat of an antiquated approach, or a simplifier, to think of white fish with a white wine, or red meat with a cab,” suggests Jenny Schwartz, co-owner and bar manager of Hopscotch Restaurant and Bar in Oakland. “Most professionals don’t approach it that way,”

Which is not to dismiss those pairings. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, and can greatly enhance a customer’s experience. But certain reds can accompany some fish. And there are whites suitably served with steak or other red meats.

“Consumers now are much more open to new tastes,” says Stellios Boutaris, winemaker for the Greek wine company Kir-Yianni. “Different styles of wines are coming out, like lighter reds. I’m certainly not saying that everybody is now drinking reds with fish, but menus are changing.”

There’s plenty of science behind it. The acidity, strength and flavors of wines are critical, as are the similar components within proteins — and where they meet is where they match.

For anyone in the business, it’s important to understand. Sharing this knowledge with customers can help build their trust in your ability to sell them the ideal bottle or glass of wine.


The Taste of Terroir

One method Schwartz uses to match is terroir.

“The first wine program I ran was for an Italian restaurant, so my list was all Italian wines. It was a no-brainer,” she recalls. “That has hugely influenced my decisions throughout my career.”

A common terroir match is oysters and Chablis wine. Soil in Chablis contains fossilized oyster shells. And this imparts flavor profiles in varietals that make them ideal partners for raw oysters.

At Hopscotch, Schwartz faces somewhat of a trickier task. The food of chef and co-owner Kyle Itani is not so easily defined by region.

“Everything he cooks has a Japanese element in it, but not necessarily your typical Japanese flavors” Schwartz says. “That makes it interesting to pair with. He cooks with a lot of dashi. So even if the dish is not seafood, it is going to have a seafood-like umami quality. So I think of white wines from coastal regions, something Mediterranean, or something from the coast of Spain or France.”

“But if it’s a braised meat dish we’re talking about, then I’m thinking more like the southern coast of Italy,” she continues. “You still have the coastal air and terroir quality, but also the acids that will allow the wine to stand up to the meat.”

Terroir, of course, is critical in winemaking.

“The earth provides the guts of a wine,” explains Robert Bradshaw, president of Cape Classics, which recently released a red blend Braai inspired by South African barbecue. “It’s where a wine’s personality comes from: the soil, the rocks, everything that brings it together.”

Cape Classics is America’s largest importer of South African wine. “In the soil there you have granite, sandstone, minerality,” Bradshaw says. “You pick up earthiness, flintiness, smokiness. A red wine with a smoky personality is awesome with grilled meat.”

For such a wine/BBQ match, Bradshaw suggests a heavy red with Boerewors, a traditional South African sausage. Meat-forward in flavor, Boerewors contains beef, plus pork and/or lamb. It is commonly served during a “braai” (rhymes with “eye”), a South African barbecue that is steeped in the country’s culture.

“When you picture a braai, think homemade sausage, or a big thick steak,” Bradshaw says. “You need a big, juicy red to play with that, one of those beautiful reds you get from South Africa’s terroir.”

All the makings of a braai, at the home of Cape Classics President Robert Bradshaw

Acids and Minerals

Acids are one component in wines that allows them to pair well with meats or other foods. These are the fresh, tart, and sour aspects of a wine, as compared with the sweet and bitter attributes like tannins.

“High acidity, especially with high tannins, allows a wine to cut right through the big fatty taste of a meat like lamb,” says Boutaris.

Lack of acid in a wine can also be the basis of a pairing.

“A wine that’s lower in acidity can pair well with a food dish that’s high in acid, so that that one component, the acidity, doesn’t kill the palate,” Schwartz says. “Wine often brings the acid to the dish, so pairing with low-acid wines can be a fresh challenge.”

Acids help wines pair with meats outside of the traditional light/dark matches.

“Something like tuna, salmon, or even a fish cooked with tomato, you’re going to need some acidity from your wine to cut through that intensity,” Boutaris explains. “Tuna is an intense fish. It wouldn’t go with a light white wine. I’d pair tuna with a red, or a rose.”

“But there are also whites with high acidity, like those from Santorini,” he adds. “And there are whites that have an intense mineral taste. You need a meat big in taste to balance that minerality.”

For example, at a braai recently hosted by Bradshaw, Chimichurri Flank Steak Tacos was served with Beyond Sauvignon Blanc 2011. With pronounced minerality, and strong flavors of herbs and fruits, the white wine paired suitably with the steak.

“I always say that you have to match subtle with subtle, and power with power,” Bradshaw says.

So too can protein be elevated to match meat. Brandshaw’s braai also included Peri Peri Chicken Thighs served with Indaba Mosaic dark red blend. The peppery kick of the Peri Peri recipe was a natural partner for the black ripe fruit and similar pepper spice of the Indaba.

Scientifically Speaking

One layer deeper than thinking in terms of acids or minerals is looking at the phenolic content of wine. These are the hundreds of chemical compounds that help determine taste, color and mouthfeel.

Many of these phenols originate from the seeds, stems and skins of grapes. They are extracted during the maceration step in winemaking. Once reason why white wines usually are less intense than reds is because they has less contact with skin phenols during production.

Hopscotch-Meat and Wine Pairing
Pairing steak with wine at Hopscotch Restaurant and Bar in Oakland / Aubrie Pick

“In a red wine that is full-bodied, there is a higher concentration of phenolics,” explains chemist and oenologist Angelos Iatridis, co-founder of Greek wine company Alpha Estate. “That’s what you want when pairing with fatty proteins. There is a great balance in complexity between high phenolics and the fatty feeling of red meat like lamb or a juicy steak.”

“The question of balance in complexity is about how easily you can digest this food,” Iatridis adds. “For instance, the Omgea 3 compounds in fish make for an excellent pairing with the light body of some red wines. It’s an excellent digestive compound. Everything goes down easier because you create a complexity with those three compounds: the Omega 3, the fish protein, and the wine’s phenolics.”

The temperature of a wine is also important in pairing, Iatridis says. For instance, in that fatty fish/wine match, he recommends serving the wine at about 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s a question of reaction,” he says. “That is the ideal temperature for the wine and fish to interact. The temperature acts as a catalyst between those three compounds.”

It’s Personal

While Iatridis has much to say about the science behind wine/meat matches, he is also quick to point out another path towards determining perfect pairings.

“In the magical world of taste, there are millions of possibilities and preferences,” he says. “Taste is really personal. Whatever brings you pleasure is what’s best for you.”

“Every single time one of us drinks a glass of wine, there is a chemical reaction with our saliva,” he adds. “And each one of us has a different chemical reaction to this and to different kinds of foods. The more you taste, the more you can see what is better for you. Because of this I’ve never been a ‘label drinker’. I’ve always liked to discover what is inside a bottle.”

Once you have discovered a wine or food that appeals to your personal palate, says chef Itani of Hopscotch, the next step is experimentation.

“I think a lot of home chefs think of pairing wine with cheeses that they like,” he says. “So the next step is cooking with that cheese. Maybe they can start by putting it on some asparagus, and then build off of that onto meats. People can make their way into other pairings like that.”

Schwartz agrees: “I think the mistake that some people make is to think that it’s hard to pair wine. But it’s not hard at all.”

“If you like a buttery chardonnay or spicy cab, fine, but those are really more for your get-home-from-work wine, and not for pairing, because they’re more on the difficult side,” she adds. “A dry wine would be easier for a beginner to pair. It’s really just about trial and error.”

Somebody new to pairing wines would also do well to ask local members of the industry.

“There are so many great wine stores where you can talk to people and tell them what you’re cooking and let them tell you what wine is good for that,” she says. “Though there is no hard rule. Really, the rule is ‘Whatever tastes good’, and then having confidence in your palate.”

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics. Email him at

Featured photo: A meat/wine pairing at Hopscotch Restaurant and Bar in Oakland / Aubrie Pick


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