We recently taught a wine seminar at Harvard University celebrating the Art of Food/Wine Pairings. Our muse? West Coast Wines! California, Washington and Oregon were all gainfully represented.
It was not lost on us that the underlying vinous theme focused on wines from a part of the world that is quite large and quite diverse; it's a culinary Choose Your Own Adventure. And so the food pairing principle "if it grows together it goes together" is, quite simply, harder to exemplify. Not to worry!
If you cannot at least start out PAIRING BY PLACE and, therefore, tapping into the local cuisine which blossoms naturally with wines grown in a particular region, then you must make a go of it by applying one of these principles to achieve a balanced, complementary, aw-eliciting experience:
PAIR TO COMPARE.
Consider the Weight of the dish* (usually taking into consideration how it is prepared (e.g. steamed vs. grilled vs. roasted) and if it is dressed in a rich sauce or just a squeeze of lemon). You'll want the weight of the wine to match the weight of the dish.
Consider also the Acidity in the dish. Is the dish bright? Does your mouth water at the thought of it (like the thought of grapefruit, tomato sauce or dill pickles)? If it is a high acid dish, you'll want a high acid wine.
Next, consider the 'Meatiness' of it. Is the bold factor dialed all the way up? Whether it is a hearty vegetarian dish like sauteed portabellas and eggplant, or roast lamb and potatoes, the more savory the dish the more tannin-loving (aka how dry your tongue feels after you swallow) it will be. High tannin/very dry wines marry perfectly with hearty, "meaty" fare.
Last, what about Sweetness? BBQ sauce is Zinfandel-loving because Zin tends to be bold, bursting with ripe and/or dried fruits. While the wine may be vinified dry, the flavor experience from all that fruit complements the sweetness of the BBQ sauce.
PAIR TO CONTRAST.
Alternatively you'll want to create balance by contrasting what's on your plate - and nothing is truer than when you are faced with a particularly Salty dish! Fried foods, often Chinese fare and meats like Ham or charcuterie tend to be saltier and require a wine with a sweeter or more fruit-forward composition to create a harmonious palate experience.
While these principles are sure to get you started, there's something awesome to be said for the exploration itself, for figuring out how flavors jive - for finding out the hard way, and if you're lucky, for finding out the optimal way. Each revelation is a win in itself - inspiration promotes celebration (and keeping at it)! So most important, HAVE FUN on the journey.
* By "dish" we don't just mean the protein on the plate! Consider the sides as well (sometimes they are more interesting and fun to pair off of), or what components you want on your fork - the 'bite' in its entirety.