How to pick the right wines to pair with your meal, course and guests

Elyse Lovenworth explains why certain wines go better with certain foods.

November 22, 2022, 4:10 AM
PHOTO: Sommelier tips to make wine pairing easy.
Sommelier tips to make wine pairing easy.
ABC News Photo Illustration, Getty Images

Choosing the right bottle of wine to pair with a meal depends on a few key factors: the budget, the occasion, the food and the company.

Sommelier Elyse Lovenworth started her career in restaurants, traveling globally to learn about winemaking then moved to work with wineries in Oregon's famed Willamette Valley. From there, Loveworth moved east for positions as wine director, corporate beverage manager and now leads virtual and in-person education and tasting experiences for Sommsation.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Lovenworth poured out some wine pairing knowledge and told "Good Morning America" about why certain bottles go best with certain foods, as well as how you can do it at home.

Top tips for food and wine pairings

"My golden rule, and a big one in the industry, is what grows together goes together," she said, referring to the idea that if a food or ingredient grows in the same soil, climate and region as a specific wine varietal, it will naturally pair well. "That's something important to keep in mind when you're first starting out."

"Are you having Italian? Are you having French-inspired dishes? And then you kind of look to what they drink in those regions and what they what they grow in those regions, and that really does a lot of the work for you," she explained.

Lovenworth also said she's "a big fan of kind of contrasting pairings rather than like with like."

"I look to not just have it go together, but have it elevate," she explained. "By doing opposites you can kind of fill in the gaps that the food might be missing with your wines -- you're creating balance and elevating the meal and the wine as opposed to just kind of matching it."

Best wine to pair for Thanksgiving dinner with turkey

PHOTO: Sommelier tips to make wine pairing easy.
Sommelier tips to make wine pairing easy.
ABC News Photo Illustration, Getty Images

"My favorite things to pair with Thanksgiving dinner, and turkey specifically, for red wine, my go to is pinot noir," Lovenworth said. "It's high in acidity for a red wine and acidity really is what kind of bridges the gap between food and wine. And it's versatile. You can have it with light meat or dark meat and the acidity there helps break down the food so you can eat more of it."

She suggests a pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

What wine to pair with red meat

Cabernet sauvignon is a classic red wine for red meat eaters, but Lovenworth said there's another grape that's equally delicious for a big, bold steak dinner: syrah.

"I really love syrah, especially from Washington state. So I encourage people to try a syrah with their next steak," she said.

Best wine pairings for seafood

"The go-to with seafood is white wine, but you can get outside of that," she said. "Chardonnay is kind of a polarizing grape because people have usually had one that they didn't like, but I encourage people to go back to the drawing board and try one from Burgundy -- they make beautiful, mineral-driven wines that will definitely uplift your fish dish."

When going for a red wine to pair with fish, she added, "Pinot noir with salmon is beautiful. I also love grenache because that's a lighter-bodied red."

While grenache is often overlooked, Lovenworth said it's an "easy drinking wine that's dominant in culinary culture," especially in Spain, France and some parts of the U.S.

Halter Ranch is one of Lovenworth's go-to bottles.

What wine to pair with vegetables and vegetarian dishes

"For vegetables I look towards old world wine, which means France, Italy, Spain," she explained. "I'm a huge fan of the nebbiolo grape, which is from Northern Italy. So Barbaresco is one of my favorites to pair with roasted vegetables with a nice herb seasoning."

"With mushrooms I like a Barbera, which is from Italy as well. It's grown in a lot of places where they have very noble varieties, so it often gets looked down upon. But I feel like people need to to get down on Barbera's level -- because it's a great food wine."

Best wines to pair with dessert

When it comes to the last course of a meal, Lovenworth opts for bubbles like champagne or prosecco.

"I love sparkling wine with dessert, it also helps kind of cleanse the palate and that carbonation can be nice after you're full," she said.

Other times, depending on the final course, Lovenworth likes to "look outside of wine -- I love sipping on an amaro or something sort of bitter with dessert."

She continued, "If you're going to do a true dessert wine, it's best to do it with a cheese course."

How to pick the right wine with tannins for food

"Tannins kind of build up on your palate and create a dry sensation in your mouth," she explained. "So when you're having a highly tannic wine with a bold, tannic structure you want to look for a fattier cut of meat -- because that fat is going to help break down the tannins that have formed on your palate."

She continued, "If you have a leaner kind of meat like a fillet or something, you don't really need to look for a red wine that has really profound tannins in it."

"You get tannins from both the grape itself, the skins and the seeds, but you also get oak tannin. So, depending on how the wine was made and how long it spent in barrel -- and the condition of those barrels -- you're going to get a lot of tannins in there," Loveworth said.

Additional sommelier tips for food and wine pairings

When it comes to the progression of a meal, Lovenworth reminded and encouraged, "you don’t need a fresh glass for every new wine."

"I like to show [guests] how to season the glass -- you pour a little bit of the wine you're about to enjoy into the glass and swirl it around and coat the inside of the glass with the next one," she said. "A well seasoned glass is great and you don't have to worry about having three glasses per person."

"Similar to seasoning the glass, you want to season your palate in between the wines. So when you're transitioning from one line to another, give yourself one or two adjustment sips and coat the inside of your mouth -- on the third or fourth sip you can really kind of get into [the new wine] because you can get palate exhaustion."

When talking to a sommelier or a local wine shop merchant about pairings, Lovenworth said to first "consider who's at the table."

"Wine is not a one size fits all. So you really want to look for versatility," she continued. "A wine that will go well with multiple things, and that will kind of be a crowd pleaser."

Because experimenting with wine can get expensive, Lovenworth encouraged people "to try new things" and avoid getting stuck in what they know or are comfortable talking about.

"A lot of people have trouble describing what they want in wine when it comes to flavor and body, so think about what else is important to you," she said, suggesting citing things like how it's farmed or who owns it or makes it. "Find something else you can connect to, and when you do like wines, take a picture of the label, write it in your notes -- that makes a huge difference moving forward."

Finally, "drink water" Lovenworth said.

"It's overlooked and not mentioned, but you you want to have at least a glass of water for every glass of wine," she said.

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