The Art of Food and Beverage Pairing

Selecting the right beverages to serve alongside an elegant meal can make all the difference when it comes to the overall dining experience. This is especially true when entertaining during the holiday season. It’s about the art (and science) behind food and beverage pairing. 

By developing an understanding of the theories that underpin the pairing process, you learn to identify the perfect marriage of flavors and textures in any victuals you serve. Once you’ve honed the skill, you can employ it to elevate any meal—from large holiday gatherings to simple weeknight dinners.

With that in mind, and with the holiday season soon upon us, we thought it would be helpful to take a closer look at the principles behind food and beverage pairing. We’ll also explore some classic holiday food and beverage combinations to enliven your menu!

The Science: Understanding Taste, Aroma, and Flavor

To grasp how food and beverage pairing works, it helps to have a basic understanding of taste, aroma, and flavor.

Our sense of taste is enabled by receptors in our mouths. Our taste buds can distinguish between five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (or savory). The sensory cells within our taste buds work together to assess the intensity of a given taste, which helps us begin to form our conception of the flavor.

Other sensations occur in our mouth that don’t fall under the formal scientific category of taste but impact how we experience food and drink nonetheless. These sensations include our perception of items as spicy, fatty, alkaline (or briny), or metallic. Mouth-feel also comes into play. For example, a beverage may be viscous; a protein may be gristly.

A Venn diagram illustrating how tastes, aromas, and mouth sensations overlap to create our perception of flavor - an essential concept to understand in food and beverage pairing.

The other sense that comes into play is aroma, or smell. There’s a reason oenophiles swirl and sniff before their first sip–aroma provides vital information about the wine they’re about to taste. The human nose is capable of detecting more than 10,000 unique aromas.

When taste, aroma, and other sensations in our mouth combine, our brain synthesizes the information into a perception of flavor.

To grasp how to pair a food with a beverage, you must understand the interplay between senses so you can identify the tastes, aromas, and flavors in different foods and beverages.

The Art: Basic Principles of Pairing Theory

If you’re familiar with color theory, then you know that certain colors pair better together than others. 

Complementary colors, which sit on opposite sides of the color wheel, are visually harmonious (red and green, for example). Analogous colors are neighboring on the wheel and make similarly happy pairs (yellow and orange or purple and blue).

The same principles apply to food and beverage pairings. The best pairings are either contrasting or congruent. 

Contrasting tastes, like complementary colors, are opposing tastes. So, you may pair something sweet with something sour to create a pleasing balance. Pairing a treacly dessert wine with a zesty lemon tart is an example of a contrasting pairing.

This chart shows which of the five tastes pair well with others.

Alternatively, you may opt for congruence in your food and beverage pairings. Pairing sweet with sweet is a different experience, but it’s no less delicious! In these instances, the aim is to find flavors that align. For example, a syrupy tawny port with flavors of raisin and caramel would be ideal with a slice of praline pumpkin pie.

Of paramount importance is matching the intensities of tastes or flavors. Something that’s exceptionally bitter needs an equally bold taste to balance it. 

Take a spirit like Campari, a dominant ingredient in a Negroni, which has a real bitter bite. That bitterness will completely overpower a mellow food, like a delicate puffed pastry appetizer with ricotta and leeks. Instead, you might serve your Negroni with a baked brie—a bold, rich, sweet, tangy hors d’oeuvre with the power to stand up to the drink’s edge.

Moving Beyond Labels

You’ve probably heard the typical food and beverage pairing axioms. “Fish goes with white wine” or “Always choose a bold red for beef” are fine starting points, but there’s so much variation within categories that a blanket statement won’t point you directly to the proper pairing.

To find your way, look instead to individual tasting notes on the beverage and consider not just the central element of the dish but also how it’s prepared and served. A whole-roasted fish with lemon and a grilled salmon with spinach are both fish dishes, but they won’t call for the same beverage pairing.

A similar logic applies when considering standard flavor profiles for wines, beers, and spirits. 

Yes, high acidity is characteristic of Sauvignon Blanc, but a stone fruit-forward bottle will taste radically different from one with high minerality and floral notes. IPAs are hoppy, but the degree to which that label applies can vary widely.

Move beyond general assumptions about flavor profiles and instead read tasting notes on the specific wine, beer, or spirit you’re considering (and keep an eye out for vintage or production year). Wines can change drastically based on vintage, and beverage producers can change their methods over time.

Offer a Variety of Beverages

When assembling a group for the holidays, you can almost guarantee you’ll be catering to a wide range of palates. Offering a selection of beverages allows everyone to find something that suits their unique taste.

A variety of beverages surrounded by trays of food at a party.

Depending on the size of your party, it may be wise to have a handful of wine options (some red, some white, and perhaps even a sparkling or two), a signature cocktail, a beer or hard cider, and a zero-proof option.

Suggested Food and Beverage Pairing for the Holidays

As we mentioned, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to beverage pairing, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore classic pairings altogether!

Let’s look at a few perennial favorites on the holiday menu and explore the range of beverage pairings you might try. Remember, these wine suggestions are based on what’s typical of the grape variety; read the tasting notes for each specific producer and year to understand the intricacies of that particular vintage.

A chart showing food and beverage pairing suggestions for traditional holiday meals.

The more you learn about food and beverage pairings, the more you come to realize it is ultimately a matter of personal taste. There is no such thing as the single best pairing, so don’t become mired in the weeds of choice. 

Instead, follow your intuition (and your senses), and you’ll discover unique, delicious, and exciting pairings to enliven your holiday feast.