Spring Wine Pairings

Holly Shaw, DipWSET, ReserveBar Contributor


I reach for my glass, swirl the contents for a few seconds, smell the aromas, take a sip and the red wine hits my tongue creating an explosion of senses. Not only do I taste the strawberry, cherry and red currant but the acidity makes the side of my tongue tingle, and the soft tannins create a smooth finish. I can feel the weight of the wine, which is similar to milk, giving it a medium bodied expression. The wine is floral and delicious. But what would I pair this wine with? That’s a good question. This wine is a Willamette Pinot Noir which pairs perfectly with grilled salmon. Pinot Noir is what you can consider a “food friendly wine” because it has lower tannins, fruit, acid and a delicacy that matches Salmon oiliness and creates a perfect bite for sip finish.  

When looking at pairing food with wine, you want to consider the technical parts of the wine such as acidity, alcohol, tannins and sugar. Jointly, these components reflect which wine you reach for when pairing. Have you ever paired a thick juicy steak with an oaked Chardonnay? Probably not, because the pairing creates a harsh, almost metallic taste because the proteins in the steak needs a wine with tannins, and Chardonnay just doesn’t have that. 

Did you know that wine changes the flavor of food, for good or for bad? This is why foodies are always trying to attain “the perfect pairing”. When you pair food and wine together well, the flavors will sing! I’m here to give you a few tips to set you on your quest for the perfect pairing. 

While perfect pairings do exist such as Oysters & Muscadet, Caviar & Champagne, Steak au Poivre & Cabernet Sauvignon and blue cheese & Port, what happens when you want to branch out? Should you worry when you aren’t having one of “these” perfect pairings? If you feel like drinking red wine but you are eating fish or chicken, guess what; that’s okay, and you can make it work! While there are a few simple rules, all rules can be bent to fit your particular food situation and palate. There is a saying: “What grows together, goes together,” which will help you figure out how to play this game.


Think about biting into a lemon. It can create a puckering, tingling sensation, or salivation--it is the same with acid in a wine. Acid is one of the most important contributions to wine. If a grape is picked too late, when it is too ripe, it can have tons of sugar and not a lot of acid. A wine needs a good amount of acid to create freshness which allows the wine to retain structure. We (wine people) like to call acid the backbone because it is really important in wine pairing. Typically, you will sense acid near your jawline and/or get a salivating feeling, and that’s high acid. Acidity is great at cutting through fatty, salty and rich foods. Think about oysters and muscadet. Salty oysters taste bubbly, light and fresh when paired with a high acid wine. High acid wines include Champagne, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Chablis, Albariño, Muscadet, Sancerre, white Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Syrah (N. Rhone).


Tannin is basically extracted from the grape skins at fermentation time (there are also oak tannins, but that’s another story). Tannin will create a puckering in your mouth, almost a drying sensation. If tannins are unripe and/or young you can sometimes get a gritty sensation. Tannin will give your wine a heft, and it is perfect for cutting through protein. Any foods that are grilled or bitter (steak, broccoli rabe, arugula) also work well with tannin.

High Tannin Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Nebbiolo, and Carménére.


A wine’s alcohol content determines the body and weight, you feel that in the viscosity. The higher the alcohol, the fuller-bodied and heavier the wine seems (for example: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon). Whereas lighter alcohol wines have less body (Chablis). As a general rule, match a food and wine’s “weight.” As a comparison, think about milk. A skim milk will be light bodied, whole milk is medium bodied and cream would be full bodied. A big steak which is a fatty piece of protein needs some heft or weight in the wine to cut through the richness. This is the reason pairing a big juicy steak would crush a delicate, floral Pinot Noir.

High Alcohol Wines: Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Napa Cabernet, Merlot, Nero D’Avola, Toro, and Australian Shiraz.


Wines can vary in levels of sweetness. Most wines are dry. This is because sugar is converted to alcohol during the alcoholic fermentation process. To make it off-dry (a little sweet) or semi-dry (medium sweet), producers will stop fermentation early to keep some residual sugar or as the alcohol becomes high (usually over 15%) all the sugar will not be able to convert which leaves residual sugar. Usually, you perceive sugar on the tip of your tongue. Sweetness in wine is a great pairing for spicy heat, dried fruit, Asian dishes and dessert. The sweetness will alleviate some of the burning sensation.

High Sugar Wines: Rieslings, Chenin Blancs, some styles of Sparkling, and wines over 15% alcohol.


Stepping into Spring, let’s talk about some popular spring dishes you may be planning, and create a close to perfect pairing with our knowledge of acid, tannin, alcohol and sugar in mind.


Spring ushers in peas, ramps, asparagus and artichokes. While it is tempting to put asparagus and artichokes in a salad, they are difficult to match with wine.

The high levels of chlorophyll can cause a metallic or harsh taste when paired with most wine. It’s long been known that asparagus is not a friend to wine but here are a few tips to pairing them. The tip: sauvignon blanc tends to have a “green or herbaceous” flavor and choosing a high acid wine will compliment asparagus.

Grilled or roasted asparagus can handle sauvignon blanc, pinot bianco or rosé. For artichokes a dry, light, high acid wine with no oak is a must.


My first trip to Willamette, Oregon was ushered in with a smoked salmon outdoor wine fest. Who would have expected pairing grilled salmon and Oregon Pinot Noir would be mind blowing? It works! I know, I know—you may have been taught that fish needs to be paired with white wine. Generally, that is good advice, except that some low tannin red wines such as Gamay (Beaujolais) and Pinot Noir can match the rich oily fish. If you go with a higher tannin red (Cabernet Sauvignon) your fish will taste metallic, so keep those tannins in mind!

Pairing: White: Oaked Chardonnay, Viognier, White Burgundy or Vermentino. Red: Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Recommended from ReserveBar: Allegrini SoloSole VermentinoMontecillo AlbariñoFamille Hugel 2018 Riesling (dry), Far Niente Napa ChardonnayOlivier Leflaive 2017 Puligny MontrachetPenner Ash Pinot NoirPonzi Pinot NoirCloudy Bay Pinot Noir, and Domaine Faiveley 2018 Nuits St Georges.


Let’s go back to the motto, “What grows together, goes together”. Quiche Lorraine originated in The Alsace, and guess what? The best pairing is an Alsace dry Riesling. Gewurztraminer is a fantastic food wine as well. We SHOULD be drinking more of this wine! Eggs, in general, benefit with an enhancement of the high acid in Champagne or Riesling. This recipe for a Leek and Mushroom tart is one of my favorite weekend brunch dishes (my friend Karen made it for me once and I begged for the recipe) and I personally choose to serve it alongside Famille Hugel Gewurztraminer or Riesling (dry).

Pairing: Champagne, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and white Burgundy do well. If in doubt, enhance with pink and drink Rosé.

Recommended from ReserveBar: Re Manfredi BiancoFamille Hugel 2017 GewurztraminerFamille Hugel RieslingWhispering Angel Rosé, and Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Rosé.

Try This Quiche Recipe

Courtesy of Karen Fischer, Executive Chef at Montclair Culinary Academy in Montclair, NJ

Leek & Mushroom Tart

  • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 3 lb. leeks (white parts and 1 inch of pale green parts), thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp Fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 Bay leaf
  • ½ cup Chicken stock
  • 1 tsp. Salt
  • ¾ tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • cup crème fraîche
  • 3 oz. soft goat cheese, crumbled
  • ½ lb. mixed mushrooms, such as oyster, chanterelle and cremini, brushed clean and coarsely chopped
  • All-purpose flour for dusting
  • 1 sheet puff pastry, thawed if frozen

Follow these recipe steps:

  1. In a fry pan over medium-high heat, melt 2 Tbs. of the butter until it foams. Add the leeks and sauté́ until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the thyme, bay leaf, stock, 1/2 tsp. of the salt and 1/2 tsp. of the pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the leeks are nearly tender, about 15 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally and being careful not to let the leeks brown, until almost all the liquid has evaporated, about 15 minutes more. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Transfer the leeks to a bowl. Stir in the crème fraîche and goat cheese until well mixed.
  2. In another fry pan over medium-high heat, melt the remaining 1 Tbs. butter until it foams. Add the mushrooms, the remaining 1/2 tsp. salt and the remaining 1/4 tsp. pepper and sauté́ until the mushrooms are soft and have released their juices, 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Preheat an oven to 400°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  4. On a floured work surface, roll out the puff pastry into a rectangle 10 by 12 inches wide and 1/8 inch thick. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet. Spread the leek mixture to within 1 inch of the edge of the dough and fold the edges of the dough over the filling to make a free-form tart. Bake until the crust puffs and both the crust and the leeks are golden, about 15 minutes. Scatter the mushrooms over the leeks and bake for 5 minutes more.
  5. Let the tart stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Cut into bite-size pieces and serve warm. Serves 8 to 10.


Nothing screams spring like a pasta dish overflowing with spring vegetables. My first dish is always a Spring Vegetable Risotto with asparagus, peas and Parmigiano-Reggiano. This dish is a pretty simple pairing. When making pasta dishes, always be aware of the addition of tomatoes (raw or cooked).

Tomatoes complicate the food pairing. When you are pairing wine with an acidic food, such as tomatoes, the right wine will take the bite out (and lower the acidity). Match acidity with acidity. A bad choice would be a richer wine, such as an oaked chardonnay, the wine and food would have a flabby, metallic taste.


If you aren’t sitting around dreaming about lamb chops like I am, you should be! Lamb is a great food wine and basically, a delicious dish. The meat is full of flavor and texture which needs a wine with enough tannin to balance the fat.

Pairing: A right bank Saint-émilion pairs perfectly. Chianti, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Rhone red also complement lamb dishes.

Recipe: A basic grilled lamb with garlic and rosemary

Recommended from ReserveBar: Château Lasségue Saint-Émilion red blendChâteau Guadet St-Émilion Grand CruBanfi Chianti classico riserva DOCGCakebread Cellars Cabernet SauvignonDon Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon.

Don’t concern yourself too much with finding the “perfect pairing”. If you want to elevate your wine pairing game, take notes, stick to the basics and ask around. I recently asked my community of wine friends what their favorite pairings were and I was so inspired by some of the answers I received: lobster rolls & Chardonnay, shellfish & Albariño, Salad Nicoise & white Bordeaux, Spring vegetable risotto & Grüner, Burrata with strawberries & rosé, steak tartare & champagne, grilled fish & Assyrtiko, Greco di Tufo & Mozzarella di bufala, Stilton & Port. 

Try them all! Explore, enjoy and have fun!

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