In many European wine regions, the wines and culinary traditions developed reciprocally such that the wines naturally pair with the regional fare. Many of these so-called "food wines" can seem overly tart or tannic if drank on their own, but come alive once paired with food, and, in particular, those foods that they co-evolved with. If you respect these time-honored pairings, you are much less likely to go wrong.
Otherwise, you need to choose what to put into focus: the food or the wine. For instance, if it is the wine that you wish to emphasize, pick a dish that is slightly lighter and complements rather than competes with it. Take care not to pick a dish that is too light or it will be overwhelmed by the wine: although you want the wine to lead, you want the dish to follow closely behind. If it is the food that you wish to emphasize, you are effectively using the wine as a sauce or spice. In all instances, your aim is for the wine to bring out the best in the food, and the food the best in the wine. This is certainly the case with such classic pairings as Muscadet and oysters, Claret and lamb, and Sauternes and Roquefort.
Taste, however, is subjective, and there cannot and should not be rigid rules for pairing foods and wines. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the wine lover is in experimenting with combinations and, in so doing, multiplying the flavours, textures, and sensations of everyday life. That said, you need to be versed in the principles that you may or may not decide to break.
First, identify the dominant component of your dish. For example, the dominant component of fish served in a creamy sauce is more likely to be the creamy sauce than the fish itself. Then pick a wine that either complements or contrasts with the dominant component. Examples of complementary pairings are, a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with sole in a lemon sauce, an earthy Pinot Noir with a mushroom dish, or a peppery Syrah with a steak in peppercorn sauce.
Four important elements to bear in mind are weight, acidity, tannins, and sweetness. The weight and texture of a wine is determined by such factors as alcohol level, amount of extract and tannin, and winemaking processes such as extended maceration, lees ageing, and oaking. In general, lighter wines pair with lighter foods, whereas heavier, more robust wines pair with heavier, more rustic foods. Good examples of pairings by weight are Chardonnay and lobster or Chardonnay and roast chicken.
Acidity stimulates appetite and cuts through heaviness, explaining the success of such contrasting pairings as Sancerre and goat cheese, Alsatian Riesling and pork belly, and Tokay and foie gras. In all cases, the wine must be at least as acidic as the dish, and preferably more so: if not, the wine is going to seem thin or insipid.
Tannins can lend chalkiness or grittiness to a wine, and also bitter astringency. Tannins bind to and react with proteins in food, by which process they are "softened." While tannic wines go hand-in-hand with red meats and cheeses, they pair poorly with spicy or sweet dishes, which can accentuate their bitterness and astringency, and also with fish oils, which can make them come off as "metallic."
A sweet dish requires a wine that is just as sweet or sweeter, or else the wine will be overpowered by the dish. Sweetness balances heat and spiciness, and also contrasts with saltiness, as, for example, in the case of vintage Port and Stilton. Conversely, alcohol accentuates the heat in spicy food and vice versa. So much explains why Mosel Riesling, which is both high in residual sugar and low in alcohol, is often an excellent choice for spicy food. However, very spicy food will overwhelm almost any wine, so pair with some other beverage such as water, beer, or lassi. Some foods are difficult to pair with wine, most notably chocolate, eggs, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus.
Finally, remember to match your wine also to the occasion, your companions, the season, the weather, the time of day or night, and your mood and tastes. If you are serving more than one wine, think about your line up and make it as varied or interesting or educational as possible.
Neel Burton is co-author of the new Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.