Which Wine Pairs the Worst with Food?

By Ryan Snyder on July 22, 2007

Category: Winegeeks Opinions

We've covered Food and Wine Pairing plenty of times before. Sure, we can get into the nuances of wines from specific appellations and local dishes to try to find the perfect pairing. But the fact is, most wines will work fine for food and wine pairing. What we're worried about now is figuring out how to avoid a disaster at the dinner table. I recently asked the other Winegeeks writers about what wines we should avoid when seeking a bottle for their dinner tables, and here's what they had to say:

In your opinion, which Wine Pairs the Worst with Food?

E. S. Brown

The easy answer here would be California Chardonnay because if you follow one of the tried and true rules of pairing wines and foods that compliment each other, you would need to pair like flavors with like flavors, and I at the very least do not like to eat foods that taste like oak. Maybe you do. Maybe you are a beaver. I don't know. Anyhoo, instead I think I will just mention a style of wine. There are oceans of red swill that hail from California and Australia that are alcoholic versions of grape Kool-Aid. These wines are mass-produced by the millions of cases, and they seem to have an underlying current of jammy fruit, a slight sweetness and lots of vanilla from oak chips or sawdust or other flavoring agents that are used to trick you into thinking that you are a beaver.

Don't fall for the trap, pun intended only if you think it's punny. These wines sacrifice complexity, nuance, typicity and character to achieve that slightly sweet style. I can think of no wine that I would care to have on my dinner table less. There is no acidity or tannin, which are the backbone of any wine and the soul of a great food and wine pairing. The proteins in the food and the acidity in the wine form a balance that allows the flavors of both parties to come shining through. Any full-flavored food will overshadow this style of wine, and any lighter fare will seem beaten by an oak 2 x 4. Like all things in life, balance is the key, and the same is true about wine. Go for the good stuff, people. You worked so hard to put a great dinner on the table. Why ruin it with a crappy bottle of wine?

Matthew Citriglia

High alcohol wines are by far the most difficult wines to pair with foods. Depending on the grape variety, the upper limit I place on alcohol in wine to use for dinner is 14.0%. Above that and the wines become too powerful and will no longer interact with the food. There are a variety of reasons for this:

1. High alcohol wines usually lack acidity which is the primary key in food and wine harmony.
2. Textures or weight need to be matched when pairing food and wine, so high alcohol wines need very rich weighty foods.
3. High alcohol wines need low-sodium dishes as salt intensifies the flavor and feeling of alcohol.
4. Spicy heat is intensified by high alcohol wines -- like pouring gasoline on a fire.
5. Most high alcohol wines are laden with acetic bacteria which attacks and washes out the flavors of the food.

But the #1 reason that I don't drink high alcohol wines, is the fact that it limits the amount of wine I can consume in an evening. At 10.5% alcohol, I can drink 50% more Riesling than a sticky Pinot at 15.5% and still feel better in the morning!

Dana Pickell

While there are specific grape varietals that may be more difficult to pair with foods than others, overall, I can't think of one in particular that is just a bomb with food. However, there is a style of wine that never, ever is a good partner for any food: that of the high-alcohol breed. Take a Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, just to name a few mishandled varietals, bump their alcohol up to 14.8 or 15% alcohol, and try to sip them with your beautifully charred New York strip. It won't work. That burning sensation in your nose and on your palate won't bring out any flavors in your food. In fact, all that alcohol just diminishes whatever smells and tastes are there. And 15% isn't even considered high alcohol for some wines. Just two weeks ago I tasted a Washington state Syrah ringing in at 15.8% alcohol and my nose and throat burned for at least a couple minutes. Don't even bother trying to figure out what the winemaker was thinking, just pass such "hot" wines up for their more subdued, food-friendly counterparts that aren't trying to flash their alcohol at you.

Ryan Snyder

High alcohol wines. There's a time and a place for intense alcohol, like when you're trying to disinfect a wound. Basically, you use high alcohol to kill something, and when you pair a high alcohol wine with food all you're really doing is killing the flavor of the food. The experience suddenly becomes a ménage à un, where the only thing you can taste is the wine even though you can still feel a few solid pieces of food hanging out in your mouth. A certain harmony takes place in your mouth when pairing low alcohol wines with food, they compliment each other and help to express characteristics in both the food and the wine that aren't perceptible when tasted alone. My basic rule of thumb is try to keep it under 13.5% alcohol... anything above this limit, and I'll consume it as an after-dinner drink.