Successful wine and food pairing can be daunting, but it's worth experimenting with matching wine and food because the right combination creates flavors that are vastly superior to how the wine and food taste independently. There are many different factors to consider when pairing food and wine, but first it's helpful to look at the big picture: the different levels of success or failure one can achieve when pairing wine with food, from poor to refreshing, good, and synergistic pairings.
Poor Wine & Food Pairing
A poor wine and food pairing isn't simply a matter of the wine and food not going well together, but rather that in combination the wine and food make each other taste worse than when alone. As a visual analogy, consider pairing a paisley shirt with striped pants — however good either might look on their own, they should never be brought together.
You're more likely to encounter a poor pairing with foods that have very strong characteristics — very spicy food, very salty food, very bitter food, etc. Wine and food pairing is done via complimentary or contrasting tastes, but when a food is so strong in one flavor area it's difficult to find a wine that is strong enough to adequately compliment or contrast with it. In the worst case scenario, you might have a wine that emphasizes the wrong characteristics of the food — for example, a Shiraz that increases the spiciness of Mexican food.
It's also possible to have a poor wine and food pairing simply because the flavors shouldn't be brought anywhere near each other, even if they aren't especially strong. A good example might be pairing dark chocolate cake with a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. Both the cake and the wine would be good on their own, but together they'll taste horrible.
Refreshing Wine & Food Pairing
The minimum level of wine and food pairing that you want is a refreshing pairing. A refreshing pairing occurs when the wine essentially serves a refreshing beverage, something that cleanses the palate and makes you ready for more food. It is at best playing a supporting role for the food, not an independent role with its own strengths. At the very least the flavors could be complimentary, but that may be because the wine itself doesn't have very strong flavors itself.
Although it might sound negative to say that this is only the minimal level of pairing that it acceptable, in reality there are plenty of situations where the wine you drink is primarily a refreshment, not an independent flavor component of the meal. This is probably most common during warmer weather when you're looking for a refreshing drink anyway and so are happiest if you have something cool and refreshing while eating as well.
Another common situation for preferring refreshing wines is when you're eating very strongly flavored or heavily spiced foods that are difficult to pair successfully. If you have spicy Chinese or Mexican food, for example, not only will it be difficult to find a wine that creates a strong pairing but a cool, refreshing drink brings a lot of positive qualities to the meal anyway.
Neutral Wine & Food Pairing
A basic and very common level of wine and food pairing is "neutral." A neutral pairing occurs whenever both the wine and the food provide independent flavor components, but they don't mesh so well that they make each other vastly superior to what they are like when alone. There's nothing special about a neutral wine and food pairing — it's not especially great but nothing especially bad, either. You'll enjoy the wine and you'll enjoy the food, but you won't enjoy them more for having had them together.
Neutral wine and food pairings have become common because it's something that wine makers have been striving to create. You might think that they would prefer to create superior pairings, but the best pairings require a careful balancing act between the wine and food. In practice, this means that the better a wine goes with certain foods, the worse it will go with many other foods. If a wine doesn't go very well with a lot of different foods, though, it won't sell as well and that's not what wine makers want.
As a consequence, then, wine makers have been creating "middle of the road" wines that are likely to at least achieve a neutral pairing with the widest variety of foods possible rather than superior pairings with a narrower range of foods. If you want a neutral pairing for food and wine, then, you're more likely to hit it with the biggest selling wines from the largest wine makers.
You'll want to strive for neutral wine pairings with, for example, dinner parties that have a lot of different food (especially different main courses) and when you're entertaining people with a variety of wine preferences. Thanksgiving dinner is a good case where neutral wine pairings will probably be what you're trying to create.
Good Wine & Food Pairing
A good wine and food pairing isn't the best you can achieve, but it may be the best you'll experience most of the time. Food and wine make a good pairing when the food and wine match closely, but not exactly, in flavor, aroma, body, and intensity. Perhaps the flavors are great matches, but the body is a little bit off; perhaps the body and intensity are great matches, but the aromas are a little off.
The match is close enough that taken together the wine and food taste better than they do separately, but they aren't so much better that you almost feel like you're eating something entirely new. You still recognize the individual elements and can separate them, but you enjoy them more in concert than alone. If you can find good wine and food pairings for most of your favorite foods, you'll be a very happy wine drinker indeed.
Synergistic Wine & Food Pairing
The ultimate level of achievement when pairing wine and food is to find a synergistic pairing — a pairing of wine and food which takes both the wine and food to "the next level" of flavor enjoyment. We have all experienced many synergistic effects in food alone: peanut butter and chocolate, fresh basil and tomatoes, or artichokes and dill. We can also see synergistic effects with the right types of clothing are brought together to create an amazing effect or when a composer brings together different instruments to create an unexpected emotional impact.
Synergistic pairings of wine and food aren't impossible to create, but it's difficult to find just the right wines and foods that move beyond "merely" good pairings and into this truly superior category. For synergistic pairings, and wine and food need to match just right on so many different levels that it's possible for a wine from one vintage to create the synergy but a wine ffom the same vineyard and a different vintage will merely be a good pairing — or perhaps not even that strong.
So if you do find a synergistic pairing between a wine and a food you like, buy several bottles of that wine to use. Don't let the wine sit too long, though, because even if it's a wine that ages well the aging process changes wine flavors in ways that can significantly affect the quality of the pairing — even if it happens to make the wine itself better.