Have you always wanted to impress dinner guests with your food and wine pairing know-how but aren’t sure how to advance your skills? Australian-based wine expert David Stevens-Castro says with the right technique and guidance, anyone can learn the sommelier’s art.

David and his wife Fran Flynn have dedicated their lives to the fine art of both wonderful food and fabulous wine. They recently took out the top prize for their food and wine-pairing book Paired: Champagne & Sparkling Wines at the Gourmand World Cook Book Awards in China.

David’s top 3 insider secrets for sophisticated food and wine pairing

Tip 1: Acknowledge different palate preferences
Everyone has different taste preferences. For example you might love capsicum whereas it may be your partner’s least favourite food – and the same goes for wine. Therefore if one person loves a certain food and wine pairing, even if they are an expert, it doesn't mean that it is definitively 'correct', because it might not suit your personal sense of taste. Experts can give you guidance but you have to develop confidence in your own ability to assess based on your personal palate preferences. 

Tip 2: Pair with the occasion in mind
The occasion is very important. You will choose a totally different food and wine pairing for a summer afternoon with seafood on the beach compared to a winter comfort food of casserole or stew; similarly with a group celebration compared to an intimate date. Just as you would adjust your food choice to suit the occasion, adjust your wine selection in the same way.

Tip 3: Assess the aromas and flavours separately before experimenting
Take your time appreciating the aromas and flavours of the dish and the wine separately and then try them in combination. Wait for a few mouthfuls before you assess the overall sensation and consume slowly and concentrate on what your senses are experiencing.  Start with wines and foods you are familiar with, and once you reach your comfort zone, move into experimentation.

Should we colour code food with wine for e.g. white with fish? Or is this an old myth?
To an extent, it can be pretty accurate, but the most important thing is not to feel limited by 'rules'. I used to think that chocolate wasn't good with champagne, but how wrong I was, it can be delightful. Be flexible, salmon goes so well with Pinot Noir but it's not an obvious choice! I recommend drinking lighter wines that do not overpower the flavours of the dish to discover synergy of flavour and subtle appreciation. It can take time to get to know your own tastebuds properly. Lighter pairings that don't overwhelm the palate are a better place to start. 

Does the age of the wine make a difference when pairing? 
It really does. But it is quite variable depending on the style of wine:

  • Bubbles are crisp and fresh when young but as they age they get toasty and nuttier, so for aperitif and light canapés a young sparkling is preferable.
  • Whites also lose aromatic vibrancy and freshness on the palate as they age, but they gain weight and richness, so light creamy dishes and baked dishes can match with the richness making it a surprisingly attractive proposition.
  • Reds when young are dry, astringent and have impact of flavour, but as they age they soften, rounding the intensity on the palate and become smoother. I am a fan of aged reds, if you find the right dish to go with it. Take care though, as they can be easily overpowered by the food.

Sampling a wide variety of wines will help you pair your meal and drink better

What is the one thing you should never do when pairing food with wine? 
Never limit yourself with preconceptions. Tasting is the only way you can be sure of a flavour combination. Anyone can do it! No need to be a connoisseur, all you need is taste-buds and a sense of adventure. Get to know what you like first and then take the time to appreciate the combination of what you are eating and drinking on a regular basis – this is your foundation of knowledge and how you can begin to train your tastebuds. 

What are some of the most common misconceptions about wine and pairing?

Carbonation: Many people think that the bubbles in champagne are added by carbonation, like a soft drink, however it’s actually a result of natural reactions caused by the fermentation process, i.e. when added yeast causes the natural sugars in the grape juice to convert to alcohol.

Flavour characteristics: It is commonly assumed that when flavours or aromas are referred to as characteristics of a wine e.g. strawberry, pineapple, apple, vanilla etc., that they have been added synthetically by the winemaker. In fact, wine contains compounds that are very similar to other fruits and vegetables, which are created by the environment the grapes grow in. These compounds are naturally released during fermentation, therefore producing distinctively similar aromas and flavours. 

Ageing: All wines are better when they are older, right? Wrong, all wines have a life span and, in fact, the majority are designed to be consumed in a relatively short space of time. There are only a small percentage of wines that are intended to survive into old age. In the case of sparkling wines, generally speaking cellarable wines are of high pedigree and therefore in a high price bracket – particularly vintage champagnes.  

Discover the pleasure of matching food and wine for yourself with these three sensational recipes:

What is your favourite wine? Let us know in the comments section below.

David Stevens-Castro grew up in Chile playing in the vineyards of his grandfather's farm, and was inspired by his aunt and uncle who own a wine analysis laboratory. Fast-forward a few decades, with a degree in Agricultural Science under his belt (specialising in wine and fruit production) and a passion for food and wine in his belly, David set out exploring Australia and enriched his career as a sommelier in several five star locations. These days he is a highly respected, award winning, wine expert.