The key to matching food and wine isn’t to be found in the pairing charts you’ve been memorizing, or the red wine-red meat combo you’ve read about so many times. Just as there are hundreds of different ways to make chili, there are hundreds of wine pairing combinations. Remember: there are no absolutes. As with food and wine pairings, only you are the arbiter of what works best. With that said…

What’s the secret? Think of wine as an ingredient as a whole. Think of it this way: when cooking, adding certain flavors is meant to enhance the overall flavor of the meal. It’s all about what’s already in the wine and in the food: some elements, such as alcohol, fat, acidity, sugar and salt either work well together, or don’t!

Alcohol

Wines with high alcohol levels are known to exaggerate the flavor of salt, and tend to overwhelm delicate flavors in food. As a rule of thumb, enjoy high-alcohol wines with foods low in salt, but try to focus on wines that are low in alcohol – those are the most food-friendly and the easiest to pair.

Fat

Just like alcohol, tannins accentuate salty flavors – so when serving a tannic wine, make sure not to over-salt the food. On the other hand, fat and tannins are made for each other: fat counteracts the tannins in wine and make them easier to drink, while tannins in the wine soften the fat.

Acidity

Tame acidity with acidity: foods that are high in acidity will require a wine with a similar level of acidity. Both tame each other down, canceling out the other, making for the perfect pairing! Be careful with low-acidity wines (a Chardonnay or Cab Sauv, for example), as they can get washed away when matched with foods high in acid. Remember: if the wine has less acidity than the food, it will taste flat.

Sugar

For sweetness, we generally follow the same rule as for acidity – match the sweetness level in the food and in the wine. But this isn’t the only truth. Sweetness in wine can also tame – beautifully, I must say – the fire of spicy foods. And for you maple bacon and salted chocolate lovers, go for a pairing of a sweet wine with a salty food.

Salt

With salty foods, a little acidity don’t hurt nobody! But the salt shouldn’t compete with the acidity in the wine. And as said above, nothing like a salty dish with a sweet wine. Last tip: a sparkling wine is a great match for a salty dish.

If you had to remember one secret: no matter what the pairing is, make sure that the wine doesn’t overpower the food, and vice-versa.