Today’s salads are main events, full of vibrant colors and dimensions of flavor. When built with the right ingredients, they can be the perfect partners for a full range of wines, from crisp Sauvignon Blanc to buttery Chardonnay to earthy Côtes du Rhône. Even off-dry Rieslings and Gewürztraminers can match salads that have sweet notes.
1. Lose the Acid but Not the Zing
The salad dressing is the most difficult component to match with wine because of its very nature, which is acidic. A straight “one part red wine vinegar to three parts olive oil” dressing is too sharp to work with wine. Too much aggressive
acid will make the wine taste flat and dull. What to do?
- Avoid the “war of acids” by keeping acids in balance. Cut down on the amount of vinegar in the recipe. Replace part or all of the red or white wine vinegar in a recipe with balsamic, sherry, or rice wine vinegar, which have fuller, mellower flavors.
- Use alternatives to vinegar that are intense, but not sharp, such as a few tablespoons of rich chicken, veal, fish, or vegetable stock. You can also use Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, juices from roasted meats or vegetables, or roasted garlic purée.
- Fruit juices match wine easily. Use lemon or lime juice, but think also of orange juice, apple cider, cranberry juice, or any fruit juice with a bright flavor.
- A super fruity olive oil or a toasty note from nut oil can make an important link with wine.
- Dress salads with the very best extra-virgin olive oil you can find and afford. As European winemakers (many of whom also produce olive oil) have always known, supple, peppery, citrusy olive oil is one of the greatest partners wine has ever had.
2. Be Green Friendly
Some lettuces intensify bitterness in wines, while other greens come in all kinds of flavors—spicy, peppery, nutty, tart. As a general rule, match rosés, tart whites, and lighter reds like pinot noir with salads. Strong peppery greens will want a wine with some spiciness to it, like Zinfandel or Petite Syrah. And when in doubt, offer a sparkling wine, because like salad itself, bubbly is light, refreshing, and infinitely satisfying on a summer evening.
3. Build A Bridge
“Bridge” ingredients make salad wine-friendly due to their natural affinity with wine. They complement, contrast, or sometimes mitigate their wine partners. Here is a comprehensive list of “bridges”:
- Fresh Berries and Cherries: Picks up the ripe berry flavors of Beaujolais and pinot noirs and even hearty Cabernets.
- Slice of Sweet Pear: Similar to the sweetness in an off-dry Chenin Blanc or Riesling.
- Serrano chile-laced dressing: Contrasts with slightly sweet, spicy, lower alcohol Gewürztraminers (the chiles’ heat tends to heighten the taste of alcohol in wine).
- Grilled Beef or a Round of Smoked Mozzarella: Plays down troublesome tannins in a robust red wine that would otherwise be too much for a simple salad of greens and vegetables.
- Herbs: Lots of wines have herbal notes in them, including Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
- Crisp, Raw Vegetables: Demand a wine with texture.
- Roasting Vegetables: Roasting concentrates flavors and brings out natural sweetness. Works well with deeper, richer wines like Zinfandel and barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc.
- Grilled Vegetables: Link the toasty, woody flavors with wine that’s “seen some oak,” like a barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Mushrooms: Make a salad more earthy and full-bodied. A red wine, such as pinot noir, is welcome.
- Apple, Pear, Melon, and Tropical Fruit: Complement flavors common in Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, or Gewürztraminers.
- Dried Fruit—Figs, Cranberries, Apricots and Raisins: Link to wines with bright fruit notes, such as Grenache or Gamay.
- Croutons: Toasted or grilled bread in a salad works nicely with slightly oaky wines.
- Nuts: Toasted nuts complement slightly oaky toasty wines.
- Cheese: If the cheese is very salty, like a blue cheese, pair it with a slightly sweet wine, such as an off-dry Riesling. Dry aged cheeses, like Parmesan or Asiago, with their toasty,buttery flavors, link wonderfully to barrel-fermented and aged Chardonnays.
- Anchovies: Offset their pungent saltiness with a very fruity and possibly even a somewhat sweet wine, like a California or Washington State Riesling. The same is true for Chinese chicken salad with soy sauce dressing.
- Meats, Seafood, Poultry: Tames tannins and acids. Pair each with the same wines you’d use when pairing any entrée.