Sarah O’Kelley pairs acidic white wines with popcorn for a quick at-home snack | Photo by Rūta Smith

Perfect pairing

Properly pairing wine with food can be intimidating, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the many varietals. Sarah O’Kelley, wine director at Edmund’s Oast Exchange, shared some simple tips to guide you.

“I have (and probably most other wine people in this town have) been trying to dispel the idea of wine being fancy and pretentious,” O’Kelley said. “It’s really fun to do pairings and not make it this pretentious thing.”

O’Kelley is a certified sommelier who has worked in the wine business for nearly 10 years with stints in the food industry. She owned and operated West Ashley’s Glass Onion with Chris Stewart for six years before departing on a wine journey. She is knowledgeable in both food and wine flavors.

Balancing acidity

“One of the most important things in wine to me, and I always say this, other than it tasting good, is acidity,” she said. 

Think of the rich holiday meals you recently enjoyed with family or friends. Perhaps you indulged in dishes like oven-roasted turkey basted with butter or a roasted ham cooked in its own fat and served with mashed potatoes and homemade gravy, collard greens and cheesy mac and cheese. Acidic wine can help balance these deep, rich flavors.

“Acidity in wine is what makes it work really well with food to me,” O’Kelley said. “It cuts through the richness of dishes. It physically causes our mouths to water, which I think is what makes us want to keep going back for that next sip.” 

Another thing to look for in wine is tannin, naturally occuring substances that create that kind of dry wine feeling in your mouth, O’Kelley said. 

“It’s always easy to remember things like the most famous thin-skinned grapes, like pinot noir and gamay, have less of the tannin than the most famous thick-skinned grapes, like the Bordeaux family of cabernet, merlot and syrah,” she said. 

Like acid, tannin can add complexity to a meal. The dryness tannins provide pairs well with rich, fatty foods (like a steak with a cabernet sauvignon).

Finally, O’Kelley recommends considering alcohol content. If you’re planning on eating a spicy dish, she said, a wine with high alcohol content isn’t recommended. 

“Imagine something spicy [paired] with alcohol,” she said. “It just elevates everything, and you’re already hot.”

Alcohol content always appears on the bottle, but O’Kelley said the region the wine came from also hints at alcohol content.

“Climate is what produces the alcohol,” O’Kelley said. “More sunshine equals more sugar, which gets turned into alcohol. So warmer climate wines are just going to be bigger, richer and have more alcohol.”

Breaking the rules

While red wines like pinot noir seem like go-tos in fall and winter, O’Kelley said, textured white wines like chenin blanc or a dry riesling are her wines of choice because of acidity. She prefers to save light red wines for summer cookouts with plenty of red meats. When pairing wine with food, you don’t want one flavor overpowering the other, but to complement one another. 

“You want to make sure the wine has enough body to stand up to the meal,” she said. “You can obliterate a wine with something that’s just too much. Back in the day, it was red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. But there’s so much in between, you know?” 

Though bold red wines hold up the flavors of a steak, acidic white wine can help add texture to a meal, cutting through the fattiness and richness and brightening the auxiliary flavors of garlic and rosemary. 

“Rules are meant to be broken in this day and age, especially in the wine world,” O’Kelley said. “There’s so many different things from orange wine to crazy, funky natural wines. 

“The lines have been blurred. And it really is just a bit more about having fun and not getting too caught up in the rules.”

But when in doubt, O’Kelley said to pair “sparkling with everything.” 

Favorite pairings

On her blog, Grape to Table, O’Kelley suggests pairing a light red, low in alcohol and tannins, with her homemade chili recipe. But she offered some other suggestions for City Paper readers: 

“My favorite thing is to take leftovers [from holiday dinners] and make gumbo,” O’Kelley said, who used to live in Louisiana, where gumbo was born. “Most people won’t even necessarily think of gumbo and wine because down in New Orleans you probably just have a beer, but it’s actually really good.” O’Kelley said she would pair gumbo with a gamay from the Beaujolais “which is very similar to pinot noir, and is a bright, fresh red with a slight chill.”

Another hearty winter dish she loves is white Rancho Gordo beans and shrimp paired with chenin blanc, her personal favorite wine. “It’s a match made in heaven,” she said.

If you want to stay warm and comfortable under a blanket, O’Kelley suggested serving oyster soup in a mug paired with chenin blanc or chardonnay. “People think they hate chardonnay until they have chardonnay from France. That, with oyster soup, is so good.”

If you want something quick and easy to enjoy at home with your wine, try popcorn and a white burgundy, chardonnay, chenin blanc or riesling, O’Kelley said.

“When I’m getting home late at night or [at Edmund’s Oast] too late, that’s what I’ll eat for dinner,” O’Kelley laughed.

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