An Overview of the ISA Wine Pairing Criteria

As promised a while ago to Suzanne, the gracious author of food and cooking blog apuginthekitchen, in this post I will briefly go through the core foundations of food-wine pairing, providing an overview of the main criteria conceived and recommended by the Italian Sommelier Association (ISA). This should hopefully offer readers a few guidelines that they may consider trying out the next time they will need to pair a wine with food.

Our discussion about wine pairing will utilize certain of the concepts and terminology that we have gone through in the context of our overview of the ISA wine tasting protocol: if you are not familiar with it, consider reading that post before continuing on with this one.

The first step in the wine pairing process is to assess the food you intend to pair a wine with: in so doing, you should consider (and ideally write down) which of the following characteristics are present to a noticeable extent in your food:

  • Latent sweetness (this is that sweetish feel that you perceive eating such foods as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, carrots, certain seafood such as shrimps or prawns, most ham, bacon, etc. – note, this is NOT the full-blown sweetness of a dessert)
  • Fatness (this refers to the presence of solid greases, such as in most cheeses, salame, hard-boiled egg yolk, etc.)
  • Tastiness (it is given by the presence of salt in a food, such as for instance in most cured meats, salame or cheeses)
  • Latent bitterness (it can be found in such foods as artichokes, raw spinach, radicchio, liver, grilled food, etc.)
  • Latent sourness (it is generally found in tomatoes, seafood marinated in lemon juice, salads with vinegar-based dressings, etc.)
  • Sweetness (typical of a dessert, honey or most fruits)
  • Aftertaste (meaning, whenever the flavor of the food tends to linger in your mouth after swallowing it – for instance, venison meat generally has a longer afterstate than veal meat)
  • Spiciness (this merely indicates the moderate use of spices in the preparation of the food, it does NOT indicate a “hot” food – examples are the use of saffron, curry, pepper, vanilla, etc. in foods like cured meats, risotto, desserts…)
  • Flavor (this indicates a noticeable, distinct flavor that is typical of a certain food or ingredient, such as in the case of blue cheese or goat cheese, salame, foods complemented by herbs, such as pesto sauce or butter and sage ravioli, coffee, cocoa…)
  • Juiciness (there are three types: (i) inherent, which is that of foods that have noticeable quantities of liquids in them, such as a fresh buffalo mozzarella or a meat cut cooked rare; (ii) due to the addition of liquids, such as a beef stew to which some kind of gravy or sauce was added, a brasato, etc.; and (iii) induced, which is that of salty or relatively dry foods, which cause abundant production of saliva in the mouth, such as in the case of a bit of aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese)
  • Greasiness (caused by the presence of oil or other liquefied greases that is still noticeable in the mouth at the end of the preparation of the food, such as in a bruschetta, seafood salad, grilled sausage, etc.)
  • Structure (this depends on the complexity or the extent of elaboration of a food – for instance, a cracker with cheese or a bowl of white rice shall clearly be considered foods with little structure, while a dish of goulash or a Sacher torte shall be considered foods with significant structure)

Now, the core of the wine-food pairing criteria preached by the Italian Sommelier Association is that certain of the aforesaid qualities of a food (to the extent of course they are detectable to a noticeable extent in the food you want to identify a good wine pairing for) shall be paired by contrast with certain qualities of a wine (see below), while certain others of such food qualities shall instead be paired by association with the corresponding qualities in a wine.

Having said that, let’s now move on the second step and see specifically which qualities in a wine relate to the food qualities that we have listed above and how:

Food Quality


Wine Quality

(A) Pairings by Contrast

Latent sweetness ==> Acidity
Fatness ==> Effervescence or Minerality

Latent bitterness

==> Smoothness

Latent sourness

Juiciness / Greasiness ==> ABV or Tannicity (by contrast)

(B) Pairings by Association

Sweetness ==> Sweetness
Spiciness / Flavor ==> Intensity of nose/mouth flavor
Aftertaste ==> Aftertaste or Finish

Wherever per the above guidelines a food quality presents an alternative in the choice of the related wine quality, structure of the food can often dictate which of the alternative wine qualities should be picked. So, for instance, in the case of the greasiness of a delicate seafood salad whose dressing is olive oil-based, the choice in the related wine quality should fall on a white wine with good ABV over a red wine with noticeable tannins, which would have a structure that would overwhelm the much simpler, more delicate structure of the seafood salad dish.

A few side notes on some “special situations“:

  • Very spicy (as in “hot”) food is very difficult to successfully pair: the best thing one can do is to pick a wine with plenty of smoothness and intensity in an effort to compensate, but if the food is too spicy, it will always overwhelm the wine
  • Particularly sour dishes are another challenge, such as in the case of salads with significant vinegar- or lemon-based dressings
  • Ice cream, gelato and sorbet are also tough pairings, because their cold nature makes taste buds even more susceptible to wine acidity, tannins or minerality – sometimes, the best bet is to pair them with a spirit (such as in the case of Granny Smith apple sorbet with Calvados or lemon sorbet with Vodka)

One last comment: the above guidelines are just that, guidelines that should offer you some pointers as to “which way to go” in your choices of which wines to pair with a certain food, but they are certainly not carved in stone, nor are they not meant to be breached now and then if you think there is good reason for it: ultimately, the bottom line is that whatever wine pairing you choose ends up being a pleasant one for your and your guests’ mouths!

Now have fun and experiment!  🙂


28 thoughts on “An Overview of the ISA Wine Pairing Criteria

  1. Dina ♥

    What a great and educating post Stefano. There goes so much joy and delight with the right wine and I just lack the education to pick the right one to make the meal something very special. White or red meat? Meat or fish? But beyond that, well … what do you expect from the Far North. 🙂
    Have a lovely weekend!

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thanks very much for your comment, Dina! I am glad you enjoyed this post: I hope it will inspire you to have some fun trying out different wine-food pairings while giving you a few pointers as to how to come up with your own wine pairing choices! Experiment and have fun!
      And by the way, I have the greatest of expectations from the Far North: there may not grow grape vines up there, which is indeed unfortunate 😉 but it is so blessed and beautiful a country!
      You also have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Kiara Style

    Stefano, I love reading your posts because they are so clear and engaging. I feel like I want to print out this one and tape it on my kitchen cabinet so that I can remember to pay more attention to what wine I am pairing to our my food….and you know what I think I am going to do just that!

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much for your nice comment, Chiara! 🙂
      I am glad you found my post interesting, so much so as to stick it to your kitchen cabinet! 🙂
      I really hope it will inspire you to experiment new and fun food-wine pairings, and it will guide you in your own selections. Just let me know if you come up with something absolutely awesome!!!
      Take care, Chiara, and thanks again! 🙂

  3. armchairsommelier

    I love it, Stefano! Pairing Question: What would you pair with Shrimp and Grits? I’m planning on making it this weekend, and the pairing is giving me fits. The grits will have a white cheddar component, topped with shrimp, bacon and mushrooms. I’m thinking dry Riesling, but the bacon and mushrooms are throwing a wrench in my thought process. Maybe I’d be better with a lighter Red – a Pinot Noir? What do you think? Salud!

    1. Stefano Post author

      Wow, this is a good question, and just like you said a challenge! 🙂
      First things first: what time is dinner tonight so Francesca and I will not be late? 😉
      Then, let’s see: the essential and common feature of the components of your dish is latent sweetness, so first and foremost you are going to need a wine with good acidity. That’s a start 🙂
      Beside that, you will have the challenge of bacon and mushrooms which bring flavor and some greasiness to the table and which add structure to your dish.
      That means that you want a wine with intense flavors, decent structure and either good ABV or some tannins.
      While, based on those characteristics your idea of a PN could fit the bill, but I would be concerned that the structure and tannins of a red could overwhelm the delicate flavor of the shrimps, which are an important component of your dish, so personally I would go white.
      I would pair it with a nice bottle of Cometa, 100% Fiano made by Planeta. I think it would go very well with your dish.
      Other options could be a Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi such as the wonderful Marotti Campi’s Salmariano that is recommended in today’s post on paella on apuginthekitchen’s blog or a Pigato such as the equally wonderful VisAmoris Pigato Verum that Anatoli and I have at the Vinitaly/Slow Wine event.
      Phew, this was long, but I hope it will inspire your choices! 🙂
      Let me know eventually what you are going to settle for! I love your dish! 🙂

      1. armchairsommelier

        Thanks so much for your reply, Stefano! I think I will lean toward white . . . but unfortunately, I don’t have any Italian whites in my wine fridge. I think I need to give myself a little Italian white primer . . . they all sound fantastic, and I suspect I’m missing out! Salud!

      2. talkavino

        The Pigato Verum was exactly on the top of my mind when I read the question : ) Definitely agree on Fiano and Verdicchio. You might also try some of the Spanish whites – Shaya Habis ( old vines Verdejo) or Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia White Reserva

  4. vinoinlove

    Interesting post Stefano. Wine and food paring is sometimes hard to master. Your post will certainly make things easier.
    One question though. Will you double post everything wine related on Flora’s Table and Clicks and Corks or will you actually write different posts for the two blogs?

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thanks, Julian.
      As indicated in the About page of this blog, Clicks & Corks will be an outlet for my photography (which is not going to be available on F’sT, in an effort to keep things focused on food and wine) and for wine reviews and wine education posts, which will be cross posted to both blogs, while wine pairings will only be available on F’sT given their close connection with Francesca’s recipes. C&C may also feature some extra wine-related posts that are not going to appear on F’sT. Hope this clarifies the concept behind C&C.
      Take care

  5. the winegetter

    Excellent suggestions, Stefano! I was looking forward to this post, and it met all my hopes. I will link to this in one of my Sunday reads in the next weeks, because it is concise, helpful and educational. Great, great job!

  6. alisitaliankitchen

    I had to save this for future reference as it was so educational and informative! Really enjoying these tips with wine and food pairings! I really like drinking it as well!

  7. maureenjenner

    I’ve recently been experimenting with some wines from the Venezia – a Pinot Grigio Blush has proved most acceptable with some of the well seasoned dishes I’ve been trying.

  8. Pingback: Sunday Read: An Overview of the ISA Wine Pairing Criteria | the winegetter

  9. talkavino

    Great post, Stefano – I missed it before but have to thank The Wine Getter for bringing it to my attention. I have to admit that I frequently ignore pairing and take wine for wine, and food for food 🙂 But when wine and food work together, it is heavenly.
    By the way, when it comes to ice cream, I think liquors are much better companions than just the wines.
    And to add to to your special cases group, I believe artichokes and asparagus are notorious for challenging wine pairing.

    1. the winegetter

      But doesn’t the asparagus and artichoke pairing get to difficult because of all the different sauces and dippings we use with them? In Germany, for example, where we eat TONS of white asparagus during asparagus season in May/June, the established pairing seems to be a dry Silvaner (less acidic than Rieslings, but still light enough).

      1. talkavino

        In the US, we are talking about green asparagus, which is served for the most of the time, which is also mostly served either blanched or grilled – thus bitter notes are quite pronounced and quite difficult to complement or contrast. The same goes to artichokes, which are very often served just plain grilled. Sauces are usually very helpful in the wine/food pairing as they give you something extra to align to.

      2. Stefano Post author

        Hi guys, sorry it took me a while to respond!
        Yes, Anatoli I totally agree re pairing ice cream with spirits.
        Also, your point regarding artichokes and green asparagus being difficult to pair is definitely a good one. They both have inherent latent bitterness (the artichokes particularly) which, if grilled, gets emphasized even more and makes it a tough to control. As indicated in the pairing chart, the only way to go (unless the bitterness is really over the top) is with a very smooth white wine or a very smooth red with super gentle and supple tannins.

  10. Pingback: Check this out: An Overview of the ISA Wine Pairing Criteria | A Crust Eaten

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you! Glad you liked it and much appreciated.
      Now, I have to give this asparagus/torrontes pairing a try! Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

  11. Pingback: Wine Review: Coppo, Moscato d’Asti “Moncalvina” DOCG 2011… and the Moscato Craze | Clicks & Corks

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