In this blog post we venture into the basics of picking the proper wine to pair with entrees. All wine aficionados know, pairings done properly elicit an extraordinary balance between the individual elements of the food and character of the wine. This attention to detail substantially increases a meals enjoyment factor and helps to avoid common combinational mistakes.
In days of old, wine was considered safer to drink and more sanitary than the water supply. Therefore, it was served plentifully with most meals and without critical consideration for pairing. Through the millennia, Italians have almost always dinned with a glass a wine along with their meals. Numerous cultures have paired their available local foods with their own local wines. The modern age allows us many more choices in both food and wine from virtually the entire planet. While the art of food pairings is a more recent discipline, a basic understanding of food/wine science can help equip the overwhelmed consumer and lead to a more enjoyable dining experience. The goal here is not to become an overnight expert but to develop an intuitive nature to the fine culinary art of food/wine pairings.
Sommeliers Rank Highly
Who needs a professional sommelier when just about anybody can learn the art of pairings with a little material and study? Well, the truth of the matter is a professional sommelier spends years learning his trade. When assessing a wine for its compatibility with a certain meal type, consideration of its sugar, acid, tannins (water soluble polyphenol compounds), and its alcohol are important if a food and wine enthusiast wishes to maximize their meal’s enjoyment factor. Most people know the five basics characteristics of food. Those being sweet, sour, salty, bitter and the most recent, Umami, a taste quality described as savory. These are well-defined and understood, and they have the most recognized and agreed upon common characteristics. However, a consensus among food experts is that there may be 20 variations of taste features or what is commonly called “flavors” contained in wine. This lends credence to the case that becoming a professional sommelier may take years of learning and practical experience.
Flavor and Texture Interact
Each person’s taste is different and obviously subjective in nature. One person may have a greater or lesser taste sensitivity to certain elements that effect their response to tastes and flavors. However, there are certain tried and true basics to pairings. One of the main concepts of parings is that the texture and flavor of the food and wine interacts with each in complex ways. If we find the right combination of these flavor and textural elements, then we will be on a path towards a harmonious relationship between food and wine.
Food Weight and Wine Body
Most experts agree on a very basic concept called weight, when talking food, and body, as applied to wine. The body of a wine is an industry term that is essentially its weight. Experts consider this concept to be the main consideration in the decision of combining food and wine. As an example, a heavy bodied red wine such as a Merlot or a Cabernet Sauvignon, can easily overwhelm a light and subtle fare meal such as halibut or an egg-based quiche. While some people may appreciate a wine-heavy combination, in general, most would find a white Chardonnay, light Lambrusco or Pinot Noir more suitable for more dainty dishes. Likewise, one would typically not pair a light wine such as a Primitivo with a heavy beef or stew dish but rather choose a hearty Cabernet or Merlot.
Complementary and Contrasting Flavor Combinations
Flavor combinations can either be complementary or contrasting. Complementary combinations, or what may be called congruent pairings, are ones that create a sense of food/wine balance by intensifying shared flavor components. Whereas contrasting pairings create a sense of food/wine balance by contrasting tastes and flavors. As an example, in the food realm, consider grains and legumes, rice and beans or beef and mushrooms as a congruent/complementary pairings. Salt and pepper, a time-honored seasoning combination, sweet and sour pork, and an Asian favorite, lime and coconut, are food combinations that are contrasting examples.
Taste and Flavors of Wine,
Taste: Taste is a function of a person’s sensory glands called taste buds located on a person’s tongue and in their mouth cavity. The taste of food encompasses the fundamental characteristics of bitter, sweet, salty and sour (acidity). Generally, most people can easily relate to these properties and many individuals can assign each one of these tastes an intensity rating from one to ten.
Flavors: Flavors are more connected to a person’s olfactory sense of smell. When connoisseurs talk about the more esoteric character of wine, they may use somewhat ambiguous terms like fruits, herbs, char, butterscotch, toast, vanilla, mocha earth, grass tobacco and so forth. These are generally referred to as flavors. These wine qualities are much more subjective and subtle than tastes. Most individuals cannot assign a scale of intensity to flavor characteristics. Some may even have a problem detecting flavors at all. Others may not be able to associate flavors with their descriptors. Certain flavors may leave someone entirely questioning whether they recognize such flavors as “mocha earth,” ”grass” or tobacco” at all. Additionally, the age of a person, their genetics and medical factors play a part in the sensitivity of their taste buds.
Wine Pairing – Bitterness, Sweetness, Acidity and Alcohol
When pairing wine with food, most experts rely more on the objective taste characteristics of wine rather than the much more subjective flavors of wine. Wine professionals focus mainly on the three taste characteristics of bitterness, sweetness and acidity. Bitterness is generally a byproduct of the tannin in the wine while sweetness is the result of the residual sugar content. Acidity is associated with the sourness aspect of wine. There is another characteristic called alcohol that effects the wine’s perceived body and the feeling of heat of a wine in the mouth.
Bitterness (astringency) of Wine
Certain parts of the grape and the winemaking process itself, contribute to what’s referred to as the tannin content of wine. The seeds, skins and stems are the main contributors that get extracted during the crushing of the grapes that contribute to the tannin content of wine. Tannin compounds are formed during the ageing process as a result of long periods in oak barrels. There is a certain chalkiness these substances add to the character of wine. Tannin are both texture-rich and astringent or bitter. Bitterness also effects the body of wine as discussed above under the heading “Food Weight and Wine Body.” Regarding food pairing, be careful not to pair a high tannin content wine with fish dishes as the omega 3 fish oils generally combine poorly with make the wine giving the meal a metallic taste. Another caution to remember is that drinking a high tannin wine with sweet or spicy food will amplify the wine’s tannin content causing it to appear odd in flavor. Tannins change or interact with the protein in food and even in a person’s mouth. Consequently, high tannin content wine is best paired with foods with high protein and fat content. High tannin wine will have a sort of softening effect on the protein and fats in food. When these wines are used with low fat/protein foods such as salads and vegetarian dishes, the wine will exhibit a drying, astringent effect on the mouth. In the absence of protein and fat, tannins react more with the inside of a person’s mouth rather than the food. Grilled food works well with high tannin wines and contributes significantly to the complexity of charbroiled fare.
The Bitterness Issue
One interesting consideration to keep in mind when pairing high tannin content wines is that approximately 25% of people exhibit an ultra-sensitivity to bitterness. These individuals generally don’t like black coffee, strong beer, kale or radishes. For these individuals, a less bitter (low tannin content) wine such as a Bobal or Cabernet Franc may be preferred.
All wines are considered acidic, somewhere in the range of 2.5 pH to 4.5 pH on the acid/alkaline scale. White wines are usually more acidic then reds. Returning to high school chemistry, water, with a value of 7.0 pH is considered neutral. Lemon is somewhat more acidic than wine. But surprisingly to many, the soft-drink Cola is the most acidic of any substance on the acid/alkaline scale. The acid content of wine is a major pairing consideration. Wine acidity triggers glands that produce saliva in the mouth and can either diminish or enhance certain flavors in food. The expression “mouthwatering” refers to the actual production of saliva in anticipation and reaction to food thereby encouraging a healthy appetite. This prepares other enzymes and stomach acids for food about to be consumed for digestion by the body. Wine can contain three distinctly different types of acids, each one owning their own unique characteristic. A strong bitter acid called tartaric is one type. A milky tasting acid known as lactic is another. Finally, with a flavor like green apples, there is malic acid. In rich dishes containing a lot of fats and salt, high acid wines tend to freshen or cut through the richness of the meal. A strong acid content wine tends to provide a acidic nature that is complementary to food that is tart or acidic. This works kind of like a cancellation effect that actually helps to bring out other more subtle flavor features of both the food and the wine.
A wine’s sweetness is a result of the amount of residual sugar remaining from the process of fermentation. The sweetness profile of wine has the effect of countering or reducing the acidity of food. Even though Cola is the most acidic substance on the pH scale, drinking one is generally not considered an acidic experience by most. That’s due to the cancellation effect the sugar has on the acid in the beverage. On the other hand, someone biting into a lemon, which is less acidic than cola, would experience a strong sour sensation because the lemon’s acid has not been cancelled or reduced by a sweetness factor. There are four degrees of sweetness for wine. Bone-dry wine, with all the fruit sugar fermented to alcohol as in Italian Pino Grigio, Chablis and Maceo. Off-dry wine, with a hint or trace of sweetness as in French Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or Viognier. Semi-dry wine with a medium sweetness as in Riesling, Moscato and Torrente’s. Finally, high sugar wines, also considered dessert wines, such as late harvest white wines, ports and Vin Santo. For pairing considerations, sweet wines should be sweeter than the dish its paired with. Sweetness can compensate for a spicy dish, helping to assuage some of the hotness of the food. The classic sweet and sour effect is popular for balancing a tart, acidic dish with a sweet wine. A sweet wine can also be used to enhance or increase the sweetness of subtly sweet food. It can also offer contrast to very salty foods as in dessert wines combined with salty cheeses.
High alcohol content adds increased body or weight to wine. This adds more density along with a sense of texture or feel in the mouth. Alcohol also offers a certain feeling of warmness, or heat in the back of the throat of the drinker. Alcohol content is an important characteristic related to food/wine weight/body pairing as discussed above. When pairing with food, it’s important to understand that alcohol content emphasizes and heightens the spiciness of food. If a very spicy Mexican meal is served with a high alcohol wine, expect the chemical compound responsible for the burning sensation, capsicum, to become even more accentuated.
Find a Winery that Does Pairing
If you want to learn from the experts, find a boutique winery in your area that does wine pairings. Many small to medium size wineries in this category will have special events or even regular food pairings on the weekends. These owners are typically very sophisticated and love to share their wine pairing techniques they’ve learned from a lifetime of wine appreciation.
Basic Pairings Rules:
- Red wines almost always pair best with strong, bold, red meat.
- Choose white wines to pair with light colored, milder meats such as chicken or fish.
- Bitter wines (usually red wines) work better with fatty food.
- When it comes to flavor intensity, try to equalize the wine with the food. If the food is mild and without much intensity, the wine should be delicate, frail or slight.
- Wine should generally be sweeter than the food to some degree.
- The wine should always be more acidic that the food.
- Matching the wine with a dishes sauce rather than the meat will work best in most situations.
- If in doubt, go with red as it will, most of the time, work harmoniously with the majority of foods.
- Some types of green vegetables are difficult to find a harmonious wine match. These include, green beans, artichokes, asparagus and Brussel sprouts.
- Try a Pinot Noir or a Dolcetto for dishes with earthy flavors such as ones with truffles or mushrooms.
- Chardonnay’s work well with fatty fish like salmon or sea bass or if the sauce is thick and rich.
- Cabernet and Bordeaux Sauvignon is fantastic with red meats that are juicy such as steaks or lamb chops.
- Try a Malbec or a Shiraz with dishes drenched in spicy barbecue sauce, including chicken and Asian BBQ.
- You won’t go wrong pairing a Riesling or Gewürztraminers with sweet, spicy dishes like found in Thai food.
- Don’t just search Champagne for special occasions like New Years or Christmas. Try it with just about any kind of salty food. The sparkling dry drink well have a refreshing effect on the meal.