Which wine with which food? For some, this question is not pondered over for long, as for them drinking any wine with any food as long as both are liked, is sufficient. Yet others sometimes find it a daunting question and struggle to choose a suitable wine. The answer to the question may not just relate to what food, but sometimes also to who we will be drinking with and above all personal preference. The task of finding wines that go well with your meal and are enjoyed by others is frequently a very difficult one! We all have a unique olfactory system and we all appreciate wines differently.
If finding a wine that everyone enjoys is almost impossible, finding a wine to go with a dish isn’t as difficult. Unfortunately (concerning wine-pairing!) there are thousands of recipes and thousands of different types of wine, so matching does require trial and error. The overall objective of food and wine pairing is to have a perfectly balanced aftertaste after tasting our wine and food. This chapter aims at presenting the principal guidelines you will need to get started perfecting your matching skills! Knowing what characteristics of wine go better with which characteristics in food is the foundation to understanding wine pairing.
There are some characteristics in wine referred to as hard sensations and others as soft. Acidity, tannins and minerality (or saltiness) create hard sensations, sugar content, pseudo-warm sensation and wine-softness make up soft ones.
Acidity: a taste sensation linked to the quantity and type of acids present in wine. It gives the feeling of freshness after tasting and causes the palate to secrete saliva.
Tannicity: a tactile sensation caused by the presence of tannins in wine. Tannins are polyphenols that create a sensation of dryness and roughness in the mouth.
Minerality: a taste sensation triggered by the presence of organic and un-organic acid salt as well as salts from certain minerals.
Sugar content: sweetness is a taste sensation produced by the quantity of any residual sugar in wine.
Pseudo-warm sensation: a tactile sensation given by alcohols present in wine, especially ethanol. It is the pleasant warm sensation felt in the throat and mouth after drinking most alcohols.
Wine-softness: another tactile sensation that is linked to the presence of polyalcohols, especially glycerol, but also pectin and gums. Soft wines can be referred to as round wines.
So a Sauvignon Blanc from a continental climate region is more likely to have harder characteristics, mainly acidity and perhaps minerality. Whilst a red from the Mediterranean will have mainly soft characteristics as the climate allows better ripeness and therefore more sugars and alcohol.
When concerned with what type of wine to choose, some rules concerning food pairing rarely change. Most fish go better with whites, most game goes better with red. Once you decide on what type of wine to drink, further understanding of your food is required in order to define the characteristics needed. For example, we have chosen a red wine, but would a light fruity wine go better or a full-bodied, tannic wine?
Ideally it is best to be able to taste food first, although this may prove difficult. What is easier to do is to find out as much information about the dish as possible (what protein, what sauce, what side dish…) in order to search out certain characteristics in our wine that we trust will match. Like wine, food also has basic characteristics and some require opposing characteristics in the wine and others need corresponding ones.
The three hard characteristics in food (saltiness, bitterness and acidity) require wines that have predominantly softer characteristics. For example venison served with a bitter chocolate sauce would need a red wine with a high alcohol content (14%) that is quite tannic (but not too tannic).
Greasiness (oiliness) needs tannins! Greasy meats go well with fuller-bodied, tannic wines. However dishes can be greasy and have a delicate olfactory-taste structure. Take for example a seafood salad dressed in olive oil. In this case it would be better to match a white wine that has an important acidity and alcohol (13%) content. Although different, alcohol works the same way as tannins, it helps to dry or rinse the palate.
Succulence is created by the presence of liquids or juices in a dish. As with our seafood salad a wine with a higher alcohol content goes better, although the acidity level need not be too high.
Sweet tendency is very different to sweetness. There are a great deal of sugars in nature, some simple some complex. Scientifically, a sugar is defined as a certain type of carbohydrate, such as monosaccharides. Glucose and fructose are two sugars frequently found in wine, and stimulate a strong taste sensation of sweetness as they are simple sugars. In food, there are more complex sugars present that create the sweet tendency sensation. Sugars are broken down whilst chewing giving off sweet sensations in the palate. A very common example is flour starch, which we detect whilst chewing bread. Other complex sugars are present in animals, such as glucosamine in shellfish. This characteristic requires a wine with a higher level of acidity or minerality in order to rinse the palate.
Fattiness needs the same characteristics in wine as sweet tendency. The difference being that sparkling wine can also do the same job, as the CO2 will rinse the palate of fattiness.
Quite simply, all these characteristics in food require wines that have similar types. Sometimes you will require a wine that complements the characteristics of a dish rather than match them all the way.
A sweet dish always matches with a sweet wine. A delicate dessert requires a delicate sweet or semi-dry wine. However, a very sweet dessert like banoffee pie also goes well with a sweet wine, but the wine will need to have a certain level of acidity in order to cut through all the sugar building up on the palate!
An aromatic dish needs an aromatic wine, otherwise you run the risk of not being able to detect the wines odours and flavours. For example, a pork curry in coconut-milk and exotic fruits would need something like a Gewürztraminer from Alsace.
When referring to spiciness, we do not just mean the sensation you get from chilli powder, but to all taste sensations caused by all types of spices. A dish with spices that dominate, will match well with wines either made from a grape with a spice flavour (such as Syrah or Muscat), or with a wine aged in wooden barrels. It should be sufficient to find a wine that has a similar spice to your dish, for example black pepper and white pepper, or vanilla and cloves (sweet spices).
If the taste-olfactory persistence of a dish is significant, you will need a wine with a similar persistency. Otherwise the flavours of the food will overpower those of the wine.
The structure of food and wine must always be similar. A structured or heavy dish will only go with a full-bodied wine, likewise a light and delicate dish requires a light-bodied wine.