Pairing Food and Wine

Don't forget to have fun.  In fact - everything else is secondary.

Don't forget to have fun. In fact - everything else is secondary.

Mike Harper

Food and wine pairing is a highly subjective and inexact process. The old rules — (primarily) red wine with red meat and white wine with fish and poultry — don’t take into consideration the complexity of today’s multi-ethnic and subtly flavored foods and the corresponding wide range of wines from around the world that are now conveniently available to almost everyone.

These days you’re more likely to hear food and wine pairing suggestions than hard and fast rules. This is a good thing as it means there is considerable room for experimentation and expression of your own personality in pairing food and wine.

It should be borne in mind that rarely has a meal been ruined by an injudicious choice of wine.  If you like the wine you’re having and also enjoy the food, then they’ll likely make, at least to some degree, a reasonable pairing.  If you’re unsure about which wine you should choose, it’s mostly just a matter of expanding your range of wine experience.  Vineyard tours and wine tastings, such as we have at Wine gourmet every Saturday, are a great way to try different wines and learn which flavor(s) you favor. Then begin by pairing the foods you like with wines you like. You’ll probably find that you’ll have a natural affinity for getting together two things that you enjoy.  Confidence will ensue.

It is better to keep in consideration some general rules-of-thumb — bearing in mind that rules are often made to be broken and that no orphans will die as a result of the choice you make.
A pairing that’s contrary to a rule-of-thumb may still achieve a particular effect or you may make an inspired choice that would mark you as a true artist. It’s best, however, if you first develop a familiarity with convention and an understanding of why the suggested combination(s) usually works.

When pairing food and wine, the goal is synergy and balance. The wine shouldn’t overpower the food, nor should the food overpower the wine.

Think of wine much as you would a condiment — it should complement the food.

Wine drunk by itself tastes different than wine with food, because wine acts on food similar to the way a spice does. Acids, tannins and sugars in the wine interact with the food to provide different taste sensations.

Wine can enhance the flavor of food. A good match will bring out the nuances and enhance the flavors and unique characteristics of both the food and the wine. Most memorable food and wine pairing is achieved when you find similarities and/or contrasts of flavor, body (texture), intensity, and taste.

Above all don’t stress over the perfect food and wine pairing. The best pairing is good food, good wine and good company. Friends and loved ones are the most important ingredients.

To illustrate this point, I’ll provide a story:

When I was a young sailor, living in Italy (courtesy of Uncle Sam), some buddies and I had a little time off and hired a boat to take us to an island about 20 miles or so offshore.
The island, Ventotene, had only a few hundred permanent residents and was popular as a tourist destination for locals. When we arrived, we discovered, to the horror of our growling stomachs, that we had sailed to the island in the off-season and there was little there to support us, food-wise. No stores or restaurants were open. It was late afternoon when we’d pulled into our berth and by the time we’d sorted out that no one was going to make us a meal, it was almost dark. No one was up for a 4-5 hour return sail.
We struck up a conversation with one of the local fishermen there in the tiny port area and explained, as best we could, our food situation.    . . . If there’s anything that my travels have taught me, it’s that a lack of common language is no impediment to commerce.
– He offered to sell us some of his food and we readily agreed to buy some.
He led us up a nearby hill to a small cave that had been carved out of the relatively soft volcanic rock that made up the island. This was, apparently, a common practice locally as the hillside was dotted with man-made caves like freckles on an Irish girl. Anyway, among other things, he kept stores of extra food in his cave. He had baskets of potatoes and onions, jars of olives and olive oil, sausages dangled from the ceiling like stalactites and, most prized of all, 5-liter bottles, enmeshed in plastic weave, and holding homemade wine. We commenced shopping. When we’d sorted out all we wanted and come to an agreement on price, we invited him back down to the boat with us.
We got back to the boat, happy as kids at a church picnic and fired up the tiny stove in the galley. The rustic meal was prepared and consumed – along with most of the wine. The wine was very alcoholic and, under the circumstances tasted rich and earthy. We soon dubbed it “vino collapso” for its effect. Anyway, as the night wore on the bellies got fuller, the stories got funnier, and the eyesight fuzzier.  Toasts were offered to the brotherhood of nations, the salacious geometry of the Italian female and, as our pilot was British, the health of the Queen.  A good time was being had by all.
After several hours of revelry, a voice was heard coming from the pier outside, calling a name. It had a tone that would that could blister paint. The expression of our friend the fisherman passed from bliss to blues.  “Merda!”, he said.
“You?”, we asked
“Si”, he replied gloomily.
And with that, he went topside while we followed, crowding ourselves into the hatchway, craning to get a view of the fireworks that were sure to follow. Our fishwife delivered spectacularly. She screeched at the sight of him and let forth a torrent of curses that must have had people half the island over looking up from their dinners. He hopped down from the boat and scooted past her as she whirled and followed, slapping him repeatedly on the back of the head. That’s the way they left the port, he hunch-shouldered and walking quickly, she slapping and cursing and we laughing as hard as we’ve ever laughed.

I never saw the fisherman again, but I’ve never forgotten him or his “vino collapso”.  Despite the wine’s lack of pedigree, it remains one of my favorite wine experiences and though it may be entirely attributable to my generous and non-judgmental attitude, the wine delivered.

Let’s begin with some of those suggested rules-of-thumb to use as guidelines, and then follow that with a discussion of why certain flavors are found in, or are more dominant in certain wines.

Ten rules-of-thumb for food and wine pairing

1.)    Match quality of food and wine. If you are taking wine as a gift to a dinner party, don’t worry about matching the wine to the food unless you have been requested to do so and have enough information about what is being served to make an informed choice. Just bring a good wine.
A dinner party with multiple courses of elaborately prepared dishes deserves a better wine than burgers on the grill with potato salad.

2.) Timing is everything. When you’re serving more than one wine at a meal, it’s customary to serve lighter wines before full-bodied ones. Dry wines should be served before sweet wines unless a sweet flavored dish is served early in the meal. In that case match the sweet dish with a similarly sweet wine. Lower alcohol wines should be served before higher alcohol wines.

3.) Try to match flavor and intensity. Pair light-bodied wines with lighter food and fuller-bodied wines with heartier, more flavorful, richer and fattier dishes.  You can have a pinot grigio with a steak, but, if you wanted a white wine with your steak, you’re more likely to find the experience satisfying with an oaky chardonnay because, as a white, it has substantial weight, whereas the pinot grigio does not.

4.) Consider how the food is prepared. Delicately flavored foods — poached or steamed — pair best with delicate wines. It’s easier to pair wines with more flavorfully prepared food — braised, grilled, roasted or sautéed. Pair the wine with the sauce, seasoning or dominant flavor of the dish.

5.) Match flavors. An earthy Pinot Noir goes well with mushroom soup, the leather/pencil box /currant flavors of cabernet nuzzle up close to the power of steak and the grapefruit/citrus taste of Sauvignon Blanc goes with fish for the same reasons that lemon does.

6.) Balance sweetness. Beware of pairing a wine with food that is sweeter than the wine, although I do like chocolate with Cabernet Sauvignon. I also like chocolate with good dark beer. Come to think of it, I like chocolate with just about anything.

7.) Consider pairing opposites. Very hot or spicy foods — some Thai dishes, or hot curries for example — often work best with sweet desert wines. Opposing flavors can play off each other, creating new flavor sensations and cleansing the palate.

8.) Match by geographic location. Regional foods and wines, having developed together over time, often have a natural affinity for each other.

9.) Pair wine and cheese. In some European countries the best wine is reserved for the cheese course. Red wines go well with mild to sharp cheese. Pungent and intensely flavored cheese is better with a sweeter wine. Goat Cheeses pair well with dry white wine, while milder cheeses pair best with fruiter red wine. Soft cheese like Camembert and Brie, if not over ripe, pair well with just about any red wine including Cabernet, Zinfandel and Red Burgundy.

10.) Adjust food flavor to better pair with the wine. Sweetness in a dish will increase the awareness of bitterness and astringency in wine, making it appear drier, stronger and less fruity. High amounts of acidity in food will decrease awareness of sourness in wine and making it taste richer and mellower — sweet wine will taste sweeter. Bitter flavors in food increase the perception of bitter, tannic elements in wine. Sourness and salt in food suppress any tendency of the wine toward bitterness and astringency and may make sweet wines taste sweeter.

Flavors found in wine

The basic flavors that occur in food are also found in wine which is, after all, simply another type of food. Those flavors are sweet, tart (sour, acidic), bitter (pucker-y, astringent sensation) and salty (which isn’t found in wine, but affects its flavor). In addition wine has alcohol which adds aromas and body, making the wine feel richer.

The sugar that is present in grapes is converted during fermentation to differing degrees. A wine with very little sweetness is called “dry.” Sweet white wines are Chenin Blanc*, many Rieslings* and Moscato**.  Sweet red wines include Lambrusco, Beaujolais Nouveau and Port.

If a dish is acidic — citrus or vinegar — then an acidic wine would be appropriate, although a lightly acidic dish can be balanced with a lightly sweet wine. Acidic white wines include Pinot Grigio,  Sauvignon Blanc and most sparkling wines. Acidity in wine cuts saltiness, so sparkling wines generally pair with salty foods better than lower acid wines, such as most red wines.  Sparkling wines are among the most flexible for pairing.  (If you familiar with the climactic conditions under which particular grapes best fare, cool climate wines usually have higher acid than do warm climate wines.)

Tannins from the skins and sometimes stems of grapes and the oak barrels used for aging can all cause bitter or astringent aftertastes in red wines. (Larry’s palate is particularly adept at noting “stemmy” characters of wine.)  Tannins however, also give a wine a sense of structure.  They also mellow with age and are one of the components that add complexity to a mature wine.  To counteract a tannic wine, pair it with foods that feature a prominent salty, sour or bitter taste.  These will make a wine seem sweeter and less tannic.  Tannic red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel and Syrah.

Alcohol gives wine a sense of body and weight, the higher the alcohol, the more full-bodied the wine. Rich meat, fish or chicken dishes that include cream are well suited to full-bodied wines (13–15 percent alcohol) whereas light, simply prepared and flavored dishes pair better with low alcohol wines (7–10 percent).

* Wine made from these grapes can be made in a wide range of sweetnesses up to and including bone dry.  Information can often be found on the label but, if you’re unsure where a particular bottling lies, ask your retailer.

** Moscato is an Italian grape that is often made in the sparkling wine (in Italian: spumante) style.

Published in: on June 3, 2009 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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