Wine & Food Pairings

Taste is perhaps the most subjective of our senses. This is due to the fact that human physiology causes people to interpret tastes in a manner unique to each individual. In a nutshell, no two people will taste the same thing and sense the same exact flavors and tastes. Add to this the now dizzying array of cuisines and wines that are available to the average person and you have a recipe (no pun intended…) for gourmet disaster.

How do we taste?
So how does our sense of taste work?
The Basic Concept of Matching Wine with Food
The Five Rules for Matching Wine with Food
Key Points to Remember
Troublesome Pairings
Ideal Pairings
A Final Word with a downloadable Worksheet
Musings Members’ Wine-Food Matches

How do we taste?

To first address the concept of wine and food matching, one must first understand how we taste. The human sense of taste is actually accomplished with two organs: the tongue and the olfactory. The tongue is located in the mouth and possesses well over 10,000 taste buds, each sensitized to a particular characteristic. The olfactory is located in the nasal cavity and possesses nearly 100,000 odor receptors, each capable of sending detailed sensory data back to memory caches in the brain.

The tongue is a fairly blunt instrument, capable of sensing but four taste characteristics: salty, bitter, sweet and sour. The highly disputed and somewhat antiquated tongue map to the right illustrates the areas of the tongue that sense which characteristic.

What this map shows is that as we bring food or drink into our mouths and it passes over our tongue, we perceive certain taste sensations at different times during the tasting process.

If the tongue is a cudgel, then the olfactory is a precise surgical instrument. Where the tongue can merely distinguish among its four rudimentary characteristics, the olfactory is able to distinguish literally thousands of highly complex aromas. It is why a rose smells like a rose, and why we all avoid skunks. The following picture illustrates where the olfactory organ is situated.

So how does our sense of taste work?

When you take something into your mouth and it touches your tongue, sensations of saltiness, bitterness, sweetness and sourness are picked up. Because of taste bud variations, certain tastes are picked up at different times. Meanwhile, as the food or drink sits in our mouth, odiferous particles collect in our mouth and pass through a nasal passage in our soft palate up to the nasal cavity. Once there, those odiferous particles are picked up by the olfactory epithelium, the actual sensory organ that allows us to smell. The combination of taste sensations (tongue) and odor sensations (olfactory) make up what we call “flavor”.

Perception plays a large part in how we taste. Sensation is an organism’s immediate response to stimulus. When you place your hand near a hot stove you sense something. The heat from the stove is stimulus for the nerve receptors in your skin. Perception is the brain’s interpretation of sensory data. The heat from the aforementioned stove is perceived as warmth by the brain. Get to close and your brain will perceive pain. Wine and food are loaded with sensory stimuli that act as chemical, physical and thermal activators for our taste buds and our olfactory and our individuality means that our perceptions about that sensory data will all be different.

There are two sensory thresholds that play into our ability to pickup and interpret stimuli. Detection Threshold is the smallest amount of stimuli required to trigger an unidentified sensation. Your detection threshold is genetic and is the reason why some people have more account senses than others. Because it is genetic, you cannot alter your detection threshold. Recognition Threshold is the smallest amount of stimuli required to trigger an identified sensation. Unlike detection threshold, recognition threshold can be altered through practice, which means that you can teach yourself to identify certain tastes and smells with less and less stimulus.

Essentially, the variations in our sensory physiology and our own ability to interpret sensory data means that we must figure out for ourselves the flavor combinations that are most appetizing.

The Basic Concept of Matching Wine with Food

The essence of pairing wine with food is about creating balance. It is about creating an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is about synergy.

The attributes used for matching wine with food are as follows:

  • Weight/Body – The feel and intensity of a food or beverage.
  • Total Acidity – The tartness of a food or beverage.
  • Flavor/Complexity – The combined taste and aroma of a food or beverage.

These three elements all contribute to the concept of balance. When each attribute is in harmony with the others, a food or beverage is said to be “in balance”. If one or more attributes are over-emphasized or decreased, then the food or beverage is said to be “out of balance”.

The Five Rules for Matching Wine with Food

  1. Look for compatible weights and bodies. The essence of this rule embodies the age old ‘red wine with red meat, white wine with fish and white meat”. In its simplest form, make sure the weight and body of the dish is consistent with the weight and body of the wine.
  2. Look for compatible acidity levels. When pairing food with wine make sure that the acidity level in both are about the same. A good example is a dish like lemon chicken paired with a high acid Vernaccia from Italy.
  3. Look for complementary flavors and complexities. Food and wine shouldn’t fight one another for your attention. Instead they should help one another achieve synergy, complimenting each other’s best traits. NOTE – There is a corollary to this rule that suggests looking for contradictory, but balancing flavors and complexity. If done correctly, the wine and food match will work, but this approach is much more complex and demands that the chef really knows the dish and the wine very well. Approach the corollary with caution.
  4. When matching wine to a food with a pronounced sauce, pair to the flavors in the sauce. When pairing wine with food, make sure you match according to the strongest traits of each. In a fruit glacé-type sauce one would look for a wine with forward and overt fruitiness to pair best.
  5. When matching wine to a food without a pronounced sauce, pair to the flavors in the main ingredient. This is really a re-statement of rule four, except emphasizing that in the absence of a strong sauce, look to the flavor characteristics of the main ingredient instead.

Key Points to Remember

Watch for amplified or diminished traits – Sometimes a pairing actually amplifies or diminishes one or more flavor characteristics, throwing the match out of balance. A good example of this phenomenon is pairing dry wine with a sweet dessert. In this pairing, the sweetness of the dessert will cause the wine to appear more acidic and more tannic than it actually is, creating a disappointing combination.

Watch for flavors that overpower – Overpowering flavors can easily throw a match out of balance, or worse, in the case of more than one overpowering flavor present, they fight on the palate, creating too great a distraction for pleasure.

The concept of transferred flavors can be both good and bad – Transferring flavors occurs when the flavors in one half of the match transfer to the flavors of the other half of the match. This can be a benefit when the flavors are compatible and constructive, as in the compliment of a soft but spicy Gewurztraminer with a creamy béchamel over Dover sole. Transferred flavors can be a liability when the match is not especially compatible, as in the same Gewurztraminer paired with a rustic artichoke dish.

Watch for new flavors – Sometimes when a wine and food come together, new flavors are born. Sometimes these flavors are pleasant and strengthen the balance and synergy of the match. At other times, these new flavors can be most unpleasant, as in the tinny, metallic flavor that gets created when medium-to-full bodied wine meets fish.

Troublesome Pairings

There are a number of foods that always pose the greatest challenge when paired with wine. Here are a few:

  • Vinegar or vinegar-based saucesVinegar is wine that has been acted on by a bacteria called acetobacter, which turns the alcohol in the wine into acetic acid and water. Another term for the process is called “souring”. Because of this, most wines tend to taste spoiled in the presence of vinegar. Look for clean, bright, high acid wines to pair the best, whites being most favorable.
  • Tomato or other similarly high acid foodsEspecially high acid levels in food make it tough to maintain balance. For this reason, look for high acid wines, like those made with Barbera or Vernaccia grapes to provide the greatest balance. Less acidic wines will be overpowered by highly acidic foods.
  • Artichoke and asparagusThe complexity and often-weedy flavors in both these vegetables make for tough wine pairing. Look for high acid, grassy wines, like Old World Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire to blend most favorably.
  • Egg and egg-based dishesThe sulfurous quality of the egg has a similar as vinegar, imparting an unpleasant flavor to softer wines. Look for clean, bright high acid wines to pair best, almost always white.
  • Cranberry sauce and other similar relishesThe cacophony of flavors that abound in cranberry sauce and pickle relish make them near impossible to pair with wine. As with vinegar and eggs, look for clean, bright and high acid wines.
  • ChocolateThe variability of chocolate in sweetness and texture can be difficult to pair well with wine. For sweeter chocolate, look for sweeter wines to make an effective pair, making sure to maintain balance in the weight and body of each. For semi-sweet or even bittersweet chocolate, look for drier wines to make an effective pair, again making sure to maintain balance in the weight and body of each.

Some Ideal Pairings

Just as there are troublesome foods to pair with wine, certain foods find an ideal mate in certain wines. Here are a few:

  • Foie Gras with SauternesLike a marriage made in Heaven, foie gras finds its perfect complement in the company of the famed white dessert wine from Bordeaux. What probably makes this pair work best is the sweet, honeyed character of the wine combined with its naturally high acidity that cuts through the rich, fattiness of the duck liver. The often-gamey quality of the liver finds a welcome cushion in the nectar like quality of the wine. If you can’t find true Sauternes, then you can often substitute a similar botrytis-affected, dessert wine.
  • Oysters with ChablisChablis hails from Burgundy, France in a region where prehistoric, fossilized seashells make up most of the lower soil strata. Here the grapes are infused with the taste of chalk and the sea. What could be better to pair with the briny, chalky flavors found in fresh, raw oysters? Nothing, I think. If you can’t find Chablis, then try to find a similarly weighted white wine that has seen little time in oak and comes from a region with plenty of mineral and limestone in the soil.
  • Grilled Beef with ClaretClaret, or more formally, red wine from Bordeaux is often tough, tannic and highly earthy and complex. These elements pair wonderfully with the gamey, robust intensity of the grilled beef. This is especially true in the case of dry aged beef and older Claret. The rich complexity of the beef blends beautifully with the subtle, unfolding complexity in the wine. If you can’t find Claret, per se, then look for similarly bodied wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc.
  • Beef Bourgogne with Red BurgundyMuch of the synergy in this match is due to the fact that the stew is prepared with the wine being served with it. This is really true of any dish cooked with wine – the match will be best if the dish is prepared with the same wine being served. It is a fallacy that one should cook with inferior wines. When one does so, one produces inferior food.

There is also one important factor that one should always remember when matching wine with food – Cuisine from a particular country or region will inevitably pair best with the wines native in that country or region. This is largely due to the fact that wine and cuisine grow up together in a country. Where this is changing somewhat is in those areas where old wine making traditions are being replaced with more globally acceptable practices and styles. Generally, though, when all else fails – look to the native wines of a particular country to make the best dining partner.

A Final Word

If you’re planning a dinner or get together and wine and food is a focus of the event and you are at a loss to make each pairing ideal, then serve several different wines with the meal and allow your guests to find the matches they most prefer.

Remember – Taste is the most subjective of our senses and the differences in our physiology only compound the problem.

The following worksheet summarizes the major points in the article, and provides a handy reference tool for helping you match wines with food. See attached .PDF >>

Musings Members’
Wine-Food Matches

From time to time, some of the most active Musings members meet to share various wines matched with their favorite dishes. Click below to view the wine-food matches with their respective recipes from a few of the most recent gatherings.

Pot Luck Dinner 2005

Holiday 2004

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