Wine Pairings for Beginners
So you want to serve wine with your meal? Pairing wine and food can be a bit confusing, but first, you need to understand how different flavors interact with wine. Last December we spent a day completing WSET Level 1 class and a portion of the class was spent on wine and food interactions. This exercise was by far the most fun when completing the class. A few days ago we made a Facebook post of that exercise to demonstrate how flavors and wine interact. We encourage you to try it the next time you open a bottle. This blog will serve as an introduction to a few key points we learned through the class and tasting wine, lots of tasting wine. Keep in mind that each person’s palate is different and may be sensitive to different flavors and don’t be ruled by rules.
First, let’s look at basic flavors that are present in foods. The common flavors are sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, fatty/oily, umami, and chili.
Sweetness, such as sugar and honey, in your food will cause your red wine to taste more bitter and white wines to taste more acidic. It will also increase the warmth of the alcohol. A general rule is that the wine should be as sweet or sweeter than the food. Another factor to consider is that cheaper wines use sweetness to mask lower-quality grapes. Typically the more expensive wines have a more complex flavor profile and contain less sugar. A wine’s sweetness can range from bone dry, dry, off-dry, semi-sweet, medium sweet to sweet. The level of sweetness could be included in the description on the label. Pairing wine with dessert makes me nervous and feel it could become a competition of sweetness. I sometimes serve a sweet wine not to pair with food but as dessert.
The saltiness in food can magnify the tannins in red wines and the acidity in white wines. Tannins, simply put, are the wine’s pucker power. Tannins come from the skin, stems, and seeds. Younger wines tend to be more tannic because they haven’t had time to soften. Same idea in decanting red wines. We will decant a red wine a few hours before we plan to drink it to allow it time to soften. Salty flavors cause Rieslings and Chardonnays to be more fruity.
If the acidity or tartness in food is higher than the acidity in the wine; the wine will taste flat. Acidity in wine is the element that gives its tangy or sour sensation. We learned to gauge the level of acidity by how much pressure you feel in your jaw. Think of drinking tart lemonade. Generally highly acidic foods will cause the wine to taste less dry and bitter, thus more sweet and fruity.
Fattiness in foods reduces the tannins in red wines. Fatty/oily dishes coat your taste buds similar to how it feels when you eat icing. The taste buds are less receptive to the astringency in red wine. Generally, if you are serving a high-fat meal, such as duck you need a high tannic wine. A younger wine might be a good option since younger red wines are more likely to have higher tannic levels. If you are decanting a wine to pair with a fatty entree you might not want to decant as long as you would otherwise.
Umami can best be described as savory. It is a newly identified food flavor that is long-lasting, causes you to salivate, and gives you a full mouth feel. Tomatoes, Parmigiano cheese, cured meats, and fermented foods, especially Soy and Worcestershire sauce are examples of umami. Umami increases the bitterness and dryness in red wines even though the wine may not be bitter. It will cause white wines to taste more acidic. Wines will taste less sweet and fruity. Older wines that have softened pair better with braised beef and roasts than younger wines.
Similar to fatty foods, chili flavors lessen your ability to taste the wine. Your mouth just feels the heat. Wines that are fruit-forward, such as Rosé or Pinot Noir pair well with spicy foods. Older wines that have aged and lost some fruit are not a good choice.
Bitterness in food causes the wine to taste more bitter. Arugula, kale, and coffee are bitter foods. A low-tannic wine would be the best wine when serving these flavors.
There are a few foods that are hard to pair with wine. Artichokes have a compound that coats the sweetness receptors on the tongue. As you drink the wine the compound is pulled off increasing the sweetness of the wine. Brussels sprouts are another vegetable that is difficult to pair with wine. Their subtle sulfur compounds are the culprits. Those same compounds can be found in asparagus and cauliflower. A final food that is difficult to pair with wine is sushi. The overload of umami is too much for most wines. The combination of fish and red wine can create a metallic taste on the tongue.
The most important thing to remember when thinking of wine and food interactions is that it is a trial-and-error process. The only conclusive way to understand these interactions is to practice. Everyone’s palate is different and will be sensitive to different flavors. Drinking wine with good food is one of life’s simple pleasures. Grab a bottle of your favorite wine and enjoy.