Food that is consumed with wine has an effect on the way a wine tastes, and wine can also have an effect on the taste of food. Ideally both the food and wine provide more pleasure than either would when consumed separately.
People have different sensitivities to various flavour and aroma components, meaning that the same level of bitterness, for example, can affect one person much more strongly than another (this is different from a personal preference—some people like strong reactions while others find them unpleasant.) Pairings should therefore take into account the preferences of the individual, as well as the basic interactions between food and wine.
PRIMARY FOOD AND WINE INTERACTIONS
When you place food in your mouth, your taste buds adapt so that the perception of levels of sugar, salt, acid, etc. of the next item to be tasted can be altered. An extreme example is when orange juice becomes unpleasantly acidic when consumed immediately after using toothpaste. In addition to this, some foods such as chocolate or thick creamy dishes can have a mouth-coating effect that impairs the sense of taste.
In simple terms there are two components in food (sweetness and umami) that tend to make wines taste ‘harder’ (more astringent and bitter, more acidic, less sweet and less fruity), and two components (salt and acid) whose presence in food tends to make wines taste ‘softer’ (less astringent and bitter, less acidic, sweeter, and more fruity). Generally, food has more impact on the way a wine will taste than the other way round, and in particular is more likely to have a negative impact.
Sweetness in Food:
- Increases the perception of bitterness, acidity, and the burning effect of the alcohol in the wine.
- Decreases the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine.
Sweetness in a dish can make a dry wine seem to lose its fruit and be unpleasantly acidic. With any dishes containing sugar, a good general rule is to select a wine that has a higher level of sweetness.
Umami in Food:
- Increases the perception of bitterness, acidity, and alcohol burn in the wine.
- Decreases the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine.
Umami is a savoury taste, and is distinct from other primary tastes although it can be difficult to isolate. Whereas sweetness can be illustrated in isolation with sugar, salt with sodium chloride, and acidity with a number of acids (e.g.tartaric acid), umami tends to be present with other tastes (with saltiness in Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)) or with other flavours (e.g. in cooked or dried mushrooms). One of the simplest ways to experience it is to compare the taste of a raw button mushroom with one that has been microwaved for 30 seconds. The umami taste of the mushroom is greatly increased by the cooking. Umami can also be experienced by tasting MSG—either by eating a few grains or in a weak solution. Note, however, that in this form, the umami taste is combined with the salt taste.
Many foods that are considered difficult to pair contain high levels of umami without salt to counteract the hardening effects of wine. These include asparagus, eggs, mushrooms, and ripe soft cheeses. Other foods that are high in umami also tend to be high in salt, which can counteract the impact of umami on the wine. These include cured or smoked seafood and meats, and hard cheese (especially Parmesan).
Acidity in Food:
- Increases the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine
- Decreases the perception of acidity in the wine
Some acidity in food is generally a good thing for food and wine pairing as it can bring a very high acid wine into balance and enhance the fruitiness. However, if the level of acidity in the wine is low, high levels of acidity in foods can make wines seem flat, flabby, and lacking focus.
Salt in Food:
- Increases the perception of body in the wine
- Decreases the perception of bitterness and acidity in the wine
Salt is another wine-friendly component of food which can help soften some of the harder elements.
Bitterness in Food:
- Increases bitterness in wine
Sensitivities to bitter tastes vary greatly from person to person. Generally, bitter flavours add to each other, so bitterness in food alone may be at a pleasant level, and the bitterness in wine may be balanced, but together the bitter elements can combine to reach an unpleasant level.
Chilli Heat in Food:
- Increases the perception of bitterness, acidity, and alcohol burn.
- Decreases the perception of body, richness, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine.
This is a tactile (touch) sensation rather than one of taste and levels of sensitivity can vary greatly from person to person. Not only are some people more sensitive than others, but there is also huge variation in how pleasant or unpleasant this effect feels to the individual.
The intensity of the reaction increases with the level of alcohol in the wine. Alcohol also increases the burning sensation of the chilli; some people enjoy this effect.
Flavour Intensity: It is usually desirable for the flavour intensities of the food and wine to be matched so that one does not overpower the other. However, in some circumstances, an intensely flavoured food (such as a curry) can be successfully partnered with a lightly flavoured wine—such as a simple, unoaked, light white. Equally, some lightly flavoured desserts can be successfully partnered with intensely flavoured sweet wines.
Acid and Fat: Most people find the combination of acidic wines with fatty or oily foods to be very satisfying. The pairing provides a pleasant sensation of the acidic wine ‘cutting through’ the richness of the food, and cleaning up the palate. This is a subjective effect.
Sweet and Salty: Also subjective is the pleasure of combining sweet and salty flavours, but this is a combination many people enjoy, and leads to some very successful food and wine pairings, such as sweet wine and blue cheese.
APPLYING THE PRINCIPLES
Because people vary in their sensitivities and preferences, there is no simple answer to the question about which wines go best with which dishes and the host or sommelier should accept that their guests may not agree about which pairings work.
When selecting wines to partner dishes it can be helpful to divide dishes and wines into high risk and low risk. Of course, most foods and wines contain more than one of the structural components listed below so there are many possible permutations.
- High Risk Foods
- Sugar — dishes high in sugar should be paired with a wine that has at least as much sugar.
- Umami — dishes high in umami should be paired with wines that are more fruity than tannic as the umami in the food will emphasise the bitterness of the tannins.
- Umami — high levels of umami in a dish can be balanced by the addition of acid or salt. However, the amount added should not alter the basic character of the dish.
- Bitterness — dishes high in bitterness will emphasise bitterness in wine. Consider white wines or low-tannin reds.
- Chilli heat — dishes high in chilli heat should be paired with white wines or low-tannin reds, both with low alcohol (as bitterness and alcohol burn can be highlighted for sensitive tasters). Fruitiness and sweetness can also be reduced so think about wine with higher levels of these qualities to mitigate this effect.
- Low Risk Foods — dishes high in salt and/or acid. Note, however:
- High-acid foods should generally be matched with high-acid wines, otherwise the wines can taste too soft and flabby.
- High Risk Wines — The more structural components in the wine (and food) the more possible taste interactions there will be. This makes pairing more complicated but also provides potential for more interesting results. The most problematic wines are those that have high levels of bitterness from oak and silk tannins, combined with high levels of acidity and alcohol, and complex flavours. However, these wines can undergo the most interesting changes when partnered with food and can reveal flavours that are hard to detect when the wines are consumed on their own.
- Low Risk Wines — Simple, unoaked wines with a little residual sugar are unlikely to be made unpleasant by any dishes. However, these kinds of wines change relatively little when partnered with food, so the food and wine pairing experiences can be less interesting. One of the most productive ways of applying the principles identified above is to examine well-established successful pairings, and analyse the reasons for the success. If these reasons are understood, then other wines can be identified that can also provide successful pairings. For example, Champagne works well with oysters because it is unoaked (so there is no bitter component to be spoiled by the umami taste of the oyster), relatively light in flavour (so as not to overwhelm the delicate flavour of oysters), and high in acid (so it seems vibrant and refreshing when oysters are eaten with lemon juice, for example). Other wines that satisfy these criteria should also be successful pairings.