The art of wine and food pairing
Wine flavors are derived from specific components: sugar, acid, fruit, tannin and alcohol. Foods also have flavor components, such as fat, acid, salt, sugar and bitter. The most successful food and wine pairings feature complementary components, richness and textures.
You can try for either a similar pairing or a contrasting one. For pasta in a rich cream sauce, for example, you could cut through the creamy fat with a crisp, dry, unoaked white wine. Or you could wrap the flavor of the wine around the richness of the sauce by choosing a big, ripe, soft Chardonnay or Roussanne/Marsanne blend.
There are a few elements that make both red wine and white wine pairings work, and they’re derived from characteristics of the food and how they mingle with those of the wine. These are: fat, acid, salt, sweetness, bitterness and texture.
Fat Element: A lot of our favorite foods, both meat and dairy products, have high levels of fat. Wine doesn’t contain fat, so when matching a wine with fatty foods, remember that it has to balance that fat with acid, cut it with tannin, or match its richness with alcohol.
Acid Element: Acid is another key element in both food and wine. In wine, it adds nerve, freshness and lift. It can do the same with food, as when lemon is squeezed on a fresh piece of fish. When looking for a wine to go with an acidic dish, you should make sure that the perceived acidity of the wine is at least equal to that of the food, or the wine will taste bland and washed out.
Salt Element: Salty foods seem to limit your wine choices. Salt can make an oaky Chardonnay taste weird, strip the fruit right out of a red wine and turn high alcohol wines bitter. But with a bit of imagination, you can conjure up some remarkable combinations of salty foods and sweet wines. Bleu cheese and Sauternes is another one of the world’s classic food and wine combos.
Sweetness Element: There are degrees of sweetness. Some recipes will have just a hint of sugar, such as a fruit sauce served over a pork loin. This light, fruity sweetness can be matched very well with rich white wines such as Chardonnay. Higher alcohol tends to give an impression of sweetness, and balances the sugar in the sauce. With desserts you must be certain that the wine tastes sweeter than the dessert; otherwise the dessert will strip the wine of its sweetness and render it bitter or tart.
Bitterness Element: In some cultures, bitter flavors are prized, but most of the time they are to be avoided. Anything more than just a hint is likely to be perceived as unpleasant. In wine, bitterness usually results from unripe grapes, or a failure to get the stems and pips (seeds) out of the fermenting tank, or mismanaged barrels. When bitterness in wine meets bitterness in food, it acts the opposite of sugar. One does not cancel out the other; they merely combine.
Texture Element: As for matching textures, think light and heavy. Light foods are best with light wines; heavy foods with heavy wines. That’s the safest way to go about it. A more adventurous path is to experiment with contrast: matching light foods to heavy wines and vice versa. This will require more testing, to keep the tension dynamic and avoid having the lighter flavors over-shadowed by the heavy ones.