Elements of Taste
There are many classic wine pairings: Cabernet Sauvignon with Steak, Chardonnay with Lobster and Port with Stilton Cheese. Did you ever stop to think about why these pairings work so well? By gaining a better understanding of the different characteristics that define a wine and learning the basic rules of pairing wine with food, you can become a pairing expert and impress your friends with your knowledge the next time you’re selecting the wine.
Let’s begin by analyzing the five elements of taste- bitter, sour, sweet, savory and salt- and discover how these elements relate to the characteristics of wine. As a general rule, balance is key. The elements of taste, in the food and the wine that is served with it, need to achieve a certain balance in order to draw out the best qualities and flavors of each and transcend the meal to a higher level.
The Body of Wine
Wine is characterized as having light, medium or full body. If you’ve ever attended an organized wine tasting, you may have noticed that wines were presented in order of lightest bodied white wine to fullest bodied red wine. Body, when it comes to defining wine, refers to the richness or heaviness of the wine, the feeling it leaves in your mouth and even the amount of alcohol in the wine. Typically red wines, and particularly those from warmer climates, tend to be fuller bodied wines.
Why is that? Here’s a quick science lesson. Warmer climates produce grapes with more sugar. In the wine-making process, sugar is converted to alcohol, so typically, the greater the sugar in the grape, the greater the alcohol in the wine. So in general, red wines from warmer parts of California will tend to be fuller bodied, have more concentrated fruit and are higher in alcohol, like many California Zinfandels. In contrast, many red wines from Italy and France or some of the cooler regions that grow Pinot Noir grapes, tend to produce wines that are more elegant and light in body.
Of course, there are many other factors besides sugar that contribute to the fullness of a wine, like oak aging, overall flavors and complexity of the wine. That’s why white wines that aren’t aged in oak tend to be lighter in body, like Riesling, Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, and why a Chardonnay that has been aged in oak is going to have a more buttery and richer taste than one that has been aged in stainless steel barrels.
Body to Body
When pairing wine with food, you want to match the body of the wine to the body of the food. For instance, rich, fatty foods will need a rich, full-bodied wine to stand up to it. If you were to pair a heavy wine with a light seafood dish, the wine would completely overpower the dish, whereas a delicate Pinot Grigio would bring out the flavors in the dish. On the flip side, if you were to pair a light wine with a heavy, rich dish like lasagna or fatty steak, the wine would taste flat and dull. That’s one reason that Cabernet tastes great with a juicy steak. A fattier fish, like salmon or a fish prepared in a butter sauce, would also call for a fuller bodied Oak-aged Chardonnay.
Heavy, when it comes to food, can also refer to the combination of complex ingredients and balance of sweet and spicy flavors in a dish. For instance, a barbecue or chili that is heavily spiced will call for a big and bold wine that can stand up to the big, bold, spicy-sweet combination of flavors in the dish. That’s why a bold, spicy Shiraz, Syrah, Cabernet Franc or Zinfandel tastes great with a sweet and spicy barbecue or heavily seasoned meat dish, like chili or braised short ribs.
Tannins: Think Bitter
Let’s think about the first element of taste, Bitter. An important factor you will want to take into consideration when pairing wine with food is the amount of tannins in the wine. So you now know that sugar, which impacts the body of a wine, comes from inside the grape. Tannins, which contribute to the complexity, structure and taste of the wine, come from outside the grape, or more specifically from the skins, stems and seeds.
White wines don’t have tannins because white wine is typically made from grapes that have had the skins removed. Red wine, on the other hand, is made with the skins on.
If you have ever bitten into a grape seed, you probably noticed that it was bitter. If a wine is too tannic, it will taste bitter and will leave a dry feeling in your mouth. It’s important for a wine to have balanced tannins in order to taste good. Young wines tend to have more tannins than aged wines because tannins soften over time. I’m a fan of aerating wines and even the youngest wine can benefit from aeration or time spent in a decanter.
Bitter tannins help cut through the rich fat in heavy foods and, on the flip side, fat helps tame the bitterness of the tannins, or in other words, softens the wine. So here’s another reason that Cabernet tastes so great with your fatty, juicy steak and vice versa! Bitter with bitter only tastes worse so stay away from bitter foods when pairing a tannic wine. However, a tannic wine can taste more balanced or less bitter if paired with a sweet food.
Acidity: Think Sour
Think about the second element of taste, Sour, and the sensation of biting into a tart lemon. Just the thought of it makes your mouth pucker, right? The acidity of a wine can come from within the grape itself or can be added during the wine making process. Many factors contribute to the acidity of a wine, like the grape varietal, the climate, sun exposure and even the soil or terroir. Just like warmer climates typically produce wines with higher sugar and alcohol, cooler climates typically produce wines with higher acidity. Typically, acidity is associated with white grapes but some red wines from Italy and other cooler regions also have a moderate acidity.
How can acidity be good for a wine? Actually acidity, when balanced with the other characteristics of the wine, can be a great thing. Acidity cuts through the fat in rich foods and also pairs well with other acidic foods, like tomatoes. That’s why pasta with Marinara sauce tastes so great with bright Chianti and why a crisp Sauvignon Blanc tastes refreshing with the acidic Vinaigrette in a salad. Finally, the acidity in a white wine can accentuate the flavors in a light dish. It has a similar effect on your palate as squeezing a lemon slice on a plate of seafood would have.
The Sweet Factor
The third element of taste is Sweet and wine can be sweet, dry or something in between, like off-dry or semi-sweet. Any sugar from the grape that does not turn into alcohol during the wine-making process is referred to as residual sugar. It’s residual sugar that makes a wine taste sweet. That’s why so many sweet wines like Riesling or Moscato have lower alcohol content than dry wines in which all of the sugar was converted to alcohol, like a dry Italian Amarone.
Sweet and Sour
So what pairs well with sweet wines? The sweetness in a wine helps to tame the heat of a spicy food. Believe it or not, a sweet wine would pair well with spicy hot wings. On the flip side, a dry wine with high alcohol would bring out the fire in a spicy food and make it taste even hotter.
There’s also something to be said for the combination and balance of sweet and sour. Pairing a sweet wine with a sour (acidic) food can help balance the flavors in the meal. That is why many Asian dishes with sweet and sour sauces pair so well with an off-dry Riesling. On the flip side, if the dish is sweeter than the wine, the wine will taste even more acidic. A sweeter wine will pair better with a slightly sweet savory dish, like a honey barbecue. You might also jump to the conclusion that sweet wines pair well with desserts but beware of sugar overload. When pairing a sweet wine with a sweet food, you want to look for one that is slightly lighter in body than the dessert so as not to overpower your palate.
Earthy Meets Savory
Just like wines can be sweet they can also be savory, and savory wines are a great compliment to savory and earthy foods. Pinot Noir, Italian Dolcetta and Nebbiolo are three examples of savory wines; and mushrooms and truffles are two examples of earthy foods. Try any of these pairing combinations to accentuate the savory depth of both and bring out the fruit flavors in the wine.
Not Without Salt
In the wise words of the great James Beard, the Dean of American Cookery, “Where would we be without salt?” Salt, used properly and in moderation, helps to bring the flavor out of food and makes a dish come alive.
Salt in a dish can soften the bitterness in a tannic wine. If you like chocolate covered pretzels, sea salted caramel or chocolate chunk cookies with a sprinkle of course sea salt, then you are already familiar with the tantalizing combination of sweet and salty foods. In a similar manner, sweet wines help to balance the salt in food so a sweeter wine will pair better with a saltier food. A sparkling wine would taste extra refreshing and sweet paired with a salty food. That is one of the reasons that sparkling wine is often served with appetizers or a first course.
Taste Your Own Way
Keep these basic pairing guidelines in mind when selecting a wine to go with a dish but ultimately let your taste guide you. Wine tasting, just like food preferences, is subjective. Everyone’s taste is different when it comes to wine and food. You have to find what works and tastes great for you. At least now you have a basic guide and starting place. The fun part is in the tasting and experimentation!
Summary of Food and Wine Pairing Guidelines