We’ve all been there chaps. You take a girl out to a fancy restaurant to impress her with your gastronomic shrewdness. You get a romantic candlelit table for two, albeit with a slight draft coming from the entrance of which you are both too polite to remark. Just as you’re pretending to be interested in what your most recent squeeze has had for her lunch, and why Tracey at work is completely inept at operating the photocopier, the waiter comes along and thrusts a wine list reminiscent of a church hymn book in your direction. Flustered? Confused? As I said, we’ve all been there. Unless of course you haven’t. If so, good luck finding your significant other and I completely understand if your time would be better spent on match.com than reading the remainder of this article.
Shortly after getting married my wife and I decided to treat ourselves to a meal at Maze in Mayfair. Maze boasts a wine cellar of around 1900 different wines and the wine list is presented on its own IPad! Now, I considered myself to have a moderately decent knowledge of food and wine matching principles, but I was so overwhelmed with the choice and variety of wine on offer, we elected to pay a supplement and have a glass of wine selected to match each of the eight courses. This turned out to be a revelation. Hitherto, I hadn’t truly understood how much difference a fantastic food and wine pairing could make to the overall enjoyment of a meal.
Of course, in our humdrum daily lives, we’re not lucky enough to have a sommelier on hand to select our wines for us. So come with me as we explore some handy tips on matching food with wine, discuss why some wines go better with food than others, and to conclude this three part article, see whether wines from the Old World or New World are better with food.
Let’s start at the beginning (generally the best place to start in my opinion). The purpose of wine and food pairing is to provide the diner with more pleasure than they would get than if the two were served separately. When consumed at the same time, food affects the way that wine tastes, and wine effects the way that food tastes. The different flavours and textures in food respond differently to the wide range of wines currently being produced with their own characteristics. The underlying theme with all food and wine pairing is understanding how to match these variable factors to make a combination which improves both the taste of the food and the wine, resulting in a more enjoyable dining experience.
The first tip I would give when choosing wine is to pick from the country that you’re eating from. A country’s cooking style and winemaking often go hand-in-hand as they will have evolved together over many years. Take Italian food for example. A rich, herbaceous tomato dish high in acidity calls for a wine that lends itself well to this robust style of cooking. Something like a Chianti matches well when something like a delicate red from France would be simply overwhelmed. If you’re having a barbeque, think about who does this better than anyone else. The Aussies. Those big, smoky, char grilled T-bone steaks call for something with a similar bone structure like an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.
Another good tip is to try and match the wine to the dominant flavour in the dish. Take a Christmas dinner. Many people will elect to go with a white wine because of the turkey. However, other elements of the meal such as the gravy and stuffing can have a far more prominent flavour and would go better with a red (a Californian Zinfandel would work very well). In fact, sauces are commonly the overriding flavour in numerous dishes. A fish dish which would usually call for a light bodied white would need a fuller bodied white or light red with the introduction of a rich, creamy sauce.
There you go then, find a wine which complements the flavours of a dish and from the country you’re eating from and you’re laughing right? Well….(sigh)….no. One obvious flaw is that not all countries produce wine, and some that try to really shouldn’t. Another problem is that many chefs, in an attempt to move away from traditional cooking styles, now explore different flavour combinations and fuse cooking styles from multiple countries to provide an interesting and diverse culinary experience. The popularity of Asian cooking in our society also makes matching food with wine much trickier than it once was due to factors such as heat and sweetness.
Historically, finding the wine which complements the dominant flavour in the dish has always been the established strategy in food pairing. But in the last thirty years or so, the concept of contrasting flavours within the food and wine has become more widespread. Going back to my previous example of fish in a cream sauce, traditionally a sommelier would have selected something like a white Burgundy as the rich Chardonnay with its oaky, buttery taste would match well with the creamy sauce. Nowadays, a sommelier might instead favour a more acidic, crisp wine like a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre to cut through the rich sauce. The idea here being that the contrasting flavours give a different (some might say better) taste sensation to the diner.
However, taste is a very subjective area and what one person finds pleasant, another may not. Therefore, much more consideration is now given to the elements of a wine which are more quantifiable. Elements such as acid, sugar, tannin, and alcohol levels are the different factors which are emphasized and accentuated (or even diminished) when paired with certain types of food. When you eat your taste buds adapt so that the perception of levels of components in food such as salt, sugar, and acid can alter the taste of the next item to be consumed. Anyone who has drunk orange juice after brushing their teeth will vouch for the truth in this. Here are some of the primary components in food and an explanation of how they affect the taste of wine:
Sweetness in Food
- Increases the perception of bitterness, acidity, and the burning affect of alcohol in the wine.
- Decreases the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine.
Next time you’re at a wedding, try eating some wedding cake whilst drinking some bone-dry Champagne and you’ll see for yourself that the two do not mix. In order to match sweet food with wine, you need a wine with a higher sugar content than the food. Some desserts for example match perfectly with the likes of Sauternes and Tokaji Aszu, both of which have extremely high levels of residual sugar.
Bitterness in Food
- Increases the perception of bitterness in the wine.
Be careful when pairing bitter foods with bitter (tannic) wines as combining the two can lead to an unpleasant level of bitterness. The bitterness in wine is usually derived from a wine’s tannins and is what causes the drying affect in your mouth. Tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of black grapes or from contact with oak during barrel aging. Therefore, consider white wines or low tannin reds if you are eating bitter food. However, tannins react with proteins so when paired with dishes that are high in proteins and fats (such as red meat and hard cheeses), the tannins will bind to the proteins and come across as softer.
Spicy Heat in Food
- Increases the perception of bitterness, acidity, and alcohol burn.
- Decreases the perception of body, richness, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine.
Spicy heat will accentuate the alcohol and the perception of hotness in the mouth. The alcohol can also magnify the heat of spicy food making a highly alcoholic wine paired with a very spicy dish one that will generate a lot of heat for the taster. Some people will enjoy this, others will not.
Acidity in Food
- Increases the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine.
- Decreases the perception of acidity in the wine.
Acidity in food is generally a good thing due to the pronounced and complex ways that it can heighten the perception of flavours. It can also enhance the fruitiness in a highly acidic wine and make it seem less tart. However, a wine that is less acidic than the dish it is served with will taste thin and weak so be careful.
Salt in Food
- Increases the perception of body in the wine.
- Decreases the perception of bitterness and acidity in the wine.
Salt and wine are best mates so dig in.
Sweetness, bitterness, and spicy heat in food are high-risk elements with wine. Acidity and salt in food are low-risk elements. Obviously many foods contain more than one of these structural components so if you’re unsure whether a particular wine will pair well with your meal, ask for advice or elect a simple, unoaked wine (preferably with a little residual sugar) as although the partnership will be a little less interesting, the wine is unlikely to be made unpleasant by any dishes. Asian food is a good example of a cuisine which includes many high-risk components and the undisputed master of partnering it is Riesling. Good dry and off-dry Riesling’s are delicious and versatile, and have high levels of acidity to cleanse the palate after devouring a complex range of ingredients.
So, all of that said, how does it affect whether we pick wines from the New World or the Old World? Well so far in this three part article I’ve sat on the fence when it comes to actually siding with one or the other. But with food, there’s one which I believe is still head-and-shoulders above the other and that is the Old World. I think there are some great examples of New World wines pairing well with food, and if I was choosing a wine to drink on its own, I would normally opt for a New World offering. However, Old World wines from places like France, Italy, and Spain are made to be drunk with food rather than on their own. The warmer climates in some New World countries result in very alcoholic and concentrated wines which can overpower many foods. Many New World wine producers specifically make wines which are non-offensive and easy-drinking so as to maximise their potential market share, but this does not lend itself well to food pairing as the lack of acidity will make the wine taste soft and flabby when matched with many dishes.
Of course there are many different factors which will affect where you choose to drink from including personal preference, cost, time of year, what’s being sold, and whether you’re eating or not. The title of this epic trilogy is, “out with the old, in with the new?” My answer would be, absolutely not. There is still a place for both in this world, and although some New World countries are overtaking the likes of France and Italy in exports to places like the UK, those countries are still going strong and many up-and-coming New World winemakers look to them for a working model for their own vineyards. So for those of you worrying that your favourite French tipple with its long-established techniques of winemaking will become a thing of the past, don’t fret, the old boys aren’t going anywhere yet.