Marrying Wine with Food Every now and then, we encounter a wine that stops us dead in our tracks. It’s so sensational that we lose all interest in anything but that wine. We drink it with intent appreciation, trying to memorize the taste. We wouldn’t dream of diluting its perfection with a mouthful of food. But 999 times out of 1,000, we drink our wine with food. Wine is meant to go with food. And good food is meant to go with wine. Good. We’ve settled that. Wine goes with food, and food goes with wine. Any questions? Of course we’re being facetious. There are thousands of wines in the world, and every one is different. And there are thousands of basic foods in the world, each different — not to mention the infinite combinations of foods in prepared dishes (what we really eat). In reality, food-with-wine is about as simple an issue as boy-meets-girl. Every dish is dynamic — it’s made up of several ingredients and flavors that interact to create a (more or less) delicious
whole. Every wine is dynamic in exactly the same way. When food and wine combine in your mouth, the dynamics of each change;
the result is completely individual to each dish-and-wine combination. (Dare we also mention that we each use our individual palates to judge the success of each combination? No wonder there are no rules!)
When wine meets food, several things can happen:
The food can exaggerate a characteristic of the wine. For example, if you eat walnuts (which are tannic) with a tannic red
wine, such as a Bordeaux, the wine tastes so dry and astringent that most people would consider it undrinkable.
The food can diminish a characteristic of the wine. Protein diminishes the impression of tannin, for example, and an
overly-tannic red wine — unpleasant on its own — could be delightful with rare steak or roast beef.
The flavor intensity of the food can obliterate the wine’s flavor or vice versa. If you’ve ever drunk a big, rich red wine with a delicate filet of sole, you’ve had this experience firsthand.
The wine can contribute new flavors to the dish. For example, a red Zinfandel that’s gushing with berry fruit can bring its berry flavors to the dish, as if another ingredient had been added.
The combination of wine and food can create an unwelcome third-party flavor that wasn’t in either the wine or the food
originally; we get a metallic flavor when we eat plain white-meat turkey with red Bordeaux.
The food and wine can interact perfectly, creating a sensational taste experience that is greater than the food or the wine alone. (This scenario is what we hope will happen every time we eat and drink, but it’s as rare as a show-stopping dish.)
Fortunately, what happens between food and wine is not haphazard. Certain elements of food react in predictable ways with certain elements of wine, giving us a fighting chance at making successful matches. The major components of wine (alcohol, sweetness, acid, and tannin) relate to the basic tastes of food (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness) the same way that the principle of balance in wine operates: Some of the elements exaggerate each other, and some of them compensate for each other.
The fifth wheel Common wisdom was that humans can perceive four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. But people who study food have concluded that a fifth taste exists, and there may be many more than that. The fifth taste is called umami (pronounced
oo MAH me), and it’s associated with a savory character in foods. Shellfish, oily fish, meats, and cheeses are some foods high in umami taste. Umami-rich foods can increase the sensation of bitterness in wines served with them. To counteract this effect, try adding something salty (such as salt itself) or sour (such as vinegar) to your dish. Although this suggestion defies the adage that vinegar and wine don’t get along, the results are the proof of the pudding.
Here are some ways that food and wine interact, based on the components of the wine. Remember, each wine and each dish
has more than one component, and the simple relationships we describe can be complicated by other elements in the wine or the
food. Whether a wine is considered tannic, sweet, acidic, or high in alcohol depends on its dominant component.
Tannic wines include most wines based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape (including red Bordeaux), northern Rhône reds,
Barolo and Barbaresco, and any wine — white or red — that has become tannic from aging in new oak barrels. These wines can:
Diminish the perception of sweetness in a food
Taste softer and less tannic when served with protein-rich, fatty foods, such as steak or cheese
Taste less bitter when paired with salty foods
Taste astringent, or mouth-drying, when drunk with spicy-hot foods
Some wines that often have some sweetness include most inexpensive California white wines, White Zinfandel, many
Rieslings (unless they’re labeled “dry” or “trocken”), and medium-dry Vouvray. Sweet wines also include dessert wines
such as Port, sweetened Sherries, and late-harvest wines. These wines can:
Taste less sweet, but fruitier, when matched with salty foods
Make salty foods more appealing
Go well with sweet foods
Acidic wines include most Italian white wines; Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, and Chablis; traditionally-made red wines from Rioja; most dry Rieslings; and wines based on Sauvignon Blanc that are fully dry. These wines can:
Taste less acidic when served with salty foods
Taste less acidic when served with slightly sweet foods
Make foods taste slightly saltier
Counterbalance oily or fatty heaviness in food
High alcohol wines include many California wines, both white and red; southern Rhône whites and reds; Barolo and
Barbaresco; fortified wines such as Port and Sherry; and most wines produced from grapes grown in warm climates.
These wines can:
Overwhelm lightly flavored or delicate dishes
Go well with slightly sweet foods
“A châque son gout” — personal taste rules
We once happened to discuss food pairings for red Bordeaux wine with the owner of one of the five first growths of Bordeaux . “I don’t like Bordeaux with lamb,” the distinguished gentleman proclaimed. We were confused; “But Bordeaux and lamb is a classic combination!” we said. “No, I don’t agree,” he answered, holding his ground. After a moment, he added, “Of course, I don’t like lamb.”
No matter how much you value imagination and creativity, there’s no sense reinventing the wheel. In wine-and-food terms, it pays to know the classic pairings because they work, and they’re a sure thing. Here are some famous and reliable combinations:
Oysters and traditional, unoaked Chablis
Lamb and red Bordeaux (we like Chianti with lamb, too)
Port with walnuts and Stilton cheese
Salmon with Pinot Noir
Amarone with Gorgonzola cheese
Grilled fish with Vinho Verde
Foie gras with Sauternes or with late-harvest Gewürztraminer
Braised beef with Barolo
Dry amontillado Sherry with soup
Grilled chicken with Beaujolais
Toasted almonds or green olives with fino or manzanilla Sherry
Goat cheese with Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé
Dark chocolate with California Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine from Venus, food from Mars
Sooner or later you’re bound to experience foodand - wine disaster — when the two taste miserable together. We’ve had
many opportunities to test our solution to food-and-wine disaster, and it works: As long as the wine is good and the food is good, eat one first and drink the other afterwards — or vice versa.
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