The Truth About Food and Wine Pairing!

May 26th, 2016 | By | Category: beverages, show tips, the show

Or, as Miss Jane likes to call it, “Wine and Food – Deconstructed”

I hit the jackpot when I met Miss Jane Nickles, Director of Education for the Society of Wine Educators. I asked her for a few tips on wine and food pairing to share on the website, and she provided me with a Master’s Class.  Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not by much!

Without further adieu… Miss Jane’s Wine and Food–Deconstructed:

Miss Jane Nickles and Sheilds T. Hood at Home

Miss Jane Nickles and Sheilds T. Hood at Home

Forget everything you think you know about food and wine pairing!

White Wine with Fish, Strawberries and Champagne, Red Wine and Chocolate, whatever you’ve heard, forget it!

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but food and wine pairing have nothing to do with wine color, pairing to proteins, or “matching or contrasting” flavors.

The truth of the matter is this: food and wine pair up, and pair up successfully or disastrously, based on three components:  tastes, flavors, and textures.  Learn the principles behind these truths and you will become an instant food and wine genius!  Who can resist that?

To Get Started…Defining “The Three Components”

Tastes: Sweet, Salt, Acid, Bitter, Oil, and Tannin.

A taste component, as you should have learned in elementary school, is something that can be perceived using just your tongue, or your taste buds – remember the “tongue map” and the areas where you can detect salt, sweet, acid, and bitter?  Time to dust off that memory!

I also include tannin and oil as taste components.

The truth is this:  if a wine, or a dish, is sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, or contains a lot of mouth-coating oil or tongue-drying tannin, that fact must be dealt with to make a successful match!

Taste Components are almost always the most important factor to consider in a food and wine pairing.
Specific tastes in food will change the way you perceive specific tastes in wine.

These changes are predictable and consistent, and are outlined in my “few simple rules” chart.

FlavorsFruity, Floral, Herbal, Spicy, Earthy, Nutty, Oaky, Meaty…the list goes on!

Flavors are sensed as a combination of taste, aroma, and texture.  Please don’t confuse flavor with taste!  Cherry is a flavor, sweet is a taste (repeat after me!)

Flavors in food and wine are not that big of a deal when it comes to a successful match.

Flavors are very forgiving…they can be successful in either the “match” or the “contrast” mode.   But never, ever, attempt to pair to flavors until you have dealt with the tastes!

Flavors can be matched to highlight the flavor, such as herbal wine with herbal food.  This is called a “bridge flavor” and can make for a very successful match.  Or, flavors can be contrasted to make a meal balanced and interesting.  For instance, we can cool down a spicy food by pairing it with a fruity wine.

Textures: Light-Bodied, Medium-Bodied, Rich, Round…

Textures are discerned using the tactile sense of touch.  Textures should usually (although not always…) be matched.  In other words, serve light bodied food with light bodied wine, and rich food with rich, full-bodied wine. However, there are some exceptions…if you want one part of the meal (that is, the food or the wine) to really shine, you can mix textures in what I like to call “the wind beneath my wings” effect.

Textures are generally best matched rich for rich or light on light, however exceptions can be interesting.

Next…Get to Know “The Three Concepts”

Key Concept #1You don’t pair to flavor, you pair to taste.

Lots and lots of well-meaning people think they know food and wine pairing because they heard – somewhere in wine and food cliché-land – that you can match or contrast flavors in food and wine.  That’s true, you can…but the result is virtually meaningless (and can be a disaster) if you haven’t first dealt with the major taste components in both the food and the wine.

It’s worth repeating…the most important component in any food and wine match-up is the taste components…sweet, acid, salt, bitter, oil, and tannin.  The presence of any of these in your food will change the way you perceive your wine … for better, or worse!

Key Concept #2You don’t pair to protein, you pair to preparation.

If someone tells you they are serving up turkey, fish, or poultry for dinner, your food-and-wine pairing job has just begun.  About the only usable information we can get from this tidbit is a hint as to the overall texture of the dish.  Otherwise, we have nothing.  Let’s face it, protein is bland.  Fish, chicken, and pork have almost no taste components in them (save for varying levels of fat.) before they are prepared.

What do you really need to know before making a match?   Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you know…you want to know what tastes are involved.  It all depends on preparation…is it broiled, fried, steamed, and even more importantly…how is it seasoned, served, or sauced?  That’s what you need to know!

Key Concept #3You pair to the “The Key Elements” in a dish.

To be really, really good at pairing food and wine, you must develop an instinct for discerning the key elements in a food or wine….the tastes, the flavors, and the textures.  Most meals are a cacophony of tastes, flavors, and textures, and most wines contain at least two taste components and might carry dozens of flavors.  It would take hours to figure out a perfect pairing based on all the information available, even for the simplest meal!  So, we have to learn to cut through the clutter and figure out the one or two elements of a wine or a dish that will most impact the pairing.

A very good rule of thumb is that is the major taste components (acid, sweet, salt, bitter, oil, or tannin) are present in a discernible level in either the food or the wine, those taste components will be among the key elements.  After you have figured out the tastes, try to discern the key flavors.

Other components that might be your key element include spiciness, heat as from chili peppers, or an extreme of texture such as the lightness of a lemon soufflé or the heaviness of roast prime rib accompanied by cheddar cheese mashed potatoes.

One word of caution in this step is not to rely on generalities.  Wine and food are all about creativity and subtlety so take each wine and dish on its own merits.

Once you develop a knack for breaking a food or wine down into its key elements, and you can learn to apply a few simple rules (see below…) and have a great chance at a great pairing!

Finally, Commit to Memory these “Few Simple Rules”

1.    Any level of acidity in food…whether it is a squeeze of lemon or a topping of tomatoes, will diminish your ability to taste acidity in wine.  Simply stated, acid in food makes acid in wine less apparent.  If you are starting with a tart, high-acid wine, acidic foods will make your wine taste smoother.  The flip-side of this rule is that acidic foods can wash out low-acid wines and make them taste flabby – beware!  Acidic foods require high-acid wines.

2.    Sweet food will make the sweetness of a wine less apparent and bring out the other characters of a wine, be it acid, tannin, or bitterness.  If a wine does not contain any discernible sweetness, sweet food will reduce the fruity flavors and bring out acidic, tannic, and earthy tastes and flavors.  One of the biggest mistakes people make is pairing a savory food with a sweet sauce…like roast pork with apples…with dry, tannic wines.  Such dishes require a slightly sweet wine – or a very, very fruity wine for a good match.

3.    Fatty foods will smooth out both the tannin and acid in any wine.

4.    Salty food goes well with acidic wines – they “turbocharge” each other.

5.    Salty food goes well with slightly sweet wines – it’s the trail mix effect.

6.    Salty foods can bring out the bitter quality of tannic wines – beware!

7.    Bitter tastes in foods enhance bitter tastes in wines – beware!!

8.    Matching a flavor in the food with a similar flavor in the wine (such as “herbal”) is called a “flavor bridge” and will most likely be a great match.  Flavor matching is almost always successful and can be a very fun, creative way to pair up food and wine…but be sure the taste components are dealt with before you attempt any flavor match-ups!

9.    Flavor contrasts, will work very well when the flavors mesh together.  Experiment and have fun!  Fruit with Fish?  Herbs with Lamb?  If it works, we call this blend of flavors a “natural affinity” (meaning quite simply “they go well together!).  Happy note:  almost all flavors in food and wine go well together…it’s rare to find a real “clash”.

10.    Texture matches, such as light-bodied wines with light-bodied foods, and rich wines with rich food, are always a reliable match.  Many sommeliers consider this the most important part of food and wine pairing.  (Not me.  You know what I think…it’s all about TASTE!)

Now you know how it’s done. Eat and drink responsibly–but do eat and drink.

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