Pairing wine with food is straight forward, but not in the way writers in columns might have you believe. It is important to remember that they are writing for entertainment. Their descriptions of the food tend to be elaborate and interesting. But rarely insightful as to the underlying food characteristics that drive their suggestions.
The underlying characteristics are important to know for a successful pairing of food and wine. There is a lot of science behind tasting, but in food-wine pairing, there are a few that are especially significant. Let’s look deeper into acid, tannins and sweetness.
What’s Really Going On
When consuming something with high acid levels, we quickly start to become desensitized. After the first taste, the acidity doesn’t seem quite so pronounced. So if the wine is more acidic than you like, eating food that is acidic will make the wine seem less acidic.
If you want to flip things around and use wine to enhance the food, high acid wines can cut through fatty foods. For example, use a high acid wine to cleanse the palate between bites of fatty or fried foods.
Tannins with accompanying astringency are a physical sensation rather than a taste sensation like acid. Astringency is frequently described as a dryness or roughness on the tongue. That comes about because tannins readily bind with saliva proteins, clump together and ultimately precipitate out leaving less saliva to lubricate the mouth. In short, tannins physically dry out the mouth.
Tannins also bind with food proteins, so if you are eating food with proteins, some tannin molecules will bind with them leaving fewer tannin molecules to bind with saliva proteins. So the wine seems smoother.
Besides the protein interactions, tannins have also been shown to favorably bind to fats. Fats don’t like to interact with water and, of course, saliva is mostly water. By attaching to tannins, fats hinder the tannins from mixing with saliva and thus hinder their ability to bind to saliva proteins. Essentially, fats wash the tannins away leaving the saliva to do its job of lubricating.
So if you are drinking a wine with harsh (astringent) tannins or with too much tannin for your preference, eat food that is high in protein or fat.
Sweetness, Salt, Spicy
Unlike too much acid or too much astringency, sweetness is not generally considered a flaw. Most people that drink sweet wine want sweet wine. So mitigating the effects of sweetness wouldn’t be considered a goal of food pairing. However, it can have an effect.
Along the lines of desensitizing, eating sweet food would make sweet wine seem less sweet. As many snacks demonstrate, sweet and salt can make for a tasty combination. And of course, sweet wine can make spicy food taste less spicy.
Matching and Compensating
Don’t just consider whether a dish is meat or chicken or fish; consider the sauces or toppings that go on the food. A lemon sauce over any dish will desensitize your mouth for acid. If you have an acidic wine, that is great, but if not, it could make the wine seem a little thinner or flabbier than it really is.
As we pointed out, fats diminish the effect of tannins. A dish with a rich hollandaise sauce would go well with a young tannic red wine.
So what should we do if we’re drinking a wine with the right level of acid and/or a desirable level of tannins and the dish comes with a great lemon butter sauce? Enjoy it and if it makes the wine better, enjoy that too. If it degrades the wine experience, wait a minute and have some water before sipping the wine so it can be enjoyed as much as the sauce.
Enhancing by Compensating for Flaws
Most articles about wine and food pairings give greatest emphasis on how certain food can enhance the wine experience. But is matching food to enhance the wine really covering up for the wine’s flaws?
Consider a wine given the maximum 100 point rating. That pretty much says that there is nothing that can be done to improve the wine. It is perfect. There are no flaws or imperfections to compensate for. So how can pairing that wine with food improve it? If it could, then the wine doesn’t deserve the 100 point score. That implies that any food pairing will probably diminish the wine experience.
For example, if the food is acidic, it would desensitize the tongue and the wine would seem less balanced. If there is fat or protein in the food, those molecules will bind with tannins leaving fewer tannins to create a pleasurable mouth feel for the wine. Spicy food won’t help, nor will salty food.
If you have a great wine, savor it by itself. You can still enjoy food with the wine because (baring extremes such as habanera peppers) the impact of the food in the mouth usually diminishes fairly quickly. So after taking a bite of food, wait a minute before sampling the wine.
From a wine lover’s perspective, if the food doesn’t go with the wine – don’t eat. :)
C. R. (Rich) Abbruscato is part business man, part wine lover. He is founder of RNK Products, Inc. (using the brand Telehealth Technologies), a company dedicated to the design, development and manufacture of telemedicine medical devices and telemedicine systems. Rich is also a regular contributor to www.ehrguide.org, a resource for small to-mid size medical practices. Rich enjoys talking about wine as much as talking about telemedicine. But you can’t drink telemedicine.