Wine is always called a combination of art and science; and in our culinary schools cooking is always called a food science. If anything, the “art” of matching wine and food has always been one of the least understood aspects of wine appreciation, and a lot of that is because many of our leading wine “experts” (journalists, winemakers, judges, etc.) simply do not understand the science behind the concept.
This is understandable because much of what we know about wine and food matching is a priori — a matter of what we already know from tried-and-true experiences. Therefore, experts and everyday people alike know that a good Cabernet Sauvignon is a good match for roast beef, but can we really explicate the sensory reasons why? One could make a valid point that explication has never really been necessary, but consider the cooking done by many of our restaurant chefs, or by ourselves at home today: Beef is no longer just roasted or grilled. Nowadays we’ll marinate it in salty-sweet-spicy marinades, drench it in sweet fruit or Port infused demi-glace, serve it with hot-vinegary barbecue sauces, douse it lime and chili peppers, top it with lemony couscous or tropical fruit salsas, and on and on. Are these, then, the ideal matches for a typically big, hefty Cabernet Sauvignon? You can say yes; but objectively speaking, there are probably a number of other red wines that could make a better match with beef in these imaginative contexts.
So if anything, an understanding of wine and food matching from a sensory or scientific perspective is exactly what is needed in this complicated culinary age. But I’ve always found it helpful to start with a simple premise: That foods and wines are matched in the exact same way as the way they are tasted — on the palate, where they come together. In other words, wines are matched with dishes the same way that, say, a scoop of vanilla ice cream is matched with a dollop of hot chocolate syrup, sliced bananas, whipped cream, nuts and a cherry — a plethora of delicious, complimenting sensations. Vanilla ice cream, on the other hand, is not a good match with ketchup, mustard or anchovies. We may know this, but do we know why?
In the course of my own work in the culinary industry over the years I’ve found it helpful to know and understand the following six basic principles that help us understand wine and food matching in more of an empirical fashion, rather than vague or purely instinctive ways:
1st Principle: WINE IS A FOOD
All food and wine matching is more easily understood when the taste components of wines are thought of in the same way as ingredients in a dish. Just like good cooking involves a balancing of ingredients and technique, good wine/food matching involves focusing on how specific components in wines interact and achieve a sense of balance and harmony with specific components in dishes.
2nd Principle: THE FIVE BASIC TASTE SENSATIONS
That is to say, what your taste buds perceive, whether you are tasting wine or food:
Sweetness — Related to amount of residual sugar in both foods and wines.
Sour/tartness — Degree of acidity in both foods and wines (more so in whites than in reds); tasted at the center and sides of the tongue.
Saltiness — Not a significant component in wine, but important in how a wine relates to it in foods.
Bitterness — Tasted in many foods, and in the tannin content of red wines (to a lesser degree in whites that see oak aging or skin-contact during fermentation).
Umami — The flattering, amino acid related sense of “deliciousness” or "savoriness" found in many foods, and to a limited extent in wines (particularly red wines, which retain amino acids from the grape skins with which they are fermented).
3rd Principle: KEY TACTILE SENSATIONS
Some key factors in many food/wine matches:
Density, body or weight — The sense of light vs. heavy contributed by proteins, fats and/or carbs in foods, and primarily related to degrees of alcohol content in wines (which can be bolstered by tannin in reds)
Soft/crisp textures — Tactile contrasts in foods; and in wines, smooth or easy vs. hard, sharp or angular.
Spicy/hot — Feel of heat when chiles, peppers or horseradishes are used in foods; not felt as a tactile sensation in wines, but suggested in aromas and flavors (i.e., “spice” notes).
4th Principle: FLAVOR IS AROMA RELATED
Without the sense of smell, neither foods nor wines have “flavor.” Example: The taste and tactile sensations in an apple, a pineapple, and an onion are similar in that they are all sweet, crisp yet juicy, with some degree of acidity, but they all give a distinctly different flavor perceived through the sense of smell.
By the same token, both Cabernet Sauvignon and a Petite Sirah are two types of red wine that tend to be dark, full bodied, dry, and fairly hard in tannin; but the Cabernet gives aromas and flavors of herbal, minty, berry/cassis aromas and flavors, whereas the Petite Sirah gives ripe berry/blueberry and black peppercorn-like aromas and flavors.
THE TWO WAYS WINES AND FOODS ARE SUCCESSFULLY MATCHED
Two gastronomic pioneers of the 1980s, David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson, deserve full credit for first formulating these two self-evident concepts for food and wine:
Similarities — When there are similar taste sensations in both a dish and a wine (example: the buttery sauce in a fish dish enhanced by the creamy or buttery texture of an oak barrel fermented white wine).
Contrasts — When sensations in a wine contrast with sensations in a dish to positive effect (example: the sweetness of a white wine balancing the saltiness of a dish such as ham or a cured sausage, and vice-versa).
INTRINSICALLY BALANCED FOODS AND WINES MAKE THE BEST MATCHES
No matter what your personal taste, invariably you discover this natural occurrence: the easiest foods and the easiest wines to find a match for are the ones with their own intrinsic sense of harmony and balance. This is because taste buds and sensations of tactile qualities work for you collectively, not singularly.
When you add salt to a pineapple, for example, you not only make the pineapple salty, you also increase the sensation of sweetness while decreasing the sensation of sourness. But when it comes to food as it relates to wine, it is always easier to match a dish that does not need as much alteration of taste (like throwing salt on a pineapple) to make it taste better; and vice-versa in the way a wine relates to food. The simple solution is to find matching components of similarity and contrast in foods and wines that are already well balanced.
This is not to say that a young, overly bitter or hard textured Cabernet Sauvignon cannot be served with food. But it does narrow your food choices somewhat: Instead of a lamb chop finished with a sweet natural plum reduction or a slightly salty, spice scented Asian marinade — ingredients that can make gamy lamb more interesting yet increase the perception of tough tannin in young Cabernet — you are probably better off relegated to simply grilling the lamb to a slight char to at least reduce the drying effect of the wine’s tannins, and serving it with a more neutral sauce (if any) made with Cabernet and the lamb’s own natural juices.
Then again, if the Cabernet is extremely rough to the point that it is barely drinkable, not even the simplest piece of charred meat will help it taste better. Sometimes it's not the wine and food combination that isn't working, it's the fact that the wine is lousy. The same thing for a lamb chop that is drenched in a sauce or marinade that is too sweet, too salty, too spicy hot or sour: The palate knows when a dish is unbalanced, and so even the finest, smoothest, most elegantly balanced Cabernet Sauvignon will not make that poorly prepared lamb taste better.
After this, it’s all a matter of actual tasting, and soon becoming familiar with the wines we like — just as we continue to discover delicious, new foods — followed by the combinations that make the most sense to you. The nice thing is the fact that the variations in both foods and wines are virtually endless, and so it will always be as much fun as you want it to be.
CLASSIC & CONTEMPORARY MATCHES
There are many old standby, successful wine and food matches, as well as a number of others reflecting more contemporary style dining, all based upon the basic, common sense principles of food and wine matching. As food and wine for thought, a few interesting examples:
· Full bodied, dry, richly flavorful white wines (like Chardonnay and Viognier) with meatier “other white” meats (such as pork, veal and chicken) in richly flavorful sauces.
· White wines with zesty acidity (i.e., Sauvignon Blanc) with foods with matching degrees of acidity (like salads in mildly sharp vinaigrettes, or cheeses like chèvre) .
· Slightly sweet yet zesty white wines (such as German Rieslings) with seafoods prepared with slightly sweet, sour, salty, and even spicy-hot sauces and ingredients (since sugar in wine and as a food ingredient brings contrasting balance to spicy, salty or acidic sensations).
· Soft red wines (such as Pinot noir, Grenache or Beaujolais) with soft but full flavored red fish (like salmon and tuna).
· Zesty, pungent, earthy/foresty red wines (such as Chianti Classico or Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany) with zesty, Italian influenced dishes (use of pasta, tomato, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and resiny herbs like oregano and rosemary).
· High tannin reds (such as a youthful Cabernet Sauvignon) with slight bitterness or astringency with red meats prepared with slightly bitter peppercorns, vegetables, or char from wood grilling.
· Bright, zesty, sweetly fruit scented red wines (such as red Zinfandel, Syrah or Petite Sirah) with fatty meats in zesty, sweet or even spicy sauces and marinades (re barbecued or even teriyaki style beef or pork ribs).
· Big, herbaceous, minty or cedary Cabernet Sauvignon based reds (from France’s Bordeaux, California or Australia) with red meats in sauces reduced with aromatic green herbs (mint, thyme, sage, etc.).
· Smoky, toasty, aggressively oaked wines (such as many Chardonnays, and most ultra-premium reds) with white or red meats that are aggressively grilled, roasted or wood-smoked.
· Sweet, high acid, intensely fruity “late harvest” whites with sweet desserts made with fruits retaining natural fruit acidity (berries and stone fruits peach and pear).
· Sweet, full bodied wines (fortified reds such as Port and Banyuls from France, or golden colored Sauternes from France) contrasting with salty blue cheeses (like roquefort, gorgonzola and Maytag Blue).
· Sweet, full bodied, fortified reds (such as Port and Banyuls) with bitter/sweet chocolate desserts