The Constrained Gourmet loves her wine! I’ve been drinking wine most of my life and I believe that a wonderful meal with wine and enjoyment of family and friends is the best of life. I am a passionate consumer and I love learning about wine. I’m also a hobby winemaker and learned from the bottom up how to plant, maintain and grow grapes resulting in a great Bordeaux-style blend. But there is more to food and wine pairings than just loving wine!
It’s important to know that food has more of an impact on wine than wine does on food. This is a major constraint for the home chef! Why do certain foods make wine taste better or worse? Well, certain components in food can make wine taste harder or softer. What does that mean? Certain foods can alter the taste of wine to make them more or less bitter, acidic, sweet or fruity.
Let me help you with food and wine pairings
There are five basic tastes: sweetness; sourness/acidity; saltiness; bitterness and umami. However, there are other components of food that affect wine, such as fat, smokiness, chili heat, creaminess or gaminess. While it all comes down to what YOU like, there are some known matching or contrasting combinations that can make your wine pairing a lot easier!
Sweetness in food increases the perception of bitterness, acid and alcohol’s warming effect in wine. Meanwhile, it decreases the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in wine. This means that a dry wine paired with a sweet dessert will taste less fruity and much more acidic. The general guideline is to match a wine with a higher level of sweetness than the dish. You’ll want to serve a sweet Riesling, Muscat, Sauternes or Port with your pie and not a big Cabernet Sauvignon, even if it is left over from the main course.
Acidity is the food’s pH level. Many people immediately think of marinara sauce and tomatoes related to acidity. However, there are many higher acid foods. Lemons and limes have double the amount of acid than tomatoes and there are a string of fruits in between including plums, grapes, blueberries, apples, peaches and mangos. Vegetables are on the list, too, including cabbage, beets, corn and collard greens. Acidity in food can be good for wine because it will balance a high acid wine and make it taste fruitier. However, a low acid wine can taste flat when paired with high acid foods. A few high acid white wines are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc and a few high acid red wines are Sangiovese, Primitivo and Anglianico.
Salt is added to food for preparation and taste. However, there is a lot of hidden salt that you might not consider when you are cooking. For example, cheese is already salted. When you are cooking with cheese, you need to reduce the salt that you are adding to a dish to compensate for the amount of salt in the cheese. Other pre-salted foods include bread, broth, cured meats and nuts. Salt’s effect on wine, however, can be good. Salt increases the perception of body in the wine and fruitiness while it decreases the perception of astringency, bitterness and acidity. You might consider a high acid but lower body/fruity wine, such white wines from Gavi, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Rieslings from the Mosel region in Germany and Albarino or red wines from Barbera and Sangiovese.
This is an area that is very individual and subjective because bitter taste varies a lot from person to person. As a general rule, bitter tastes add on to each other. What this means with wine is that if a wine or food were bitter on its own, it might be acceptable to you. However, together, they might have a very unpleasant taste. Bitter foods include greens (arugula, endive, chicory) and vegetables (cauliflower, artichokes, broccoli); some citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes); and some spices (cardamom, ginger and pepper). Consider a white wine or low tannin red to avoid bitter flavors. Low tannin reds are Cabernet Franc from Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, and Barbera.
The translation of umami from Japanese is ‘pleasant savory taste’. Umami in food has the exact same effect on wine as sweetness. It is harder, i.e., more astringent, bitter and acidic and less sweetness, body and fruitiness. Umami is very difficult to work with in matching wines because you need to know how to counteract its effect. Salt counteracts much of umami’s adverse effect on wine. Some foods naturally high in umami are: pork, beef, chicken, mushrooms (especially dried), soy sauce, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, parmesan cheese, green tea, tuna, shrimp, clams, mussels and oysters. Interestingly, anyone reading this who was breast feed as a baby first experience umami in mother’s milk. A good wine pairing would be a balanced, high tannin wine which can stand up to the umami effect rather than a low tannin red or white wine with oak or lees contact which can become bitter and unbalanced with umami rich foods. Some examples of high tannin wines are Spanish Tempranillo or Granacha wines, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Barbaresco, Amarone, Mouvedre (Bandol), Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Here are a few other food and wine pairings for your consideration
Regardless of your knowledge of wines, knowing some basic geographic information can be very helpful to your pairings. Keep in mind that cooler regions (Germany, Northern France, Oregon, cool areas of Australia and New Zealand) will produce lower ripeness in the grapes. This will make grapes with lower sugar/lower alcohol and higher acid. Warmer regions (Southern France, Spain, Central and Southern Italy, Napa, warmer areas of Australia and New Zealand) will produce grapes with riper sugars/higher alcohol and lower acid. Warmer climates will also generally produce more tannins.
This is another difficult pairing because of the subjectivity from person to person regarding spiciness. For example, high alcohol wine can increase the burning effect of chili heat, but this is desirable to some people. A general rule is that chili heat will effect higher alcohol wine more than lower alcohol wine. A wine’s fruitiness and sweetness will also be reduced by chili heat. A good pairing is white wines or low tannin red wines that are low in alcohol. Good choices for white wines would be Rieslings or Sauvignon Blanc from cooler regions where the alcohol will be lower.
Many people like pairing acidic wines with fatty or oily foods because the acid has the effect of getting through the fat and cleansing the palate. An example of this would be a Barolo with lasagna or a Cabernet Sauvignon with a big, juicy steak. Other high acid red wines are Sangiovese, Anglianico, Barbera, Barbaresco, and Pinot Noir.
When in doubt….
Local wine with local food has been around forever for a reason. These pairings evolved over many years and formed a bond because they taste good to the people who live there! Some that you might know are: shellfish and Albarino; oysters and Champagne; pizza with Chianti; olives with dry Sherry; asparagus with Alsacian Muscat; lobster and white Burgundy; wild mushrooms and Rioja; parmesan and balsamic vinegar with Amarone; and cheese with Chateauneuf du Pape.
The other consideration for this is what YOU like. That is most important. Not what anyone tells you or what is supposed to match. It all comes down to your taste buds. So, make the pairing that tastes the best to you and enjoy life!