While wine can be a beautiful thing all by itself, the greatest joy of wine for me is discovering new an exciting food and wine pairings. Wine, to me, should be much more than something to slug back after a mouthful of food.
Nevertheless, pairing food and wine can be a challenge. It should not be hit-or-miss, though. There are as many rules and recommendations for pairing a dish with a wine as there are people who drink wine. Not everyone proposing different pairing recommendations looks at the process the same way, so not every approach is going to be successful. Of course, there are also different ways to approach wine and food pairing depending on personal preference.
While a certain contingent of wine enthusiasts recoils at, and resists, the notion of rules in food and wine pairing, there are rules of chemistry and physiology underlying the success or failure any particular pairing. While no single paring is necessarily ideal or “correct”, one should keep in mind the way food and wine interact and consider what kind of culinary or food and wine experience it is they want.
Food and wine pairing is really about the chemical interaction of the two. To achieve an understanding of what works and what does not, one has to give a little thought to the character of the food, wine and how the two interact.
I’ve written to some extent about the way food and wine interact and how that is perceived by human physiology. Most recently, I wrote about the interactions between big, tannic wines and different elements of food in an article published on PalatePress.com. This article focuses on the interaction of structure, texture and mouthfeel of food and wine.
I will be writing more articles along this vein in the future, but readers should not wait for me to do this. The main areas of compatibility I look at, when thinking about a pairing are: aromatics, flavors and structure – which broadly encompasses texture, body, weight and mouthfeel.
I think that most wine consumers tend to respond to, or focus more on weight and mouth feel. Nevertheless, for those who want to explore a different paradigm, I offer my framework of looking at a wine’s food friendliness. This is an approach which goes beyond matching structure, texture and mouth feel and acknowledges that aromas and flavors in wine and food can complement each other or clash when both are both in the mouth.
I have chosen to list the following five categories of interaction between food and wine in order of increasing degree of synergy between the two. A system of this sort has to have a scale and in this one a greater degree of friendliness goes with greater synergy. I offer these as possibilities of what can happen. Think of them not as absolute categories, but a series of questions to ask yourself as you try out food and wine pairings:
1. The wine clashes with food. The interaction between food and wine is awkward or unpleasant. There is a harsh and striking discord and an unpleasant contrast or mismatch between the sensory elements of the food and wine. This may be due to very incompatible aromatic and flavor profiles of the food and the wine, insufficient acidity in the wine, excessive alcohol in the wine (especially problematic with spicy foods) or, at times, high residual sugar. Of course, spices, textures and flavors of the dish may not react well to a particular wine.
2. Wine and food flavors and textures stand side-by-side without any negative interaction. The wine, at best, may only cleanse the palate for the next mouthful. This is most easily exemplified by a very generic Pinot Grigio (or some other insipid white wine with decent acidity) paired with fish or chicken.
3. Wine and food character (flavors and structure) match or reflect each other. The body, weight and acidity of the wine are on par with the food. Think: fatty white fish like Sturgeon or Catfish with Rhône whites (or white Rhône blends) or a California Chardonnay with lobster or shrimp. There is balance of structure, aromas and flavors.
4. Wine flavors and structure complement the food (or vice-versa), complimenting, positively affecting, enhancing or augmenting flavor and texture characteristics already noticeable in the dish or the wine. One example is the way rare or medium-rare red meats mitigate the astringency of tannins in a young Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine and bring out its bright fruit. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and oysters can frequently demonstrate this as well.
5. Ultimate synergy of wine and food bringing out pleasing aromas, flavors and textures not present (or noticeable) in either the wine or food alone. This is a scenario where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Artisan goat cheeses with a well-balanced, younger Pinot Noir can illustrate this very well where nuanced or more prominent sensory elements come to light in the pairing.
In a nutshell, the food-wine interaction can range from an absolutely unpleasant one, through a neutral and unobtrusive one, to one where the food and wine work in ultimate sensory synergy. Part of learning what works is finding out what does not. I encourage readers to experiment and pay attention to their senses. The key is paying close attention to your senses. An example of this system at work is found here.
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