Wine & Food Matching: Science or Art?By Randy Caparoso
Wine is always called a combination of art and science, and in our 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 what we know from tried-and-true experience. Therefore, experts and everyday people alike know 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, and by ourselves at home, today: beef is no longer just roasted. 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.
So if anything, an understanding of wine and food matching from a sensory or scientific perspective is exactly what we need 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 it comes 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 and 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 rather than vague or instinctive way:
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.
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; sensed by taste buds located towards at the tip of the tongue.
- 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; tasted near center of tongue.
- Bitterness - Tasted in many foods, and in the tannin content of red wines (to a lesser degree in whites); tasted towards the rear of the tongue.
- Umami - The flattering, amino acid related sense of "deliciousness" found in many foods, and to a limited extent in wines (location of "umami taste buds" on palate indeterminate)
KEY TACTILE SENSATIONS
Like the hot/cold of chocolate syrup and ice cream, these are 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 degree of alcohol content in wines (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 ("spice" notes).
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 & 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 like ham or cured sausage, and vice-versa).
INTRINSICALLY BALANCED FOODS & 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.
When you add salt to a pineapple, for example, you not only make the pineapple salty, you also increase the sensation of sweetness and decrease 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, but increase a young Cabernet's toughness -- you are probably 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. 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.
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