ABCs of Wine and Food Pairing
Wine and Food pairing is an extremely personal pastime, drawing from the background, culture, and habits of each person sampling the wine. Germans might think a particular wine is dry; French are likely to find the same wine sweet. Someone brought up with spicy foods might judge a wine differently than someone brought up with potatoes and pasta.
In the end, it comes down to what an individual enjoys, and what combination works best for that person.
Certainly, generalizations can be drawn about “the average person’s senses” – that usually produces charts like this Red Wines & Food one, or perhaps its mates – the White Wines & Food and Sparkling Wines & Food. Still, these should only be used as starting points, where you think to yourself, “I am a human, so my mouth might work the same was as these other billions of peoples’ mouths do, in general.” When you take in consideration how different you are as an individual, and all that has gone into your particular taste system, you will realize how truly individual your wine and food pairing ideas probably are.
So where to start … how about those two sense organs that most humans possess: the nose and tongue.
The sensation wine gives you – flavor and aroma – does not come chiefly from your tongue. Your tongue has “zones” for each type of flavor it can taste, so you want the wine to be able to go over each section. The tip senses sweet, the front sides salt, the back sides acid, and the very back bitter. Even in each section, there are buds of different “intensities”.
In comparison with this well-organized but generalizing tongue, your nose is incredibly sensitive at picking out minute differences in aroma. It is able to sense concentrations of some odors in the parts-per-million quantity. Practice often with both senses, paying attention to the flavors you are detecting in the wine, learning what combinations you enjoy and do not enjoy. The more flavors you try in your day to day activities, the greater the “background of taste knowledge” you will have when you try to figure out what a particular wine tastes like.
Pairing is not an arcane science. It is simply the decision of which wine will bring out the best in a given food, and which food will bring out the best in a given wine, all based on how you personally enjoy both. Think of a comparison in the non-wine world. Few people would eat a delicate, paper-thin pastry shell with thick beef stew, garlic bread and baked potatoes. The pastry would simply “melt into the background” and be overwhelmed with the other flavors. The same holds true for wine. You don’t want the food to completely overpower the wine, so you cannot taste it at all. Conversely, you don’t want the wine to be so strong that you can’t taste the meal. Some sort of balance lies in the middle.
Do you match like with like – an appley tasting wine along with apple pie for dessert? Or do you add some contrast, so the spiciness in the meat stew balances against the slightly sweet wine? Either method works, as do countless others. Part of the fun is to experiment with different combinations, to see which strike your own palate as truly delicious. Then, share those with others to see which tastes they also appreciate, and which are uniquely yours.
One very typical wine-food pairing is Cheese, and many wine parties have cheese as the main snack. Why is this? There are so many varieties of cheeses that there is one that goes well with any type of wine you might try.
Cheese tends to make a wine taste better, too. It “smoothes out” the wine and brings out what is best in both. Both wine and cheese are natural products, something created with care and aged to perfection.
In most cases a red wine goes well with hard cheese, while white wines go well with softer cheeses, but again this comes down to your own personal tastes and what combinations of flavors you enjoy. To get you started, this Wine & Cheese Pairing Chart shows which partners most people think work well.
How about for dessert? While Ice Wine goes well with fruit pastries, chocolate is the typical “difficult to match” dessert. To please wine lovers of all stripes, you can choose a white riesling, cabernet, or port.
Riesling is grown in many places, but does the best in its native Germany and in California. The Riesling grape is believed to be indigenous to Germany, and has been planted there since the fourteenth century. Riesling is a sweet but complex white wine that is great as a dessert wine. It often has fruity and floral flavors.
Cabernet is one of the most popular wines on the market. Cabernet is the name of both the grape and the wine it produces. It is known as one of the world’s finest red wines, with its depth of complexity and richness of flavor. Cabernet is grown all over the world – South America; Australia; Lebanon; Long Island, NY; Northern California; and of course France. Cabernets can be mellow and mild, hearty and rich. It has a deep red color, with the primary taste being black currant. Other overtones can include blackberry and mint. Traditionally aged in oak, the wine also takes on an oaky, vanilla flavor.
Port is fortified wine from the Douro Valley, Portugal. The term “port” can only refer to these wines, much like French regions lay claim to certain titles. Smooth, silky, and thick, port is superb for sipping from small glasses by the fire, after a long day of work.
You’ll find that many people have “hard and fast rules” about what always goes well with what. Learn for yourself what combinations of tastes you enjoy the most. Feel free to experiment, and write down which wines go especially well with certain foods. You’ll find that the person who knows the most about what you should have together is yourself!