Wine and food are two of life's great pleasures and trying to match them can be great fun.
The first thing to remember when trying to pair wine and food is that nothing is written in tablets of stone. It is not really a case of being "right" or "wrong" because taste is extremely subjective and everyone's tastes are different. In fact your tastes generally change as you grow older - becoming less sensitive - so you are more likely to enjoy foods that you thought too strong as a child; olives and anchovies, for example. This is partly because as we grow older our taste buds diminish from the sides and roof of our mouths, leaving behind fewer and less receptive ones.
However, some wine and food pairing can transcend what is rather a good meal into the realms of a truly excellent one, and the following tips are designed to do just that.
We have already acknowledged that the sense of taste is highly personal, and it is estimated that as much as 80% of our taste sensation is actually determined from our sense of smell (which is why, if you are suffering from a cold, your sense of taste is compromised.)
We have around 10,000 taste buds inside our mouths and it is known that different taste qualities are found in all areas of the tongue, although some are more sensitive than others.
The sweetness receptors are positioned near the tip of the tongue, therefore we perceive sweetness first. Acidity is the felt near the sides of the tongue and results in a tingling sensation. Acidity is extremely important in wine - if there is too much acidity the wine will taste sharp and sour. Not enough acidity on the other hand and the wine tends to taste flabby, which can mask the perception of the fruit. Bitterness is detected in various parts of the mouth. Salt is detected just behind and to the sides of the sweetness zone.
Then there is the fifth taste, "Umami", that deeply savoury, pungent and meaty flavour which is sensed throughout the mouth.
Grapes are rich in phenolics, which are chemical compounds that make up colour pigments and flavours. Different grape varieties have varying concentrations of these, which is why Riesling smells and tastes different to Chardonnay for example. Many phenolics present in grapes are shared with other foodstuffs – hence Gewürztraminer can smell and taste like lychees and Cabernet Sauvignon like blackcurrants.
There are other influences on the grapes like soil conditions that influence what you taste in your glass – minerals, flints, volcanic soils for example. Wine making techniques can also be identified – if a wine is oaked or unoaked. And finally certain aromas and flavours only develop over time – honey in Sauternes, petrol in Riesling, and tar in Barolo. These flavours can get more pronounced the older the wine becomes – some aged Rieslings can smell like you are filling your car up at the petrol station – it's a smell that Riesling aficionados love, but others detest!
Together, this all combines to make a wine's particular bouquet and flavour. So now you can start thinking about what you are going to pair it with.
There are a few things that are important to consider with wine and food matching. It's really all about balance - the weight and acidity of the wine should be compatible with that of the food you are serving with it. The strength and intensity of flavours involved in the food are also a consideration and whether you want to compare or contrast them with the wine.
Matching the weight or body of the wine to the accompanying food is one of the key elements to successful wine and food pairing. You don't want the food to overwhelm the wine; you want it to complement it. Therefore heartier more robust dishes suite heavier wines and delicate more subtle flavoured dishes go better with lighter wines.
When imagining the definition of a ‘heavier wine', consider the parameters of alcohol levels, tannin and oak. For oak, think about the difference between an oaked and an un-oaked chardonnay for example.
Climates also affect a wine's weight – consider the difference for example between a Shiraz grown in The Barossa Valley compared with one grown in Margaret River, or the difference between a Chablis and an Australian Chardonnay. This is of course due to the elevated alcohol levels of wines grown in these hotter regions.
An important factor of the mouth-feel of a wine is the presence or absence of wine tannins, which are derived in the skins, seeds and stems; their presence is largely dictated by winemaking decisions. Their role in wine tasting is rather complex, they supply wine with astringency and bitterness. Bitterness, as one of the five senses is more easily deciphered, whereas astringency is more complicated. This so-called astringency experienced by wine tasters is due to tannins connecting with proteins in the saliva, they are then precipitated out which results in enhanced friction within the mouth. This creates more of a physical sensation and plays a fundamental role in the overall judgement of this parameter known to the wine taster as ‘mouth feel'. Therefore when deciding about tannins and food matching, the general advice would be to team high tannin wines with protein and fat rich foods - hence the classic steak and red wine combination. But do avoid combining tannins in wine with tannins in food, such as nuts. However just to confuse matters, chocolate, which is sometimes tannin rich, seems to work well with big, fruity, yet tannic Cabernets. So drawn your own conclusion here.
You need to match the acidity in the food to the acidity in the wine. Higher acidity is found in white wines from cooler climates. The reason for this is that the total acidity within the grape decreases as the temperature increases, predominantly because larger quantities of sugar are generated with higher temperature; this is then transported to the grape thus diluting the acid.
Higher acid wines generally suit high acid flavours like lemon, vinegar and tomatoes. Wines with high acidity are also useful to cut through rich, fatty foods like duck.
If you want to compare the wine to the food you are serving, try to identify the dominant flavours involved, which are often in the seasoning and sauce, rather than the main component of the dish. Then literally try to match them up with the tasting notes of the wine.
Contrasting works on the premise that "opposites attract", like sweet and salt, and the sweet and spicy contrasts you find in many Asian and Oriental cuisines for example.
You can have a look at the following food categories and see some wine matching suggestions. Keep an open mind as it really is a matter of opinion, and have fun experimenting, but most importantly - ENJOY!