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Pairing food and wine

Throw out the old rules-of-thumb

There are a whole bunch of rules-of thumb that have developed over the years

  • Serve white wine with fish or white meat and red wine with red meat
  • Serve red wine at room temperature (whatever that might be)
  • You only decant red wine
  • Serve white wine cold

All of which only have the tiniest speck of truth, if any at all.

Our particular bug bear is cold white wine. Most restaurant serve white wine at the same temperature as lager. What this achieves is to make the wine hide away – no nose and almost no taste. Which is kind of what we think of lager!! Older wines and aromatic wines should be served only lightly chilled – around 15C.

But, this section is about pairing food and wine. It’s not about rules but about a framework in which to decide what goes with what. We are indebted to Katarina van Niekerk and Brian Burke who have written a very good and extensive book called ‘The Food & Wine Pairing Guide’ (Struik Lifestyle, Cape Town, 2009) for the basis of what we have written here. If you want to find out more we suggest you buy their book.

Their framework contains just three things to consider when you are selecting a wine to accompany a dish; weight; flavour intensity; and the role of the five primary taste sensations.

Weight

The weight of a dish is the most important thing to take into account and one should always aim to balance the weight of the food with the weight of the wine, so that neither overwhelms the other.

The food range from light to heavy is, for example, white fish; chicken; grilled meats; hearty stews.

For white wines it is Pinot Gris; Riesling; Sauvignon Blanc; unoaked Chardonnay; Semillon; oaked Chardonnay. And for red wines, Pinot Noir; merlot; Malbec; Shiraz; Cabernet Sauvignon.

So chicken, for example, pairs well with the heavier whites and the lighter reds. Although cold roast chicken goes well with an off-dry, low alcohol, Riesling on Sunday evenings.

But the biggest challenge is often posed by the sauce in the dish - sauces rule. Many people choose a creamy pepper or mushroom sauce to go with grilled steak. Together, this makes for a heavy dish that needs to be paired with an equally heavy wine. The creaminess of the sauce demands an equally creamy wine. A buttery, velvety, oaked Chardonnay or Semillon provides both the weight that the steak needs and the creamy texture that the sauce demands.

Flavour intensity

By flavour intensity we mean the degree of flavour that a dish has; ranging from bland to spicy. Again one should aim to balance the flavour intensity of the wine and the food.

Flavour intensity for white wine ranges from the subtlety of a Pinot Gris or an unoaked Chardonnay (think Chablis) up through Rieslings to Sauvignon Blanc (especially New World Sauvignons) or Gewürztraminer.

For red wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Grenache (southern Rhone wines) have far more flavour intensity than Pinot Noir. But we think the distinction is far more along the new world / old world dimension; new world reds having far more flavour intensity than old world wines.

From food’s perspective the subtle flavour end of the range is with light coloured meat and fish or red meat with little fat such as fillet. At the intense flavour end are the dark coloured meats and fish or meats with lots of fat such as lamb or prime rib.

The five primary taste sensations

Wines and foods share some basic tastes. Physically, we have taste buds that give us the intrinsic ability to register five primary taste sensations in the mouth: sweetness; acidity; saltiness; bitterness and umami (or 'savoury'). Each of these five tastes is present to some degree, and in various combinations and permutations, in all foods.

Wine is also a combination of primary tastes, usually three: sweetness; acidity (sourness) and, in the case of red wine, umami. These combinations define a wine's profile and determine with what food it is best served.

Sweetness

Sweet foods need to be matched by wines that are at least as sweet, if not sweeter, than the dish. lf the wine is not as sweet as the food, it will taste sour, a little bitter, and will appear sharper, less fruity and less sweet (that is, drier than it really is).

When it comes to savoury food that has a touch of sweetness, the match is not so obvious. This happens when the main course contains fruit. These dishes are best matched with off-dry to medium-sweet wines, depending on just how sweet the dish actually is. For whites that is easy; for reds try an Amarone from northern Italy.

However, there is a second route when trying to match wine with savoury food with that touch of sweetness: red wines with 'sweet' fruit flavours. These give the perception that they are sweet when, in reality, they are not. Choose a full-bodied Shiraz, Grenache (or a blend of the two), Tempranillo or merlot that has been produced from very ripe grapes.

Acidity

Acidity in food needs to be matched with wine that is equally acid. If a wine is less acidic than the dish it is accompanying, it ‘thins out’ and can taste flat and dull. A wine that is mouth-puckeringly acidic when drunk on its own transforms when paired with a tart dish. Foods that are high in acidity decrease the perception of sourness in a wine, making it taste richer and mellow.

The acidity of certain ingredients, especially tomatoes but also leeks and spinach, can raise the sharpness of the finished dish. While it may be quite straightforward to determine how acidic a dish is, it is less so for wines. Wine labels are often no help either. The most you can expect are cue words on the back label such as 'crisp' or 'zesty', and hope that the producer is right. Generally though white wines have higher acidity levels than reds.

The white varieties with natural acidity are Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio. lf the grapes were grown in a cool climate you can expect the wines' acidity level to be higher than those made with grapes from a warmer climate. This is why in the New World wine makers seek cool micro climates in which to grow their white wine grapes.

Red wines generally lack acidity. Those that do have acidity are young, light-bodied reds from cool climates and, crucially, they have low tannins. Acidic food and tannins clash and should be avoided whenever possible. If you have an acidic dish and want a red wine then choose the Italian varieties Sangiovese and Barbera, or go for a Pinot Noir.

An unexpected bonus of an acidic wine is that it can bring out the flavours of a gentle, subtle dish, just as a squeeze of lemon does on a piece of pan-fried cod.

Saltiness

Saltiness in foods has a significant impact on wine. Salty food does not go well with tannic wine. Just adding salt to enhance the flavour of food emphasises the tannins in red wine, often to an unpleasant level.

But salty food pairs really well with sweet wines. The saltier the dish the sweeter the wine can be. Roquefort and Sauterne is a famous pairing. This affinity extends to wines that have very little residual sugar, but seem to be ‘sweet’, as they may have spicy-sweet flavours and aromas, like a dry Gewurtztraminer, with its rose petal and litchi aromas. However, bear in mind that salty foods can make sweetish wines taste even sweeter.

Saltiness also has an affinity with acid. In general, white wines are inherently sharper than red wines, and therefor pair better with salty dishes than red wine do.

However, red wines that are generously fruity and low in tannins, or their tannins are ripe, soft and rounded, like those found in reds from warm growing areas pair well with salty foods. Reds with natural acidity, like Pinot Noir, also go well.

Bitterness

Bitter foods accentuate any bitter elements in a wine. Examples of food with varying degrees of bitterness are curly leaf endive, chicory, radicchio, rocket leaves, asparagus, sautéed broccoli, olives, Seville orange and lime marmalades, grapefruit and dark chocolate. A bitter note is added to a dish by adding ingredients such as citrus peel and some bitter herbs and spices. Bitterness is also added inadvertently to many foods during cooking, especially at high temperature. Chargrilled, oven-grilled and blackened foods develop a perceivable bitter edge. In order to avoid the accentuation of any bitterness in wine by bitterness in food, we need acidity, either in the food or in the wine, or better still, in both.

Bitterness in wine comes from tannins which, in turn, come from grape skins (fruit tannins) and from the oak barrels (wood tannins) in which the wine is matured. New winemaking techniques enable winemakers to ‘manage’ tannins so as to make them accessible sooner. But, tannins are as necessary in reds, to enable the wine to age, as acidity is for bottle-maturing a white wine. By nature, certain reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Nebbiolo, are more tannic than others such as Gamay and Sangiovese.

A tannic red wine is unpleasant with fish, especially oily fish, and bitter with salt, but with eggs it becomes downright nasty. Certain cheeses, such as gouda or goat’s milk cheese and especially soft dairy cheeses, turn a tannic red into heavy metal.

However if tannin has one friend it is red meat. Rare steak, and other red meats with discernable texture, are its biggest ally. Those harsh tannins are literally tamed and counterbalanced by the protein in red meat. Many red wines but especially Cabernet Sauvignon, can taste a bit dry and hard on their own but, but when they are paired with red meat, they come into their own. There is simply nothing quite like the combination of charcoal-grilled steak along with a full-bodied, tannic red.

Umami

This is the term for the fifth taste sensation that describes deliciousness, savouriness, meatiness.

The artificial form of umami is MSG. It appears in Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, Marmite, Bovril or Aromat. It also appears naturally in many foods, from beef and lamb to ham and seafood (abalone, crab, scallop, shrimp and lobster), tomatoes (and in most tomato products from ketchup to tomato-based pizza and pasta), asparagus and cheeses such as Parmesan and Roquefort. Oily fish (sardines, mackerel and tuna packed in oil) seem to have more an umami taste than lighter fish. The ‘sweet’ taste associated with many shellfish is actually the umami taste. Shiitake mushrooms also have umami, especially when they are dried.

Because wine is produced by fermenting grapes, it has a natural umami component. Unsurprisingly the level of umami is higher in huge, rich, deeply fruity red wines and big, fat, creamy Chardonnays with extended lees contact. Wines that have been made from very ripe grapes (phenolic ripeness) simply have more of everything in them, including umami.

The challenge umami poses is that it makes huge, full-bodied, tannic wine taste bitter and metallic. Furthermore, umami in any food will increase the perception of bitterness in the accompanying wine.

The wines that go well with umami-rich food are those low in tannins, but even more so, a good acidity is essential. The Italians pointed the way. Alongside umami-rich toppings of tomatoes and mushrooms they drink Chianti, a wine produced from Sangiovese, a grape that it low in tannin and has good acidity.

Cheese and wine

Finally, a few thoughts on wines to pair with cheese. The English tradition is cheese at the end of a meal whilst the French have it before desert; both traditions seemingly driven by the wine available at that stage of the evening.

An interesting experiment is to buy a soft cheese such as brie or camembert, a hard cheese such comte, a cheddar and salty cheese such as Roquefort or stilton and to taste them with a Chardonnay, a Sauternes, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Port.

What goes with what? The short answer we found is that white wines go best with soft cheeses, red wines with hard cheeses and sweet wines with salty cheeses. All this makes cheese and wine pairing at a dinner party somewhat challenging; unless, of course, you have several half bottles!

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