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Food and Wine Pairing: Six Basic Principles to Build Confidence

Updated: Sep 22



One of my favorite things to teach my Wine and Spirit Education Trust students is wine and food pairing, and I especially appreciate the smart way that WSET formulates those principles, which I share below. In fact, I love it so much that one of the seminars I recently taught at Metro Wines' Asheville School of Wine in North Carolina was dedicated to food and wine pairing. Asheville was recently named the #1 Foodie town in the US and I was very lucky to have one of Asheville’s premier chefs, Sam Etheridge, proving that point. He created delectable bites that demonstrated the principles that I had just taught in a way that enabled seminar attendees to both eat and drink those principles, deliciously.


Students had an Italian Pinot Grigio, a California Chardonnay, a German Off-Dry Riesling, a Beaujolais, a Nebbiolo from Langhe, and a sweet Muscat Beaumes des Venise to match with Gazpacho, Pork Belly, Mushroom-Truffle Pate, Spicy Noodles, and Vanilla Butter Cake with Caramelized Figs. They did beautifully. Read on for the principles I taught and come back to the above picture to see which pairings, based on those principles, you think would work the best!



These days, many people drink wine as a standalone - an aperitif or cocktail - but wine, historically, has been vinified to be paired with food - even before The Last Supper, perhaps the most famous food and wine pairing ever.



Back in the Middle Ages, and earlier, wine was drunk with meals instead of the often tainted water because it was safer. And there is a long tradition of food and wine pairing that is regionally focused: look at how often the wines of a region naturally match the food of that region (after all, they literally grow up together sharing soil, climate and topography).


Think, for example, about pasta in a gleaming, tart and rich sauce from local tomatoes in Tuscany, harmonious with the local high-acid Chianti. In Nantes, so close to the ocean, fleshy, briny oysters matched with Muscadet and its distinctive taste of citrus and the sea, or, in the Middle Loire, Chenin Blanc and its local specialty - delicate white river fish in Beurre Blanc...the examples are endless and almost always fit one or more of the six key principles of food and wine pairing.



SUGAR AND SPICE AND NOT EVERYTHING NICE


Tongue tastes: Sweet, Salt, Acid, Umami, Bitterness

Before we get into the six principles, it is important to understand the following:


A - Most wines taste just fine with most foods – it is really hard (but not impossible!) to destroy a wine with a bad pairing, but good pairings can profoundly elevate wines.


B - We are all different, with different preferences – determined both by 'nature' and 'nurture'. For example, the number of taste buds on your tongue determines your sensitivity to bitterness in food: those with more tastebuds are 'sensitive' tasters and will struggle with bitterness in food and tannins in wine (tannins create that mouth-drying, astringent quality in wines, think about sucking on a tea bag).


Those with fewer tastebuds will have a much higher tolerance for tannins. If you are wondering about your taste buds, a good rule of thumb is that if you love black or strong coffee you have lower sensitivity to bitterness and fewer taste buds, but if you love a lot of milk or cream in your coffee - or prefer milky tea - you have an abundance of taste buds and greater sensitivity to bitterness.


But taste preferences can also be a result of 'nurture,' cultural tastes that have been nurtured since childhood. For example, I grew up in England loving milky tea and the sticky, salty black yeast extract spread, Marmite, but I have never ever met anyone who could tolerate Marmite unless they grew up on it ...pure nurture.



As we mature, we tend to move away from the sweeter, creamy things we loved as kids, while holding on to others (I still love my Marmite but these days I like my tea with almost no milk). So, be comforted, we are not necessarily victims of our biology - one's tastes can evolve. Mine certainly did in wine, the more I tasted, the more my palate changed.


C - Food is almost always the problem, not the wine. Components in food will be more likely to impact the wine than the wine will impact the food, which is why it is so important to know what our tongues can taste, and what they can't.


Aromatics in food, as in wine, belong to the nose, not the tongue. Our tongues can only detect five things - Sweet, Salt, Sour (or acid), Umami (or savory), and Bitterness. It is the way these elements interact with wine that are the foundation of food and wine pairing.


#1: SWEET GOES WITH SWEET*


At the risk of being a killjoy, one of the least advantageous food and wine pairings is Brut Champagne with a traditional, iced wedding cake. Why? Because when you pair sugary food with wine, the sugar on your tongue makes the wine taste more acidic, more bitter, less fruity, and much drier. Champagne is naturally high acid and its fruit is subtle, so matching it with sweet food is a dangerous game – it will emphasize the acid, hide the fruit, thin the body and undermine its balance. What would make more sense? A sweet or medium-sweet sparkling or still wine. There are many options - from a Moscato Asti to a Demi Sec Vouvray or a Sauternes - with enough sugar to stand up to that cake.


Don’t believe me? Try putting some sugar on your tongue the next time you try a high acid wine and you will see how muted the fruit becomes and how that acid turns into a weapon that will put your teeth on edge.


Sweet wine with sweet food is a good mantra for pairing; but, while I highly suggest you limit your sweet foods to sweet wines, *please don’t limit your sweet wines to sweet food - I will have much more to say on that in a later blog where I focus on sweet wine pairings!


#2 TART GOES WITH TART

Acid is easy to detect in wine and food - it is what makes you salivate - think about what happens when you suck on a lemon, how the sides of your tongue water. While sugar can be a wine enemy, acid in food can be quite the wine friend, making your wine taste fruitier, less dry and less acidic – so if you have a dry white that makes your mouth pucker, a Riesling, for example, try matching it with a salad with a vinaigrette: the acid in the food will soften the acid in the wine, while the wine’s delicious citrus and white stone fruits will sing – and, if it is an off-dry Riesling, try adding some sliced peaches or grapes (sugar to sugar) to the vinegary salad and it will be brilliant.


Acidic food can turn a simple wine into something quite lovely - try a tomato bruschetta with a simple Valpolicella, a high acid, wine, and see how the acid in the tomato will magically suss out the Valpolicella’s fruit while improving balance.


But, because acid in food softens the acid in the wine, be careful of matching acidic foods with low acid wines, such as a Viognier or Gewürztraminer, which could lose what little acid they have, becoming unbalanced and flabby. And, if your wine is sweet but low acid, say a White Zinfandel, avoid acidic food as it will only emphasize the wine's sweetness and lack of balance, making it even more syrupy and cloying.


#3 FAT AND SASSY, GREAT WITH ACID

Fatty or oily foods coat the mouth and make the tongue and mouth less vulnerable to the sting of acid, so matching fatty foods with high acid wines makes sense, plus the acid in the wine cuts through and balances the unctuousness of the food.


A classic example are those oysters and Muscadet (or Sancerre or Chablis or Champagne) – the oiliness of the oysters masks the searing acid of the wine, but not so much that the wine goes off balance. And, of course, cheese is a classic at every wine tasting, working beautifully with both red and white high acid wines.


And remember our friend, Brut Champagne, so sadly paired with wedding cake - instead, try pairing it with French Fries, the fat in the fries softens the acid -- and the salt, as we will discuss below, makes that fruit sing! Pure heaven!


#4 WE DON’T TALK (ENOUGH!) ABOUT UMAMI

Let’s talk a moment about umami – that savory 'yummy' flavor you find in miso, mushrooms, cured and red meats, fleshy fish and MSG (the glutamate, not the monosodium). Umami in food can make for really challenging pairings, especially for sensitive tasters because it can make wine taste much more bitter, more drying and more acidic. So be careful matching, for example, a Barolo or Cabernet Sauvignon with a dish that is full of umami components.

But, wait – isn't a classic pairing Steak and Cab? Steak is full of umami and Cabernet is tannic heaven. How can that work?

Let’s dissect.


Does it work because of the fattiness of the meat - well, yes, Cabernet is high acid so the fattiness mitigates the acid in the Cabernet – but not the tannins. Think a moment - what else do you put on that steak? Salt, lots of it, and salt, is what makes this pairing work: Salt, the friend of food (albeit enemy of the heart), is also the friend of wine.


#5 SALT OF THE EARTH - WORKS WITH EVERYTHING

Salt makes almost every wine taste better. It softens tannin in wine, and also makes wine taste fruiter, less bitter, less dry and less acidic – and it can even plump up body. This is why tannic red wines can do well with salty umami-rich foods such as parmesan, prosciutto and other cured meats: preserving food requires a lot of salt, so any food that is aged/cured will have a high salt content.


Test it out: next time you have a high tannin wine, taste the wine, then put a little salt on your tongue and taste again - you will find the tannins softer and the fruit much more vibrant. If the dish is super rich in umami, such as game, and it just calls out for a high tannin red, try an older vintage where the tannins have naturally softened -- and have a salt shaker nearby.


Another wine pairing tip – and reason why that Cab does so well with the steak, is that you want to match intensity of food flavor with wine flavor. For example, a delicate, aromatic white, like a Viognier or Gewürztraminer would simply be overpowered by that steak and would be much happier with, perhaps, a miso cod over fragrant jasmine rice.


#6 TOO HOT TO HANDLE?

And finally, are spicy foods always too hot to handle wine? If you drink a high alcohol wine with a spicy food, the chili will intensify the burn of that alcohol and vice versa… so if you are sensitive to spicy foods and alcohol, a fruity low alcohol wine, perhaps an off-dry aromatic, like Pinot Gris, might be the best pair for you. On the other hand, for those with ironclad palates, go for it with a high alcohol Barossa Syrah or a Zinfandel – if you are ready to feel the burn, they can be great pairings for TexMex Chili or a Lamb Vindaloo.


In the end, it really does all come down to personal preferences - and I have found that pairings are often just instinctive.


If you remember that it really is hard to ruin the wine with food or vice versa, these principles are simply opportunities to elevate the experience of what is on the plate an in the glass and, I hope, build confidence.


So go ahead, Experiment!



Food & Wine Pairing Exercise: WSET L1 Award in Wine

If you want to learn more about wine and food pairing, I highly recommend WSET L1 Award in Wine, which devotes a third of the class to food and wine pairing exercises/ principles. Click here for my latest WSET class schedule.


For more on food and wine pairing, click here for my blog: Southern Oregon in 7 Fabulous Food and Wine Pairings.



And stay tuned for Part Four: From Nun to Nirvana - Great and Unexpected Sweet Wine and Food Pairings.



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