Food and Wine Pairing - No Magic
Scour the web and you can find hundreds of articles about pairing various types of food with their perfect mate from the wine world. The reality is that while there are a lot of guidelines based on science, it all comes down to personal preference. It's no different than the food world. My brother used to eat peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches, I had an aunt that would always have cucumbers with vanilla ice cream, and who hasn't heard of such common food pairings as apple pie and cheddar cheese, pretzels and ice cream, and pizza and ranch dressing?
Most people know the “red with beef, white with chicken” rule, but alas, there are no rights or wrongs per se. Despite the individual nature of pairings, there are combinations that to most people, taste better. By “taste better” we mean that the combination of the food with the wine enhances the flavors of both. The reasons for this lie in the physical and chemical attributes of food and wine. In this article we look at food and wine pairings based on five components – intensity, acidity, fattiness, saltiness, and sweetness, and provide some science based suggestions.
Acidic Foods – Acid is a common element in many foods and food condiments. Acids add a flavor enhancing crispness – think a splash of lemon on fresh fish. Many foods are naturally high in acids such as foods containing tomatoes, citrus, vinegar or green apples. Wines that pair well with acidic foods contain equal or greater levels of acidity – a case of pairing like with like. One important thing to remember, make sure the perceived acidity of the wine is equal to or greater than the food. If you fail this test, you run the risk of the wine tasting flat by comparison. Some excellent pairings in this category include Barbera or Chianti with tomato based pasta, pesto pasta with Vermentino and Mussels Provencal and Sauvignon Blanc.
Fatty Foods – If you are eating a relatively rich, “fatty” food dish (e.g. ribs, Au Gratin potatoes, or duck), the fats in the food tend to coat the tongue, masking the ability of those 9,000 taste buds to do their job. There are two ways to work with rich fatty food dishes. The first is to serve wines high in acidity (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Vernaccia, or Barbera). The high acidity cuts the fattiness producing a balanced sensation in the mouth. The second approach is to incorporate wines higher in tannins. The most famous of combinations here is a Cabernet Sauvignon based wine paired with a steak. Much like the acidity/fat combination, the protein and fat in the meat offset the cotton mouth effect of the tannins – setting up a delightful battleground of flavors and sensations in the mouth.
Sweet Foods – Sweet wines are frequently associated with sweet desserts. While this is a logical complement, it's important to remember that the sweetness in the wine must be at a higher level than the sweetness in the food. If you serve a dry wine with a sweet dessert, the wine's flavors will be masked by the sweetness of the food, and the wine will taste flat and unimpressive. One of my favorites? Apple cider French toast with a late harvest Riesling or Sauternes.
All of this demonstrates what is by far the single most important rule of food and wine pairings – you can do whatever you like, as long as you enjoy the outcome. If you like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with pizza, go for it. A big cabernet sauvignon with your flounder almondine – be my guest. Just know that any of these would make gastronomic oenophiles cringe – but then again so would peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches. My advice? Experiment within the established guidelines but then let your imagination run wild. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.