Pairing wine with savory foods

July 16th, 2013

Written for America’s Wine Trail by:Lisa Wootton

Pairing wine with savory foods

If you’re the sole wine-lover among your friends, no doubt you’ve been asked at some point for a recommendation to go with a particular savory food or dish. Maybe you’ve even felt all your dining companions’ eyes upon you when the waiter hands out the restaurant wine list! Alternatively, you may be arranging a dinner party, or cozy meal for two, and want to complement your carefully selected and prepared dishes with wines that will enhance the overall dining experience. While food and wine pairing is an intricate skill that requires much practice to master, there are some underlying rules that can guide you towards making an informed choice.

Initial considerations when pairing food and wine

Firstly, it is important to realize that food and wine interact to produce a taste that is either complementary or antagonistic. It is more common for food to affect the taste of wine, as opposed to the other way around. The idea behind food and wine pairing is to take advantage of these effects to produce a wonderful taste experience. As an extreme example, try brushing your teeth then drinking some orange juice. The toothpaste makes the orange juice extra-acidic, which produces an unpleasant taste. When it comes to food, wine has friends and enemies. Umami (a term for savory) or sweetness make wine taste drier and bitterer, while reducing fruitiness and sweetness. These are the enemies. Salt and acid are the friends. They have the opposite effect; so pairing a wine with these elements mean it should taste less dry and bitter with enhanced fruitiness and sweetness. It may sound simple, but in reality, dishes rarely contain just one element, so the whole process gets a whole lot more complicated.

[Image of wine on a rack – it can be hard to know where to start pairing different wines with food]

Selecting wine for different savory foods

Savory dishes commonly center on a protein source, such as meat or fish. Other protein sources include dairy, whole grains and mushrooms. That’s a lot of different foods and dishes, so where do you start when pairing them with wine? A typical suggestion is red wine with red meat, but this is actually rooted in the dish’s accompaniments. The overriding taste is the important part when selecting a wine.

If you’re having steak, maybe you’ll be having it with a salty sauce or potatoes. As salt is a friend to wine, then the fruity flavors of the wine will be enhanced. This is why a nice fruity red tastes wonderful with a salty red meat based dish. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t pair it with a robust white, such as a full-bodied Chilean Chardonnay and still enjoy the results. If you’re diet conscious and planning a healthy meal of a plain, organically-reared natural protein source and simple salad dressed with a light vinaigrette or other acidic dressing, then the acid may well be the dominant feature and influence the wine you choose. A low acid wine would lose all its zip, so go for a dry sparkling wine, like Spanish Cava, or a Sauvignon Blanc. To keep the healthy theme, you could select an organic wine. These are made without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides during the grape growing; or preservatives during the production process.

[Image of wine and bread – when selecting a wine it is important to consider its food accompaniments]

For fatty or oily dishes, select a wine with high acidity, such as a Sauvignon Blanc or German Riesling. The acid in the wine will cut through the fat and cleanse the palate. For strongly flavored dishes, you’ll need a similarly robust wine, such as a Syrah or full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. If you’re going for a curry or other highly-spiced dish, stick to low alcohol white wines or reds low in tannins, such as a light-bodied Pinot Noir. Spicy heat can intensify bitterness and decrease the wine’s body, as well as increasing the burning sensation of the food. If you’re shopping for wines to drink at home, but don’t have the resources to build up a collection, then it’s best to have a small supply of simple, unoaked wines that are unlikely to be adversely affected by any foods. Wines at the opposite end of the spectrum, aged in oak with robust flavors, bitterness and high tannins, can have the most interesting food interactions.

The importance of individual preference

Understandably, if you’re just finding your way in the world of wine, food pairing can cause some difficulties. However, despite all of the ‘rules’, ultimately it come down to a simple question: What do you like? While it’s true that different foods affect the taste of wine; whether the outcome is pleasurable or unpleasant is often down to the individual. Some people naturally favor bitter tastes; while others react badly when something is too bitter. Think about how you take your coffee. Strong and black with no sugar, or single-shot latte with sugar? This is a simple indicator of how sensitive you are to bitterness and can be applied to your wine selection.

Refining your palate

The best part of being a wine enthusiast is that you can go ahead and try lots of different types and call it research! This is certainly true of food and wine pairing, which requires practice. A simple way to do this at home is to taste a couple of different wines, such as a light-bodied, delicate white Pinot Grigio and a full-bodied, fruity red Syrah, alongside some extreme foods. Take a piece of lemon for acid, a piece of cheese for fattiness and a potato chip for saltiness. Taste your wine and note down the general flavors you pick up, as well as the levels of sweetness, fruitiness and acidity (and tannins for the reds). Then eat a small piece of food and taste the wine again. Note down the changes and whether you think the wine tastes better, worse or the same. This is great way to develop your palate. You could even invite some friends over and turn it into a fun evening comparing palates! Expand it by bringing in different foods, such as something spicy or sweet, or trying a wider variety of wines. For a whole different experience, try a desert wine, such as a sickly-sweet Sauternes, which is sure to provoke an extreme love it/hate it reaction!

Once you begin to learn which foods and wines go together, you will undoubtedly start experimenting and your gastronomical world will become infinitely more exciting! Not only will you be able to make informed recommendations to your friends, but your own enjoyment will be enhanced; both at home and during your visits to the country’s finest wineries.

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