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Pairing Wine With Food

Updated on March 20, 2011

The holiday season is upon us - time for parties, get-togethers and festive recipes. Naturally, when you are the host, you want everything to be perfect, including the wines that you serve.

But how can you ensure that the dishes you prepare will be enhanced by the wine that you serve, and vice-versa? Wine and food pairing can be a bewildering task even when you consult the experts. Should you always drink red wine with red meat? What if you honestly prefer white or blush wines?

The key to enjoying wine with any food is balancing tastes. Sensory scientists have known this for years, and now, progressive chefs are putting it into practice. All foods can be categorized into five primary tastes. The four most familiar to you are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The fifth taste, umami, is also familiar, although you may not realize it.

Umami is the Japanese term for the taste we refer to in English as "savory." It's the delicious taste - neither sour, nor sweet, nor bitter, nor sour in foods like aged beef, crab, baked potatoes, mushrooms (especially dried ones), stocks, broths and chocolate. Japanese food researchers were the first to identify and extract this taste, which is common in their cuisine. Wine has three basic tastes: sweet, sour and bitter, which is caused from tannins in red wine. Tannins also cause astringency, the puckery feeling that is actually a touch, not taste sensation.

What happens to your taste buds when you combine different foods and wines? Foods that are sweet or savory in taste will make any wine taste stronger, i.e., drier (less sweet), more acidic (sour) and more tannic (bitter). On the other hand, foods that are sour or salty in taste will make wines milder, i.e. less dry (sweeter), fruitier (less acidic) and less tannic.

Need convincing? Try this experiment yourself with a strong wine, such as a tannic red, and a slice of sweet Red Delicious apple. Take a bite of the apple, then a sip of a red wine. The sweetness in the apple will accentuate the tannins in the wine, creating a harsh (and typically unpleasant) combination. Now, sprinkle a few drops of lemon or lime juice on the apple slice and try it again with your wine. This time, the wine's fruit, acid and tannins are balanced just as the winemaker intended!

Here's another experiment. Pasta with tomato sauce cries out for red wine, right? Take a bite of a fresh, unseasoned tomato and a sip of a tannic red wine. What you'll experience is that the tomato's umami makes the wine stronger, again creating a harsh-tasting experience. Next, sprinkle a little salt on the tomato and try it again with your wine. This time, the salt beautifully balances the tomato with the wine.

How can you apply these principles to your cooking? When I'm in the kitchen, I try a sip of the wine that I'm serving (or a sip of the most tannic wine if several wines will be served) with a bite of the food. If the wine becomes stronger, I simply adjust the acidic or salty ingredients to balance the food with wine. Here are some seasonings that you can use to balance your food for any wine:

Ingredients That Will Increase Sour Tastes in a Dish:

  • Vinegars (unseasoned rice wine, cider and balsamic)
  • Lemon, lime or other citrus juices or zests
  • Mustard
  • Reduction of dry wine for a sauce
  • Dry wines (e.g. Sherry, Vermouth or Madeira)
    Ingredients That Will Increase Salty Tastes in a Dish:
  • Soy sauce
  • Salt
  • Olives or their brine
  • Fermented black beans
  • Asian fish sauce
  • Parmesan cheese


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    • robert hoagland profile image

      robert hoagland 

      8 years ago

      nice hub good job


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