There is something magical that happens when a fresh goat cheese meets a New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s grassy, herbal, citrusy flavor elevates the acidity, creamy and slightly animal qualities of the cheese, or when Champagne’s bright acidity and sparkling texture meets the salty, luxurious richness of caviar or oysters.
I think all of us have had the experience of being out somewhere for a meal and have been impressed by the quality of the wine that was served. We were so impressed by the wine that we went out and bought a bottle or two. However, when we opened the bottle it didn’t taste as good as we remembered it. This is the essence of food and wine pairing – the harmony between the dish and wine elevate each other and make each taste better.
Goals of the Workshop
By the end of this workshop, you will know:
- How we taste
- The five (or six) basic tastes
- What flavor is
- How to balance taste in food
- How to balance taste in wine
- How to pair taste in food and wine to create balance
- Several other influences on pairing
- How to analyze a recipe to choose a favorable wine match.
- How do you use a simple decision process to find a good wine match for the dish.
The Physiology of Taste
“Two cannibals are eating a clown and one cannibal turned to the other and said “Does this taste funny to you?”
- How we taste: The sense of taste gives us the ability to evaluate what we eat and drink. At the most basic level, it promotes the ingestion of nutritious substances and avoids toxins or poisons.
We perceive tastes via chemical reactions that take place in our mouth when we consume substances. Our mouth, mainly our tongue, hosts thousands of taste buds. Each taste bud hosts chemical receptors that perceive different tastes. About 1/2 of our taste buds contain sensors for each taste, while others are dedicated to specific tastes. In the past, it was thought that certain parts of the tongue were more sensitive to specific tastes but, in fact, any of the tastes can be perceived on any part of the tongue.
- The five (six?) basic tastes: Depending on who you ask, there are five or six basic tastes.
Sweet: Who doesn’t like sweet? Our body craves sugar because it perceives it as simple carbohydrates, which fuel our body. Interestingly, it also releases dopamine in our brains which makes us happy! Examples of sweet foods include any food with added sugar, honey, molasses as well as certain fruits and vegetables.
Salt: Without salt, our bodies can’t function properly as it is used for electrolytic balance. Perversely, too much or too little salt can have a negative effect on our bodies. Salt also “wakes up” our taste buds to enhance our perception of other tastes. Salty foods include cured meats (bacon, prosciutto and salami), ham and shellfish.
Sour: Typically, this is the taste of acid. Sourness can be an indication of spoilage or under-ripe foods that should be avoided. But sour taste in food can also be desirable when a bit of tartness can balance richer tastes like fat or sweetness. Some sour foods are vinegar, citrus, tomato, buttermilk and sour cream.
Bitter: Bitter is one of the tastes that we are most sensitive to. It is thought that we evolved this taste to prevent us from ingesting poisons or toxins. However, many foods that we consume today are not poisonous, but are bitter. Such foods include chocolate, coffee, members of the Chicory family (radicchio, endive, etc), citrus rinds, cucumber rinds and walnuts.
Umami: Umami was first discovered by the Japanese scientist, Kikuna Ikeda, in 1907. He was intrigued by the taste of kombu dashi, essentially a seaweed broth used as a foundation for many Japanese dishes. He was curious because he thought that the taste of the seaweed broth could not be explained by the four tastes known then – sweet, salt, bitter or sour.
With further research he eventually isolated the active ingredient in seaweed to be glutamic acid or glutamates. He named the new taste “umami” which loosely translates from Japanese as “delicious” and “essence”. Not to miss an opportunity, Ikeda invented monosodium glutamate, a food additive which adds pure Umami to foods. While many foods have natural umami, their umami levels increase when they undergo various transformations such as ripening of certain fruits and vegetables. Drying, curing, aging and fermentation all increase natural umami. Increases in umami by fermentation also apply to beer and wine. Big, rich reds with high ripeness levels such as an Aussie Shiraz or an Amarone have high levels of umami. Big, fat creamy whites like Chardonnay or aged Champagne also have lots of umami. Umani rich foods include seaweed, cheeses, soy sauce, fish sauce, green tea, sardines, tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, anchovies, tuna flakes and aged beef.
Fat. This is an ingredient that is being researched as the sixth taste. Rather than a texture, some researchers have found that there are specific receptors on the tongue that perceive fatty acid that essentially makes up dietary fat. Receptor cell detection, of course, has been the criteria for classifying a taste, so fat possibly qualifies as a taste. Stay tuned!
- Other “Taste” Sensations
There are other “tastes” that are perceived by the mouth that do not have specific receptor cells but they are sensed by nerves in the mucous membranes in our mouth. So, they are sensations rather than tastes but they play a role in balancing food and wine pairings.
Astringency: Astringency is a sensation and is different from bitter, which is a taste. Astringency is what causes the drying or puckering feeling in the mouth. Usually this sensation is caused by tannic acids that bind with the salivary proteins in the mouth and reduces their lubricating function causing the drying sensation. Tannins are commonly found in wine, tea, cranberries, pomegranates and under-ripe fruit.
Spicy: Capsacin, the compound found in all chilis and peppers, is responsible for the spicy or burning sensation in the mouth. The only way to relieve it is to wash the capsicum off the tongue. Since it is fat soluble, whole milk or other fatty ingredients mellow the spiciness. This is clearly illustrated when you receive a dollop of sour cream with spicy Mexican food!
- Taste vs Flavour
Taste and flavor are often used inter-changeably, but they are different. Taste accounts for only about 20% of what we perceive as the flavour of an ingredient. The other 80% is aroma and is reported by the nose detecting the aromatic compounds given off by a substance. For example, simple lettuce has about 20 different aromatic compounds while coffee has over 1,000. Together, taste and aroma are what we perceive as flavor.
Food scientists are studying these aromatic compounds and categorizing them into similar chemical groupings. Without going into detail, the current research shows that if two ingredients have significant quantities of aromatic compounds in common, they will likely taste good together when combined in a dish. This theory is the basis for molecular gastronomy.
- What is Balance?
The dictionary says “balance is a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions”. In terms of balancing tastes, it simply means that each taste element is in the correct proportion so that no particular taste predominates the palate but that all tastes are in harmony.
Balancing Taste Elements in Food (See chart on next page)
Balancing Taste Elements in Wine (See chart following.)
Balancing Taste Elements in Food & Wine (See chart following that.)
Other Pairing Considerations:
Weight: One of the other considerations in pairing a dish with wine is the relative weight of the dish. Weight, often described as body, can be light, medium or heavy. You need to determine the weight of the dish and then match it with an equally light-bodied, medium-bodied or heavy-bodied wine. The next chart shows wines of different weights as well as dishes that might accompany a wine of a particular weight. The chart is a generalization and other factors should also be considered in deciding on a match.
The way a dish is cooked can influence the ultimate weight. Boiling, poaching or steaming produces lighter weight dishes while grilling, braising or stewing produces heavier dishes. For example, chicken can be made to go with a red or white wine depending on the cooking technique and added flavours. Or, pork can be made to go with a Riesling or Chianti depending on cooking techniques. In simple terms, the more heat and the longer a dish is cooked, the heavier a dish becomes and the umami taste is increased due to the Maillard reaction.
Match the Wine to the Most Prominent Element in the Dish: A dish is like a barrel of monkeys; you have to find the alpha male and match to that. Identifying the dominant element is an important aspect of food and wine pairings. This element is more often the sauce, seasonings or cooking method rather than the main ingredient.
For example, Veal Marsala with its browned surface and sauce of dark wine and mushrooms calls for a very different wine than blanquette de veau, poached in a creamy sauce lightened with lemon. Both dishes use veal, but the caramelized earthy flavors of the Marsala preparation point you towards a soft, supple red while the simplicity and citrus flavors of the blanquette work better with a fresh white wine.
Think regionally: No doubt everyone has heard the phrase that “if it grows together, it goes together”. This should not be a surprise as certain areas support the growth of certain grape varietals and the food culture and techniques evolved to match the grapes. For example, the red tomato sauce of pizza and pasta pairs wonderfully with Italian red wine, particularly Chianti.
Identifying a dish with its country of origin may not get you all the way to a perfect match, but it is a good starting point.
Look for Flavor Links. Looking for flavor links between the food and wine is something that can be done as “fine-tuning” a potential pairing. As winemakers, we are aware that all grape varietals have flavor elements that are generally common to each varietal. These flavors often remind us of fruits, herbs, spices, butter, etc. You can fine-tune your wine match by echoing the flavor in the dish with the flavor in the wine.
SUMMARY AND PRACTICE
Summary of Principles.Presented below is a summary of the principles that are derived from the chart provided earlier. These principles are the basis for guiding you into a good wine match which can be further refined by applying the principles of choosing the dominant element in the dish, the relative weight of the dish, flavor links or regional affiliations.
If the food is sweet:
Pair savory dishes that have a touch of sweetness with wines that have a hint of sweetness.
The wine should be sweeter than the food. Pair desserts with wines as sweet, or preferably sweeter, than the dessert. The wine should also have good acidity to prevent the sweetness from being cloying.
If the food is acidic:
Pair acidic foods with wine that is as acidic, or more acidic. Acidity cancels out acidity and allows fruit and ingredient flavor to emerge. Acidity in wine will cut through rich dishes. Pair acidic foods with dry (not sweet) wine.
If the food is salty:
Counterbalance salty foods with acidic or off-dry wines
Salt increases the smoothness and decreases bitterness, acidity and tannin in wine
Salty foods can also be counter-balanced with bubbly wine.
If the food is bitter:
Pair bitter foods with tannic wines or counterbalance bitter foods with fruity, full-flavored wines.
If the food has unami:
Umami intensifies bitterness, acidity and tannins in wine so rather than a young, tannic wine, choose an older wine or a grape varietal with softer tannins. This effect can be mitigated somewhat by adding lemon or another sour ingredient.
If the food is spicy:
Bitterness, acidity and tannins in wine, especially if the wine is high in alcohol, ramps up the spiciness of the food and renders the wine thin and lean.
Spicy foods tend to like fruity or lightly sweet wine.
- Decision Process
Evaluate the taste elements in the dish. These various tastes and their cooking method will help inform the rest of your decisions to choose an appropriate wine match.
Decide on the dominant element or taste in the dish. This often is the sauce, the seasonings or the cooking method.
Assess the relative weight of the dish. Is it light, medium or heavy bodied – or something in between? The weight of the wine should match the weight of the dish.
To fine-tune your match, assess whether the dish has any regional affiliations that could help narrow down your choice.
Also, as part of your fine-tuning process, decide if there are any prominent flavor links in the dish that could match the same flavors in the wine.
Finally, don’t be too serious and stress out over a pairing; this is supposed to be fun!
“Hands On” Exercises in Balancing Basic Tastes (Sheridan Scott)
This exercise allowed participants to taste four basic tastes with a variety of wine and understand the impact.
Wines utilized included:
- Bila Haut from Rhone Red Blend (2017)
- Chianti from Ruggino (2017)
- Gewurtztraminer from See Ya Later Ranch (2017)
- Morning Fog Chardonnay from Wente (2017)
The tasting exercise was as follows:
- Lemon (acid)
- Taste the Chianti and focus on the perception of acidity
- Taste lemon, wait a minute and re-taste the Chianti: should seem sweeter and less acidic
- The composition of the wine hasn’t changed but the perception of acidity has
- Repeat the exercise with the Bila Haut: tannins should become less harsh
- Try the Gewürztraminer and focus on the sweetness. Taste the lemon and the wine should seem sweeter. Not a great match
- Apple (acid and sugar)
- Taste the chardonnay and focus on the fruit flavours
- Taste the apple, wait a minute and re-taste the chardonnay: the fruit character should be muted so that more oak and acid are perceived. Put some salt on the apple. The acidity should be less pronounced.
- Repeat the exercise with the Gewürztraminer. The impact should not be as strong making it a better pairing if you are having a fish with a fruit sauce.
- Try with the Chianti or Bila: tannins should be harsher
- Cream cheese (fat and protein)
- Taste the Bila Haut and focus on the tannins
- Taste the cream cheese, wait a minute and re-taste the Bila Haut; should seem less astringent, perhaps even a little sweet. Also high alcohol cuts through the fat
- High acid wines also cut through the fat
- Repeat using the Chardonnay: the body should balance but high acid, tannin or alcohol is better
- Prosciutto (salt, protein and fat)
- Taste the chardonnay and focus on balance
- Taste the prosciutto, wait a minute and re-taste the chardonnay; the high salt content of prosciutto destroys most white wines. It magnifies the perception of acidity.
- Repeat the exercise with the gewürztraminer; the residual sweetness in the wine may offset some of the salt. There could be a better match.
- Repeat with the Chianti: decreases acids and tannins making a good match
Small Bites and Wine Pairing
This exercise allowed participants to taste five appetizers with the different wines to understand the impact.
Two additional wines were included in this exercise:
- Chenin Blanc from Spierhead (2017)
- Beaujolais from Jadot (2017)
- Roasted Mushrooms with Feta and Spinach (Umami)
- Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Salsa with Favo Beans on Sourdough (salty)
- Curried Scallops with Cream Sauce (spicy, creamy, umami)
- Grilled Lamb Sausage & Asparagus
- Cheeses: Blue (strong); Goat’s cheese (sour) Aged Cheddar
- The Flavor Bible: by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
- What to Drink with What you Eat: By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
- The Flavor Matrix: By James Briscione
- Taste Buds and Molecules: By Francoise Chartier.