Matching food with wine is an art and a skill that anyone can learn and experiment successfully with once you know the basic rules. It’s true that there are some classic food & wine marriages such as smoked salmon & champagne, Port & Stilton, Foie Gras & Sauternes and although they are magical matches there is nothing mystical going on, it’s all about balancing the flavours.
Let’s take smoked salmon and Champagne or indeed smoked salmon and Chablis, both wines are a fabulous match. Smoked salmon is characterful in flavour without having flavours that are big and bold plus it is greasy. What you need is a wine that is also characterful with flavours that do not overwhelm the delicate taste of the salmon. It should also have refreshing acidity to cut though the greasiness and refresh your plate leaving it clean but still holding the delicious flavours of the food and wine. The last thing you want is a wine with obvious oak, it will leave a feeling of sliminess in the mouth! So Champagne and Chablis fulfil the role perfectly but so would other wines that fit their profile.
Port & Stilton work for a few reasons. Port is a sweet wine and Stilton is a blue cheese that has a salty character. I have found that many people think that any red wine will be good with Stilton and other blue cheeses but in fact if they were to analyse the conjoined flavours of the blue veins and the salt with the tannins of a red wine they will realise that it leaves quite a bad flavour in the mouth. What you need is sugar to counterbalance it all and Port provides that perfectly as does Sauternes with Roquefort, another classic pairing.
Foie Gras & Sauternes works because sweet wines are the perfect foil for savoury and salty food as in the above example. That’s why I am not an advocate of dubbing sweet wines dessert or pudding wines, in my opinion they work equally well if not better with cheese and savoury foods so why categorize them for only one use?
The impact of food on wine is mostly determined by the balance of primary tastes in the food of which there are five basic tastes; sour, bitterness, saltiness, sweetness and in recent years the 5th one has been added to the list which is a borrowed Japanese word umami, meaning delicious. It’s primarily a natural savoury or ripe flavour that the taste receptors in our mouths can’t get enough of. Think gravy, tomato ketchup, caramelised tomatoes, roasted meats and vegetables and for some marmite. Glutamate is one of the key compounds providing umami taste and widely present in savoury and fermented foods and commonly added to some. Glutamate is an amino acid and it’s this that is released when you slow cook something savoury such as meat or even soup that gives the irresistible umami flavours.
Here is a list of the basic flavours and the effect they have on wine:
- Sour or acidity in food increases the richness and fruitiness in wine and decreases acidity.
- Bitterness in food is thought to increase bitterness in wine
- Saltiness in food will decrease bitterness, acidity and astringency in wine and can increase the richness and smoothness of the wine.
- Sweetness in food increases bitterness, acidity and astringency in wine and decreases body, richness, sweetness and fruit.
- Umami in food increases acidity and astringency in wine and like sweetness in food it decreases body, richness, sweetness and fruit in wine.
Wine also contain flavours of course but also components:
- Flavour intensity
- Tannin – mainly in red wine but some whites will have it too
- Sweetness – most French and Italian wines are fermented to dryness so there should not be much sugar in
them but many other countries do leave some residual sugar. Wines with some residual sugar are harder to match with food than those fermented dry.
- Acidity – this component helps to refresh and cleanse your palate whilst eating. It can cause bitterness if the food is salty and this can be overcome by adding lemon juice or vinegar added to the food.
- Body – the body of a wine is the weight in your mouth. I often liken this to milk; skimmed, semi-skimmed and full fat all have a different weight and texture. Try to match the body and richness of the food with a wine of a similar body and richness.
- Flavour intensity – this speaks for itself really but to underline it, wine can be light bodied but have a deeply intense flavour and vice versa.
- Alcohol – we hope that a wine will be well balanced so that the alcohol is not dominating.
- Tannin – this compound is found in the skins, pips and stalks of the grape and because most white wine has very little skin contact its normally red wine we associate with tannin. Tannin clings to protein and works on the molecules breaking them down helping us to chew and digest the food.
Some basic rules for food and wine matching:
Sweet and umami foods – sweet and umami tastes will remove the sweetness and fruitiness from a wine leaving you with the other components such as acid, tannin and if it’s present oak. So to avoid this choose a wine that either has a little sweetness or plenty of fruit. So for instance, if you are having a sweetish fruity sauce with your roasted meat don’t choose your driest most oak laden wine. It’s probably best to choose a simple fruity Languedoc wine instead of your fine Bordeaux.
Sweet Food – if you’re having a sweet dessert and want to choose a wine to accompany it always choose a wine that is slightly sweeter than the food. If you chose a dryer wine the sweet food will strip the fruit and sugar from the wine leaving it tasting sour.
Spicy & Hot Food – these types of food increase bitterness, astringency and acidity and decrease body, richness, sweetness and fruitiness in the wine. So choose a wine that either has a slight sweetness or sweet character such as Gewürztraminer or one that is full of fruit. If you chose a dry, tannic wine the fruit would seem to disappear leaving dry and astringent flavours.
Food High in Acidity – you need to match the acidity in the food with acidity in the wine. A good example is a tomato based dish. Tomatoes are high in acidity and many Italian dishes use tomatoes so it not surprising that many of the Italian wines that accompany the dishes such as Chianti are also high in acidity and sourness.
Now you have the basics and some general rules to follow you can start experimenting but remember it’s all very subjective. Each person’s physiology will dictate their sensory perceptions. We are all unique and none of us will have an exact match of palate as each other so what I find delicious you might find repulsive! Its harmony you are aiming for so think about the flavour profile of the food you are serving and try to choose a wine that compliments those flavours. For example if I am serving beef I feel that salt and pepper and earthy notes are more enhancing to this dish than sweet fruit which I might use with Lamb or duck. So for my beef dish I am more inclined to choose a wine with a peppery and salty profile than one with a black cherry and herby character.
And one final thought, by all means use all these rules and think it through carefully but always take into account the preference of your dinner guests, after all it’s all about enjoying a jolly good dinner!