Wine Pairing (Part Three - Balance)

In our previous two posts, we talked about two of the easier ways to determine what wines might be the best choices for pairing with a meal: Regionality, and Weight. This third concept is a little bit more difficult, as it will require some knowledge of the food components and as well as the profile of potential wines. In this post we will be looking at Balance. To be more specific, we'll look at matching or contrasting with the flavor profile of the meal.

To start, let's review the the taste components our tongue can recognize: salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. The first four should be pretty familiar to you, but the fifth one, umami, is a bit foreign to most of us. It has to do with being savory. All five of these sensory components are found in food, and the idea is to find wines that match or contrast with those components. Salt and Umami are not found in the flavor profile of wines, but they are things to take into consideration when pairing a wine.

Let's look at the basic components, and see how the idea of matching and contrasting work for each.

Salt - We sense saltiness on the upper back of our tongue. Since wine doesn't (or at least shouldn't) have a salty component to it (okay, okay, unless it's a Manzanilla Sherry), we're typically not going to be matching flavors. With salty foods, we will be looking for wines that contrast, or counteract the saltiness: sweet, acidic, or sparkling wines. This is why a Sauterne (sweet) works with Roquefort (salty), or Port works with Stilton. This also explains the traditional pairing of Champagne (sparkling; acidic) with oysters (salty). Now back to that Manzanilla Sherry, and its' taste of the sea...try that one with green olives or seafood.

Sweet - We taste sweetness on the tip of our tongue (here's a tip...if you can't determine the difference between sweet or fruity wines - stick just the tip of your tongue in the glass of wine, and see what you taste). With sweet foods, we are looking to match or compare the sweetness. You will always want your wine to be sweeter than the food. Mildly sweet foods work well with mildly sweet wines. When pairing with a dessert, we want to make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert. If the food is sweeter than the wine, your wine will tend to taste tart and thin. A classic pairing here would be apple pie with Sauterne, or Madiera (Bual or Malmsey)

Sour - With sour, think acidity (lemons, vinegar). We taste acidity on the sides of our tongue, and the amount of mouth watering we experience. We need to match acid with acid, or else your wine will taste flat and dull. Think of how you might add a squeeze of lemon juice to food to intensify flavors...matching with an acidic wine can do the same thing. Remember that acid levels are typically higher in white wines than red, and also cooler region wines will be more acidic than warm region wines (having to do with grape ripeness and sugar levels). An example of a classic pairing would be goat cheese or chevre with Sauvignon Blanc, particularly Sancerre (from the cool Loire region).

Bitter -We taste bitterness on the back of our tongue. Bitterness can come from the cooking technique (grilling or barbeque) or from the foods themselves, like walnuts. We can match that bitterness with tannic wines (see note below), or we can contrast that bitterness with fruitiness. This is why Zinfandels work so well. They can have fruitiness to them, or they can be made full bodied and spicy.

Umami- Savory is more of a mouth feel, than a taste. but it can be paired with wines that express certain levels of sweetness.

Tannins - While this is not a taste sensation, it is still something that we experience with wine. When you swirl a wine in your mouth, you will pick up an astringency, or drying affect on your palate and gums. Since tannins are a component of skins and stems of grapes, this is really only noticeable in red wines.

In our next post, we'll take a look at some of the tougher foods to pair, and the tricks of pairing wine and cheese.

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