Pairing with science

Forget the old rules when choosing a wine

Sitting down to a meal with friends and family is one of life’s most civilized and rewarding experiences. Wine has long been an integral part of eating whether straight from the jug al fresco after a day of labouring in the fields or in a sophisticated dining room with a dedicated sommelier. Wine’s innate ability to elevate and distinguish food has long been known and today we experiment endlessly to discover the ultimate combinations.

The overly simplistic rules of the past such as “red wine with meat and white wine with fish” are now antiquated as we realize that not all “red wines” taste the same whites either. Never has the consumer had access to so many various foods and wines you can order Thai food tonight and French food tomorrow and choose from literally thousands of wines discovering new classic pairings as you go. It’s totally up to you. Your parents never had such luxuries or problems as the selection of both food and wine were much more limited even two decades ago.

In traditional wine producing regions — France Spain Italy Germany ect. — they don’t spend much time discussing what to serve with a particular dish the work has already been done for them. Their dishes grew up around the local wines and changed subtlety to work with them. A great example is the famous steak Florentine always served with a piece of grilled lemon. Why? Because when you squeeze that lemon on your steak and pair it with a local Chianti the acidity in the lemon balances out the acid in the wine making it taste much softer and fruitier.

But here in North America we’re still discovering what works best and we don’t have to limit ourselves to the classics. So with a little understanding of how different tastes in food affect your wine you can strike out and discover any number of wonderful combinations.

First things first: there are two kinds of wine out there food wines and cocktail wines. Cocktail wines are made to be drunk sans food so no matter how well you try to match a dish it won’t work. Watch out for these they’re usually easy to spot the label will be more marketing ploy and less about what’s in the bottle.

Wine needs to have some acidity to work on the table because that’s the main component that reacts with food. Wines that might taste soft smooth and rich on their own usually fail at the table. You need to look of wines that have a little more zip.

Acid in wine does two things to food; first it clears your palate allowing you to enjoy the next bite. There is a law of diminishing return when it comes to dining meaning you are best able to enjoy food the first time you taste it every bite afterwards is less exciting because your mouth is becoming less sensitive to the tastes (that’s why appetizers are usually the best part of your meal). But if you pick a wine with some good acidity you can refresh your mouth between bites and better enjoy every taste. The second thing acid in wine does is neutralize acid in food and vice versa. That’s why you pick a tart Muscadet to pair with oysters in a mignonette; the highly acidic wine meets the vinegar and becomes instantly softer allowing the fruit to shine through.

When choosing wines for sweeter foods which are more common than you think you need to be very careful. Think about the sauce if there is one and how much sugar you have. Reductions tend to be very sweet as do glazes and this sweetness causes an increase in the bitterness and astringency in wine. The best way to counteract sweetness is to add salt and acidity back to the dish. A squeeze of lemon can go a long way on a piece of fish to help it pair better with any dry white or red for that matter. Salt helps negate tannin in wine so make sure any meat your serve is well seasoned. Salt actually increases the fruit sensation in wine. Don’t believe me? The next time you’re drinking a big Cabernet pop a salty chip in your mouth and taste it again. More fruit less tannin.

Most of the really challenging dishes in food and wine pairing can be handled by one grape Riesling. With acidic sauces a well-balanced Riesling with a little sweetness balances out the acid and tastes softer and fruitier. Hot spicy food is very hard to pair with wine but Riesling makes a perfect pairing in almost every case negating the heat and rounding out the acid in the wine.

So the next time you’re preparing a dinner and looking for wine forget the old rules and think about the main taste in your dish. Is it sweet tart or spicy? Then you can start looking for the kind of wine that will work best with it.