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Basics Of Food And Wine Pairing

The best and easiest way to experience and learn the art of food pairing is to try and experiment with wines and cuisines and learn what suits your palate best!

Photo Credit : Subhabrata Das

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It takes only a good bottle of wine to transform a roast chicken into a banquet, exclaimed Gerald Asher in his book –“The Pleasures of Wine”

The wine industry has grown into a behemoth quenching the thirst of billions and satisfying the needs of palates that have grown accustomed to tastes and flavour patterns unique to their culture.

The business of food and wine pairing is no longer a well-kept secret, only privy to the social elite. It has grown out of its image as something straight out of Downton Abbey, to be a genuine contender for basic skills that one must possess while dining.

Wine has become mainstream and consumer demands from Asia are influencing wine styles to adapt to Asian cuisines and palates. The world of wines is a daunting - With hundreds of terms, types and opinions of wine experts, it is indeed challenging for even the veteran wine drinker to pick out the best paired wine for a meal.

So how do you do it? Let’s start with the word – “pairing”. Pairing refers to the confluence of flavours as you take a bite of your meal and then sip the wine. At this very moment, how the different flavours react, differentiates a good pairing from a bad. If the flavours act in harmony, we ascertain that the wine compliments the food and hence is “paired” well. Hence a good pairing would refer to a choice of wine and food that when consumed together enhance the overall flavours and taste of the meal as opposed to when they are consumed individually.

Our next step is to understand how humans’ perceive flavours. All flavours can be broken down into five basic tastes- Sweet, Salt, Bitter, Sour and Umami. The first four flavours are popular and require no introduction, the fifth “Umami” refers to “Pleasant Savoury Taste”. Umami in food is what makes certain foods irresistible. Found naturally for example in Parmesan cheese it is more commonly known as MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate).

In addition to the flavour profiles wines also have the following four characteristics- Body, Acidity, Alcohol percentage and Tannins. Each of these elements defines the wine and our perception of them changes when paired with food.

Acidity is the mouth-watering sensation, akin to a similar effect while consuming an unripe guava. Acidity makes the wine zesty.

Tannins cause the gum drying sensation, typically present in red wines. Tannins are an important characteristic of wine and play an integral role in how humans perceive the taste of a wine and therefore play a major role while deciding which wine to serve.

Alcohol percentage is the level of alcohol present in wine. Wine drinkers perceive it as the throat burn when consuming wine. Alcohol (in the wine) pulls water from the cells in the skin, causing them to dry, this stress signal from the cells is perceived as alcohol burn.

Body of the wine is judged by the weight of the wine on your tongue. If it feels heavy we call the wine full bodied and if not then the wine is considered light or medium. The main contributor to a wine’s body is alcohol. It is what gives a wine it’s viscosity and is responsible for either the heavy or light mouthfeel we experience when we sip a wine. (e.g., water is less viscous than cream because it has less weight and moves more easily).

When all four wine characteristics – Body, Alcohol Percentage, Tannins and Acidity - are balanced the wine is considered well rounded. The term balanced refers to any wine in which none of the four characteristics over power the others. However, flavours from the food change our perception of these qualities.

Sweetness in the food makes the wine seem more acidic but less sweet and less fruity. It makes the wine seem bitter and dry. Salt on the other hand has the opposite effect. It enhances the flavour of tannic wines and makes them seem smoother and richer.

This change in perceived flavours is unique to each individual as the sensory receptors in our tongues capture each taste in a different way. The change in perceived strength of each flavour is also akin to how an ice cream would seem less sweet when consumed after a bar of Hershey’s and is true for all flavours. It is a factor of how strong the flavour stimuli is and how sensitive are our taste receptors!

Like with any other sensory receptors there is a significant risk of over indulgence. Taste too many wines and your palate could be a victim of palate fatigue. It could be understood as a situation where our taste receptors are too tired to perceive the nuances in different flavours.

Pairing foods rich in umami such as Chinese cuisine can prove tricky and umami makes the wine seem bitter, dry and less sweet. Similarly chili heat doesn’t compliment wines and heat from the chili is enhanced on when paired with wine as the alcohol increases the burning sensation. If the food were rich in umami we would recommend a pinot noir. With its robust red fruit characteristic and high acidity it will be a perfect foil. If however your dish is spicy it is best to recommend a Riesling or a Gewürztraminer. With their off-dry palates they would make an excellent match for the Chinese cuisine and offset the chili heat.

While pairing a wine with a dessert such as a pastry we should look to serve a wine that is equally sweet. The Sauternes from France or the Eiswine from Germany would make for a great pairing. Failure to match the levels of sweetness of the wine would result in a bland taste of the wine.

For salads and entrées that contain salt and vinaigrettes we should look to serve young, fruity white wines such as a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or South Africa. The acidity of these wines will match that of the vinegar and the salt will enhance the fruit flavours.

While pairing highly flavoured foods choose equally robust wines with intense flavours. In reality though there are often more flavours than one and other elements such as oil, fats and herbs that may make the pairing a complex task. The rule of thumb is to match the most predominant flavour of the food with the wine. The Mughlai cuisine is one such cuisine.

 The world famous chicken tikka masala has complex and intense flavours including spices and is layered with thick creamy curry. The curry provides us with the maximum flavour and fats. We should pair the curry with a full bodied & robust red wine. The wine should have complex flavours and should be fruity. Bordeaux blends with grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are great companions of Mughlai cuisine.

 Similarly South American cuisines such as Mexican and Puerto Rican are challenging. Chili con Carne (Chili with Beef) is a red-hot beef curry consumed and popular across the world and owes its glamor to tex-mex outlets such as Chipotle and Taco Bell. Chili con carne and other popular Mexican dishes such as Fajitas, enchiladas are rich in fats, cheese and spices. To counter the chili heat choose an off dry wine and to match the body and structure choose a medium-heavy bodied red. A Malbec from Argentina or a Carmenere from Chile are good choices.

 Pairing Italian food proves to be an easier task for two reasons- Italian food avoids the chili heat and wine styles in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna have adapted to the cuisine over centuries. The cuisine stays clear of dominant flavour profiles but nevertheless has subtle yet complex flavour structures. A Chianti would be a great choice with most Italian dishes. Chianti is blended wine with the grape Sangiovesè at its core. It provides for a medium bodied red with subtle yet robust characteristics that is bound to taste equally well with a pepperoni pizza as it does with a steak garnished with truffles.

 The principles of food and wine pairing are universal and can be applied across all cuisines. The only red flags are umami and chili, which pose a big threat to successful pairings. However due to the significant rise of wine demand in Asia, both wine styles and concepts of pairing have changed to suit the needs of the consumer.

Drinking wine is as much about flavours as it is about the experience. Climate and setting play a major role in your perception. I recommend a cool summer day in the Tuscan hills. Overlooking the vineyards as the sun drops over the horizon is the prefect setting to sip a chilled glass of Rosè.

Another great way to use wine in food is to use them as an ingredient in food. Dry reds can be used to make sauces and dips for your poultry. Similarly, a Sauternes can be used as a garnish on a dessert. The possibilities are endless.

No longer do wine lovers have to contend with rigid laws such as pairing white wines with white meat and red wines with red meat. By using the guidelines we have outlined wine lovers can make choices that augment their dining experience. The best and easiest way to experience and learn the art of food pairing is to try and experiment with wines and cuisines and learn what suits your palate best!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Surya Phadke

The author is Managing Director at QualeMagni

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