What’s the Big Deal?
This post is going to describe the why of wine pairing, rather than specific types of pairings. I’m writing this in hopes to empower you to try to create your own pairings based off the following premises.
I get it. It’s complicated, sometimes boring, and often seems like a different language. One of my favorite wine writers and sommeliers, Elizabeth Schneider from the Podcast of “Wine for Normal People”, says that wine is a language all on its own. However, before we get into the nitty-gritty lets go back to the beginning.
There’s wine – whites, reds, fortified, sparkling! There are wines that make your mouth salivate and wines that make your mouth so dry and prickly you can only drink one or two sips every five minutes. Then there are thousands of wines that lay in-between and above and below that.
Then there’s food — greasy, healthy, simple, complex, even foamy (thanks molecular gastronomy). Food is just as complex as wine – but because we need food to live, (and scientifically we don’t necessarily need wine) most people understand those differences and can describe them quite well. “Greasy” generally means high in fats, usually oil. What cuts oil best? Acidic ingredients. Think lemon juice or an acidic tartar sauce with your fried fish sandwich.
Acid + Fat = Heavenly combination to keep you wanting more. Why? The tart acid from the sauce keeps the heaviness of the fried items in balance in your mouth. It’s not so greasy and oily that you need some water (or crisp white wine, perhaps?) before you can take another bite, nor is it so acidic that you need something heavier to cut the tang of the sauce. It’s well balanced between the two flavors. Balance is a key evaluation term for wines as well as food and wine pairings. The key is to balance the below wine qualities with food to create a level and matched experience. There are of course ways to manipulate this principle, but for now, lets keep to the basics.
Wine has the same profiles and can do the same thing for food. Is your mind blown yet?
I’ll outline 3 of the basic profiles below:
Tannic: Found in grape skins and stems along with wood. If the grape juice can soak with the skins and stems for a while, or it’s been aged in newer oak barrels, it’s going to have some tannin to it. Different grapes also have different thicknesses of skins. For example, some people think Cabernet Sauvignon dries out the mouth way too much, so they like pinot noir better, if they like red wines at all. While others love the tannic sensation so they love Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and other high tannin wines.
Buttery: Usually referred to with white wines, often Chardonnay. There’s a type of fermentation process called Malolactic Fermentation. This takes some of the tart flavors in the grapes (malic acid) and converts them to softer, creamier flavors (lactic acid). This process naturally creates the same molecule found in buttered popcorn, Diacytle. Not all wines that go through malolactic fermentation are buttery though. When used sparingly, the process simply helps give the wine a bit more body while eliminating some of the acidity due to unripe grapes.
Acidic: Why do you want a wine with “acidity”? Because they keep you coming back for more. First — how do you tell if a wine is acidic or not? Of course, taste it. Leave it on your tongue for a moment then swallow. Wait 10, 15, then 30 seconds. Is your mouth still salivating? If it is after 30 seconds, it’s a high acid wine. Riesling (the ultimate), Pinot Grigio/Gris, Sauvignon Blanc (Fume Blanc) and Chenin Blanc are the 4 highest acid white wines. These wines are fabulous with spicy or fatty foods because of the acid in them which helps cut through some of the more aggressive flavors.
Why do these terms matter?
Just like that tartar sauce with the fried fish, a proper wine pairing can make a meal so much better! It can also create a semi-undesirable experience you may not want again.
Tannic: Here’s a secret that’s not so secret amongst wine-speakers — Tannins love fat. Have you heard of the steak and red wine (often a Cabernet Sauvignon) combination? We’ve talked a bit about high tannin grapes, but your tannin tolerance is pretty unique to you. Tannins can cut through those crispy onion rings and that Juicy-Lucy that’s dripping with cheese and saturated fat-goodness (as long as it’s grass-fed it’s semi-good for you, right?).
Buttery: These wines are a double edge sword in my opinion. I think they can be wonderful, but beware! It’s true that certain styles can be overpowering with food and feel like a glob of melted butter in your mouth. Rombauer Chardonnay is known for this – a lot of people love this style. If that’s you – don’t be afraid of it! Learning different regional styles can help if you want to go towards or stay away from this style. Napa California chardonnays are usually pretty oaky and buttery. Sonoma can be more refreshing. French Chablis is usually crisp and fresh with very little oak and butter flavors. So, what to pair with these Butterballs? My personal preference would be fresh and clean flavors to contrast the richness of the wine. For example, crudité with hummus and baba ghanoush, or even some fresh seafood. Salmon, halibut, even a mahi-mahi fish taco would be delectable.
Acidic Wines – They’re fabulous, in my humble opinion. I love them for happy hour because they stimulate the taste buds just like an amuse-bouche. I also love them with fish, vegetables, and lighter proteins. Oftentimes they are fabulous with certain cheeses as well.
So now you know some fun facts and some wine-lingo. What now? It doesn’t stop here. One of the wine classes I do is called “The 101 Course”. This introductory class discusses a lot of these ideas in more detail and then you get to see for yourself how individual flavor profiles (salt, fat, acid, sweet, and umami) all affect how a wine can taste. From there you’ll learn what your specific taste preferences are and how to feel more empowered whenever you go shopping for your next bottle of wine!
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