The ins and outs of Food Matching Wine

wine and food matchingFinding food matching harder than you’d thought? One of the most common question groups we’re asked is what to pair with what. We’re here to help with our handy guide to the ins and outs of food matching.

Debunking the myths

There are all sorts of myths around wine and food matching. When pairing wine with food a lot of ‘rules’ as to what not to do have developed over time. As the complex reasons were simplified they became warped, like a big game of Chinese Whispers.

Generally, personal preference will have more of an influence on whether a wine is a good match or not. If you don’t like oaked Chardonnay, no amount of fish pie will make you like it, and vice versa. However having the ‘right’ wine can open up a meal and amplify everything good about both the food and the wine.

So what food matches with what?

Humans perceive 5 taste groups (sweet, spicy, salty, bitter and umami) all of which react with different properties in wine. These interactions can be pleasant or unpleasant depending on the intensity and their effect on the balance of the dish.

Unpleasant interactions can be seen every day in the interaction between orange juice and toothpaste; After you brush your teeth, your orange juice will taste a lot more bitter and acidic. This is the same adaptation as pairing a very dry wine with a dessert, as the sweetness in one will overpower and negate any sweetness that could be tasted in the other.

As with everything, personal preference is key in telling whether this is pleasant. A high alcohol wine with a spicy dish will amplify the alcohol and spice burn on the palate, unpleasant if you prefer milder food but to someone who enjoys a lot of spice this could be a desirable effect.

A great tip is to pair wine and food in a way that the wine is smooth and agreeable.wine for dessert

What should I put with a sweet dish?

Sweetness in food will increase the bitterness in the wine along with the tannins and acidity, while limiting the sweetness, fruity characters and richness of a wine. This is why dessert wines pair so well with sweet dishes, as their natural sugars won’t be negated by the dessert and their richness and fruit won’t suffer as much as a drier wine.

For desserts a sweet wine is a must. The sugars in the wine should be higher than the sugars in the food to avoid tasting dry and unpleasant. When pairing with a relatively sweet main course, however, a sweeter, fruitier wine with less acid and tannin could be the order of the day, such as an off-dry/medium Riesling like the Anselmann Auslese or a Gewurztraminer.

What on earth is Umami and how do I match with it?

Umami is the predominantly savoury taste we get from mushrooms and smoked and cured meats. If you’re unsure as to what it tastes like dissolve a bit of MSG in water (this will be a saltier example) or taste the difference between a raw mushroom and one that’s been microwaved for 30 seconds.

The best way to counter this in the dish itself is a touch of lemon or the addition of a little extra fat in the cooking process, as this will reduce the unpleasant reaction. As far as matching wine is concerned umami has much the same affects as sweetness, insomuch as it will make wines seem more bitter and a little thin. A fruity and sweet wine will stand up to this, but it needn’t be as sweet as when pairing with a sugary dish. The Unruly range of wines would be ideal, especially the Chardonnay.

Any advice for acidic dishes?

Acidity in food can make a perfectly good wine taste flat, overpowering the acidity in an otherwise balanced wine. The trick here is to find a particularly acidic wine, and offset that with the acidity in the dish. This makes wines like Sancerre, Vouvray and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs perfect for acidic dishes.

This is why acidic wines and oysters are such a popular pairing; The mignonette which is served with oysters is made with vinegar, and therefore very acidic.

How about the salty stuff?

Salt is the reason your steak tastes better with a tannic red wine, not the meat itself. Salt reduces the bitterness and tannin in a wine, while increasing the richness and smoothness. The ideal pairing for a salty dish would be something with a lot of tannins, like a Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Don’t confuse salty food and umami, however. Cured meats CAN be brought back into balance with a squeeze of lemon. When paired with the aforementioned Cabernet Sauvignon, however, the wine’s tannins and bitterness will be increased.

What is the best wine to pair with spicy food?

This is a tricky one as one person’s spice fix won’t even tickle the palate of another. Chilli heat and spice increases the bitterness, tannin, acidity and alcohol burn in a wine for most. Someone who has a much higher tolerance for spice, however, will find the wine sweeter.

Generally a soft, rich, fruity wine is the best bet for a spicy dish. Ideally this will have an element of sweetness to it like our Noble Vines range. Someone with a high spice tolerance may prefer something slightly less sweet like the Moonstruck Shiraz Tempranillo.

How do I pair wine with bitter foods?

Bitterness is another one where there is an element of personal sensitivity. Bitterness in food will amplify the bitterness in a wine. The best test would be the coriander test. If you hate the bitterness of raw coriander, you tend to be more sensitive to bitterness. This means you should avoid pairing high tannin wines with your meal.

In this situation a softer red like the Nika Tiki Pinot Noir would be ideal. This is because it’s base level of bitterness is low. If you enjoy coriander, however, then you can focus on other elements of the dish when pairing the wine as the way the bitterness reacts will often go unnoticed.

What are the most difficult foods to pair wine with?

There are dozens of foods that can make even the most seasoned somelliers want to scream. We thought we’d highlight our most problematic 3 base ingredients.

Pineapple, pineapple and erm did we mention the pineapple? It’ll drop most wines from the other side of the room. The sweetness and fruity aromas will render the wine aromas bitter and acidic, the acidity in the pineapple will render a red flat and the sugar will take care of any body and richness the wine has left. It’s a hardy fruit and will take on any wine that isn’t desperately sweet and leave it broken, which isn’t ideal if the dish is a predominantly savoury one, like a pizza.

If you’ve got pineapple in your main course we would recommend a highly acidic red or a sweet white, but be warned that the white may taste even sweeter than usual. Artichokes and tomatoes will give you the same issues, albeit to a lesser extent. We advise focusing on matching with the sauce and the accompaniment while trying to keep the alcohol level relatively low.

Mushroom based dishes can cause issues due to the high level of umami, along with many tofu or oriental dishes. With reds a Pinot Noir can be a good start, as it is not a particularly bitter wine to begin with. If you prefer white, a Viognier should have the richness and fruit to stand it’s ground.

Asparagus is also a surprising culprit for sneaking up on a plate and throwing a culinary spanner in the works. A very vegetal and grassy ingredient, it can amplify these qualities in a wine and risk suppressing the fruit. Chardonnay is a good choice if it will match the accompaniments, but we recommend steering clear of dry Rieslings.

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