Sometimes we hear suggestions that certain wines can only be enjoyed with specific foods. In reality, everyone has their own preferences about which wines and foods are complementary, and how good a wine tastes with food often has more to do with the seasoning in a dish (for example, sauces that are salty, sweet, sour or savory) or how it is cooked than it does with the dish itself. We encourage you to discover your own preferences. Here are a few tips to help along the way:
- The judicious addition of salt to food, especially to sauces and other savory dishes, can be useful in some cases to tone down the bitterness and astringency (sharp taste) in some wines.
- Sour foods with high amounts of acidity will decrease our perception of sourness or tartness in wine and make it taste richer and mellower.
- Sweetness in food will increase the perception of bitterness and astringency in wine, making it seem less sweet (drier), less fruity and stronger.
- Savory (also called umami) tastes in food will also increase our perception of acidity and bitterness in wine.
- A note about Spicy seasonings: Spicy food will exaggerate the tannins and bitterness in a wine but adding something salty or sour to the food will counteract this effect. For instance, squeezing lime juice (which is acidic) over hot enchiladas makes for a more wine-friendly dish. Alternatively, choose a wine like Gewurztraminer that's low on acid and tannins.
As foods become more salty, their own flavors tend to increase and neutralize the acidic, or sour, tastes of a wine, creating an impression of less bitterness in the wine. An example of this in action is the habit some people make of putting a little salt on Granny Smith and other "tart" apples. This is done to soften the sourness and bitterness, making the apple taste milder and fruitier.
- Proper seasoning of meat-based sauces is therefore important to counteract the savory compounds produced in the cooking process, which can otherwise unfavorably impact the taste of the accompanying wine.
Natural acids impart tartness or sourness in food and wine but can be important to balance other tastes.
- For example, some sweeter wines like White Zinfandel and many Rieslings also have a very high acidity. You don't necessarily taste the acid, but if it wasn't there the wines would taste too sweet or cloying.
- White wines are generally higher in acidity than red wines, and dry wines tend to taste more acidic because they do not have the sweetness balancing and disguising the sour taste.
- If a food is strongly acidic, or sour, it will also upset this balance in a wine and make it taste very sweet in comparison. This can sometimes be a good thing, however. An acidic dish can mellow out a highly acidic wine and make it taste fruitier, for example.
Sweetness is found in many foods and wines. Sometimes we do not really think of certain types of sauces or foods as "sweet" when in actuality they are, such as teriyaki, cocktail sauce and other tomato sauces. Often vegetables and certainly fruits can add a degree of sweetness to a dish and must be considered when making a wine selection. When food is sweet it will suppress the sweetness of a wine served with it, an example of sensory adaptation.
There are a wide range of sweetness levels in many beverages and foods. Our individual palates will dictate the desirable level of sweetness. This is expressed in many ways: how we take our coffee or tea, what kind of chocolate we like, or the balance we prefer in a wine, for example. One person's perfect sweetness might be too sweet for someone else.
How well a wine and food go together from a sweetness perspective therefore depends to a certain extent on the individual. A combination that includes acidic food, raising the sweetness of a wine, may be delicious to someone who appreciates a sweeter wine, but the same combination might not work for someone who prefers a drier wine.
Savory, or umami in Japanese, has gained acceptance by food scientists as a fifth taste that can be detected by our taste buds, separate from the well-understood tastes of sweet, sour (acid), salty and bitter.
- Umami was identified by the Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 as a taste in a type of seaweed called Komba, commonly used as a component of soup stocks in Japanese cuisine. He discovered that umami is associated with the glutamate protein (monosodium L-glutamic acid), found in many foods. Later, ribonucleotides were found to have umami taste and also to have a synergistic effect with glutamates that greatly enhances the perception of the umami taste.
- Umami is more prevalent and often found in higher concentrations in Asian cuisines. Western palates do not as easily recognize umami because we have never been taught to identify it, not helped by the fact that it is often hidden behind stronger tastes like saltiness. Umami in food tends to bring out bitter and often metallic tastes in a wine, although its effect can be negated by saltiness.
Bitterness is often confused with astringency. The two are different but are often found together and have a similar effect on the taste of wine. A bitter taste is commonly found in some green vegetables (endive, arugula, radicchio) and herbs, many spices, and some fruits. Bitterness is also extracted from many foods during cooking, especially at high temperatures such as on a grill (this is also why green tea can become bitter if made with water that is too hot).
- Food with bitter components seems to increase the bitterness of a wine served with it. Make sure that the Sauvignon Blanc with herbal overtones that you choose to serve with a herb-infused dish does not push the bitterness of the wine over the top.
There are tactile sensations imparted by wine and food that can react in combination. Astringency (mostly from tannins in wine, fruit such as a persimmon, and vegetables) is the most prevalent of these sensations, which were once thought to actually be a sensation of taste.
- The "tannic" taste of a wine is actually a sense of touch and not of taste. Tannins coagulate proteins in your mouth and create a puckering or drying sensation known as astringency. Such astringency does not make a wine “dry” as such. A dry wine is simply not sweet.
- Astringency in wine is accentuated by food that is sweet or spicy, and is suppressed by foods that are acidic, salty, fatty.