To understand how wine interacts with food, we need to look at the food in terms of the simple elements of taste. Any specific dish will contain one or more of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and protein/umami. These dominant tastes in the food will have a profound effect on the taste of the wine.
Beringer’s Wine and Food in Balance theory explains the result of these reactions:
Sweet and protein/umami dominated foods reduce wine aromas and make wine textures (acidity, bitterness, astringency, and tannins) appear stronger
Sour and salt dominated foods make wine textures milder (richer, smoother, sweeter) and can accentuate aromas.
Umami: You may not have heard about the fifth taste before. Don't feel alone – many people haven't. What is umami? Umami, which means savory, was discovered and isolated in 1908 by a Japanese food scientist. It is actually based on the taste of the amino acid glutamate, and of nucleotides. In 1997, at the University of Miami, the taste bud on the tongue that detects umami was finally found. It is a very important element in food and wine pairing because it is present in so many foods and creates a noticeable reaction with wine.
When the tastes in the food are balanced, with no one taste dominating another, the wine will remain relatively unchanged, just as the winemaker intended. This is our standard objective – finding the food/wine pairings that leave the wine tasting as close to the winemaker's intention as possible.
Dishes that are sweet, spicy, protein dominant, or low in salt, will make a wine's textures stronger. T he wine will taste more acidic, and if the wine has been in oak barrels it will also seem more bitter. Red wines will also become more tannic. The recommended style of wine for these dishes are off-dry and light styles of wines.
White Wines: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, White Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Red Wines: Rose, Nouveau/Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Light Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Dolcetto, Merlot, Shiraz/Syrah
Dishes that have dominant acidity will make a wine milder or softer. You perceive less acid in the wine which makes it taste milder and sometimes more aromatic or fruitier. But since these foods are also usually low in salt, the wines should not have much oak influence or tannin. For these dishes, crisp, light intensity wines (wines with little or no oak) will pair best because they tend also to be relatively high in acid. Protein dominant foods, low in salt, will also pair well with these styles of wines. Bitter foods, such as endive, arugula or smoked meats, can combine with the bitterness inherent in oak or from tannins, making oak-free, crisp, light intensity wines an ideal match too.
White Wines: Pinot Grigio , Champagne , Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Unoaked Chardonnay
Red Wines: Rose, Beaujolais , Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese, Dolcetto
Dishes that are seasoned properly with salt will not only develop more complex flavor in the food but will pair with the widest variety of wines. If a dish also is high in sweetness and/or protein (umami), the addition of some acidity is quite common in many cuisines (think of tomato sauces with wine or vinegar added or adding lemon juice to smoked salmon or seafood in general). This too develops more flavor and another result is that it balances the dish so that it does not react with the wines acid balance as much. Dishes with this balance of salt seasoning and acidity will pair well with all wine categories.
White Wines: Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Red Wines: Rose, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz/Syrah, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon
Desserts. These are an extreme extension of category 1 in the sense they are sweet dishes paired with off-dry or sweet wines. Virtually all desserts are sweet. Even lemon or rhubarb's tartness is balanced by adding more sugar. Another factor is that there is not a lot of salt added to desserts. On the red side the general rule of thumb is to serve dessert wines that are sweeter than the dessert. This is because they are all acid balanced. This acid will become more pronounced when you have a sweet dessert. If the dessert wine is sweeter than the dessert you don't notice the change in the wines acidity as much. Many times it is assumed that a sweet wine will combine with the sweetness of the dessert but actually it is just the opposite. The wine will generally be perceived as less sweet or crisper.
Wines: Recioto, Madeira, Sweet Sherry, Port, Muscat , Riesling, Vin Santo, Sauternes, Tokaji, Ice Wine