The Wine and Food Balancing Act! by Bob Blackstone
So, recalling the age-old question, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” one might also apply a similar question, “What comes first, the wine or the food”. Well, that could go either way but most often we plan the food, and the next thought is what wine should I pair with that menu. Some of us, on the other hand, may have a nice bottle of wine set aside and then decide what food would complement that tasty vintage, but let’s not confuse things. We’ll go with option one. Since we first learned that food and wine complement each other, we were given the rule, “White wine with fish and chicken and red wine with red meat”. While that’s a good guideline, it is certainly not a “rule”. The bottom line is if it tastes good to you then pair it! If you choose to pair a Napa Chardonnay with your grilled Rib Eye steak or a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon with your seared Sea Scallops, and you like it, I assure you the wine police will not knock your door down and take you away! For those of you that have not made your way through the trial and error of pairing just the right wine with the right food that you like, here are some tips. Let’s review some of red wine’s characteristics. Things like acid, tannins, alcohol, body, color, fruit flavors and smells and age are all components of that glass of wine in front of you and therein lies the factors in pairing that wine with what food. So, what makes some wines more compatible with certain foods? Tannins. Tannins are one of the major components found in Red Wines. Some may refer to them as “bitter” and they may be correct. Tannins come from the skins of red grapes, the thicker the skins, the heavier the tannins. That’s why Pinot Noir, with its thin skin, has fewer Tannins thus making it a more versatile wine. Tannins are also transmitted by the seeds and even the barrels in which they are aged. On the palate, they give off a stringent and dry sensation on the tongue and sides of the mouth, acid in wine will cause a watering sensation on the sides of the mouth as well. So, while considering a pairing with these characteristics, we should select foods that are bold in flavor, such as beef, rich tomato sauces used in spaghetti or lasagna or rich gravies. What happens here is kind of like science, no, it is science. The fat and salt in that rib eye steak you’ve just pulled off the grill, will block the bitter receptors in your mouth. After enjoying a bite of that steak it’s time for a wine that will be either complimentary or congruent to those flavors, but let’s not get too far in the weeds with this. As we taste that beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon you’ve painstakingly purchased and decanted, something magical takes place. That food morsel has coated your mouth with the fat and salt, blocking much of the tannins, neutralizing the acid, and elevating the fruit flavors of the wine. You will also notice that the wine has become softer, smoother and just more pleasant to drink. Don’t believe me? The next time you have your wine ready to pair with your meal, taste the wine on its own then have it again after you have tasted that rib eye, you’ll see what I mean! Not to be partial to red wine over white wine, although I am, let’s delve into pairing white wine with food. Remember, bold wines with bold food and now light wines with foods, shall we say are a little more timid. The big difference between red and white wines are the tannins. Even if there were tannins in white grape skins (actually the skins are light green) they would not play into the wine making and fermentation process. 98% of the time, the skins of the white grapes are removed prior to fermentation while the red grape skins remain with the juice during the entire fermentation process, usually lasting seven to ten days. You will, however, find a few white wines that you will notice a small tannic reaction. This is based upon the amount of time the white wine was barrel aged or fermented and how new the barrel was. A new barrel will have more tannins than a barrel that has been used a few times. Most Chardonnay wines spend some time in the barrel as most Sauvignon Blancs spend their time solely in stainless steel before bottling. The stainless steel promotes a stronger acid sensation and sharper, crisper flavors. White wines are also made with the seeds intact during fermentation which projects a small amount of tannins. OK, by now you should get it. Red wines have tannins, white wines not so much. Herein lies the solution to the food pairing mystery. Lighter flavors, more acid and an earlier harvest time contribute to the white wine’s characteristics, thus allowing a more complementary pairing to lighter foods. Consider foods like Cod, Sea Bass, poached chicken breast or pasta with light cream sauces for your white wine matchmaking. I would stay away from pairing wines with salads that have vinegar-based dressings as the wine may mimic that vinegar taste. Choose lighter dressings like lemon and olive oil, light Caesar or Russian dressings. Wait, what about that spicy Thai dinner or the Mexican dish laden with habanero salsa! With these dishes, stay away from the “big reds”. These picante, spicey flavors intensifies the tannins, promoting an unpleasant taste and mouth feel. By the same principal, the acid in the white wines becomes too pronounced. This is the time for an “off-dry” or slightly sweet wine like Riesling or Gewurztraminer. The sweetness is almost undetectable against the hot, peppery ingredients. Thus, pushing forward the bright, crisp fruit flavors. Yum! Well, there you have it, the basics for wine and food companionship. If you’re still a little confused, start with Pinot Noir. I have found that wine goes with just about anything and I would rate it right in the middle of the white and red varietals. It’s light, fruit forward and low in tannins so it could be a good contender for your gateway wine into your wine and food pairing endeavors. Remember though, in choosing your wine and food romance, it’s all about what tastes good to you! Bon Appetite and happy pairings!