Food enjoyed with wine affects the way a wine tastes. Wine can also affect the taste of food. The purpose of food and wine pairing is to take advantage of these effects so two consumed together provide more pleasure to the diner than either would if consumed separately.
While serving as Executive Chef of The Bohemian Club, I loved when members requested upscale wine dinners with specialty pairings. While the dishes and wines were each unique, the process for building a pairing menu was reasonably formulaic.
Step 1: Determine the theme.
Depending on the number of guests, how adventurous those guests were, and the budget, themes would vary. I’ve done everything from “Paris Is for Lovers and Truffles” to “Everything Is a Steak.”
I always found it especially useful in this stage to speak with the host to gather preferences. Then, I would determine the seasonality of the menu—and try to take the snobbery out of the process.
Step 2: Get to know the wine.
It’s critical to understand the aroma and flavor profiles of wine if you are to create the perfect pairing. If possible, always taste the wine being served for an event.
When tasting, first determine the level of sweetness (dry, off-dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, sweet or luscious). Then determine the level of acidity (low, medium or high) followed by the tannin and alcohol levels: low – medium (-), medium – medium (+) and high.
A Beaujolais would have low tannins, while a Barolo would come in pretty high. An off-dry Riesling would most likely be low in alcohol, while a shiraz would be high.
Next, examine the body and flavor intensity of the wine. This can usually be determined by the grape variety, but not always. For instance, an inexpensive Italian pinot bianco might show low body and low intensity, while a highly aromatic grape like a gewürztraminer will show high in both categories.
There are three flavor characteristics to note as you taste: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary
Primary flavors generally include fruity, floral and herbaceous aromas.
Secondary flavors are usually the aromas and flavors of post-fermentation winemaking, like cream, bread/dough, mushroom or butter. This is where you find aromas and flavors of oak aging, like vanilla, dill, coconut, smoke or chocolate.
Tertiary flavors are aromas that develop with aging and oxidation. These include nuttiness, dried fruit (e.g. raisin, fig, date), leather, coffee, meat and many others.
Finally, assess the finish of the wine: Is it short – medium (-), medium – medium (+) or long?
The main taste groups when building wine pairings are sweet, salt and acid.
Sweet foods make dry wines taste harder, meaning more astringent, bitter and less sweet. As a result, wines paired with sweet foods generally taste less fruity. So, when pairing sweet foods, make sure the food is not sweeter than the wine.
Umami foods have a similar effect. If pairing umami ingredients with wine, try to choose foods that are high in salt, such as cured or smoked meats, seafood or hard cheeses, like parmesan.
Salty foods tend to make wine taste softer, fruitier, sweeter and more full-bodied. Acidic foods decrease the perception of acidity in the wine therefore acid in food can bring a medium (+) to high acid wine into balance.
However, if the level of acid in the wine is low to medium (-), foods with high acid can make the wine seem flat or lacking focus.
Salty foods also increase the perception of body in wine and decrease the perception of astringency, bitterness and acid. High salt foods can make a red wine taste more tannic.
Protein and fat in foods decrease the perception of tannins and bitterness. This is why everyone wants to pair a fatty ribeye steak with a big, bold cabernet from Napa.
Taste the difference by first pairing that same fatty ribeye with a Barolo or hot climate cabernet sauvignon. Then pair it with a grilled chicken breast.
You’ll understand the difference.
Bitterness and chili heat are both worth noting, as they are very difficult to pair with wine. (I often joke that bitter foods and chili peppers were derived from non-wine-drinking planets.)
Bitterness in food increases the perception of bitterness in wine. And chili heat in food increases the perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and the burning effect of alcohol in wine. It also decreases the perception of body, richness, sweetness and fruitiness in the wine.
There are plenty of classic pairings out there—goat cheese and Sancerre, oysters with Muscadet, stilton with port and briny olives with Manzanilla sherry are just a few. These pairings work well because of the interaction of the structural components in the food and the flavor profiles of the wine. But this list is not finite. There are millions of pairing possibilities to be found if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to experiment.