Wine pairing is not only science, not only art, but both. We certainly need to understand the underlying chemistry and physics involved in creating a wine, but there is also an essential intuitive artistry that takes place. I believe the same is true for matching food and wine.
There is great pleasure to be had in finding harmonious combinations and discover wines that further enhance that partnership of wine and food. The answer is to simplify – intelligently.
Acidity in food – whether malic acidity as found in apples, acetic acidity as found in vinegar or citric acidity as in limes, lemons and oranges – will reduce the perception of acidity in a wine. Try it yourself with a slice of Granny Smith apple and a crisp, tart Sauvignon Blanc. You will find that the emphasis you feel at the back of your mouth around the jawline (where we perceive acidity) shifts towards the front of your mouth to the area where we perceive sweetness. The wine appears slightly rounder, softer and more approachable. The addition of food acidity counteracts that in the wine.
A similar, even more noticeable effect can be achieved by adding salt. Once again, the wine appears to alter its structural emphasis and shifts towards the front of one’s mouth. It becomes more gentle and appealing.
Take, for example, the pairing of Champagne and caviar. It is not merely offered for the image of luxury; it is also because the saltiness of the caviar will soften the acidity of what is, after all, the most northerly grown wine in France with all the high-acid fruit that this style naturally entails. The addition of sodium chloride raises the pH in our mouth, making the wine appear sweeter.
Acidity in food can have equally dramatic effects on red wine – but not nearly as pleasant. If you take another nibble of your Granny Smith followed by a sip of any red wine, you will find that it increases the perception of bitter tannins and strips out any sense of fruit in the wine. What is left is barely more than a skeleton. Any form of acidity will do this to any red wine. The effect, however, will be more marked with foods high in malic acidity (the strongest of all the food acids) compared to those with citric acidity, while acetic acidity (vinegars) will fall somewhere in between. It is because of this effect that we need to be careful when matching red wines to dishes such as duck it l’orange, pork with apple sauce, ham and pineapple …
But, just as it is easy to destroy a red wine, it is also easy to enhance it. This we can do by the simple addition of protein. Take your red wine, nibble some soft cheese such as Brie or Camembert and notice how the tannins ‘relax’ and smooth out, and the fruit is enhanced.
What is happening is an interaction at molecular level where the positively charged proteins are combining with the negatively charged tannins, and the result is a combination that is even more pleasing to our palate than the wine on its own.
Once we have become confident about the science of these structural interactions, we can begin to experiment more freely with flavours – herbs and spices. This is where the artistry comes in.
But there is yet more scope in this artistic area of food and wine pairing. We may not agree unanimously about what works and what doesn’t, but this is more a matter of personal taste rather than one of physical aversion. So, be bold. Be adventurous. It is only by experimentation that we will find the next ‘new’ exciting combination. Remember when strawberries, basil and balsamic vinegar first burst onto our palates?
Well, now is the time to take this sense of adventure to the interaction of wine and food …