Winemaking is an art of science, and there is a set of rules behind cooking too.
Oddly enough, the marriage of wine and food tends to fall into the grand casualty of generalisations defined by a plethora of anecdotal beliefs, not exactly science. Arguably, food and wine have been naturally consumed together since ancient times. But why do we enjoy certain combinations more than others?
It makes little sense to talk about rules in such a profoundly personal subject matter like food and wine. What’s worth elaborating though is how the majority of us perceive sensory attributes and their combinations as flavour.
The sensitivity of individuals senses varies from person to person. Still, most of us tend to agree on what sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami taste like irrespective of culture or upbringing. The categorisation of aromas is a vastly different story, though. Some of us are incapable of sensing the smell of specific molecules. This phenomenon is called anosmia. Beyond genetics, temperature, fat content, and body also influence the volatility of aromas, therefore the overall flavour.
If flavour were a multi-level pyramid, the five basic taste would be the foundation. The next build-ing block is texture and all related mouthfeel properties, such as heat and temperature. The aromas sit on the top to compliment the foundation and the filling. If it hasn’t been complicated enough, aromas, surroundings, and companion can evoke memories and emotions and create context around the imaginary pyramid of flavour. This will unconsciously influence how we perceive flavour and hence our dining experience.
Myth-busting common wine pairing “rules”
They claim to be of historical or cultural origin but sometimes simply result from widespread mis-information or well, fiction.
1. Grows together goes together.
It is the basic tenet Old World culinary tales that assumes that in any given region farmers produced wines to marry with the local flavours. Epoisses cheese and red Burgundy is one such pair-ing example. But will any Pinot Noir or any Burgundy do? Hardly so. Washed-rind cheeses are not only pungent but also develop notable bitter taste as they mature.
Some tannins in red wine taste bitter (i.e. phenolic bitterness). Moreover, higher ABV% (>13.5%) and the coumarin compounds extracted from new oak barrels increase bitter perception too. And bitterness is additive! It means, best to forget the coveted Grand Cru/Premier Cru wines from the Côte de Nuits and opt for a village or regional level Bourgogne with fresh acidity, silky tannins and light body.
Verdict: use it as a guide rather than a rule.
2. Steak needs red wine.
The idea behind this long-standing generalisation is that a full-bodied, tannic red wine stands up to the rich flavours of the steak and cuts through the fat.
Let’s suppose we’d like to pair a marbled beef sirloin steak with Champagne. What do we need in a “steak Champagne”?
Champagne is a cool climate region, producing wines with very high acidity. By default, most Champagne would go through (partial or complete) malolactic fermentation (MLF), transferring the sharp malic acid to a softer lactic acid. As a result, the mouthfeel becomes creamier, fuller and less austere. Partial or full MLF is desired for steak.
Besides MLF, the dosage (a mix of sugar and wine) helps balance the acidity, adds sweetness and richness to the Champagne. Brut level can have 0-12 g/L sugar. It’s worth aiming at the higher end and for a steak companion.
The bubbles are CO2 entrapped in the bottle during the secondary fermentation. CO2 is more soluble at low temperatures; hence Champagne is served chilled (~7°C) for the finest effervescence. If we increase the serving temperature to ~10-12°C, the coarser bubbles will act like tannins in red wines but without the phenolic bitterness of tannins.
Verdict: consider the style of the wine instead of its colour.
3. Shared aromas are essential for good pairings.
It turns out that behind every little aroma we sniff there is a molecule. Our olfactory receptors signal our brain, so we think, “it smells like strawberry!” The trick is that strawberry molecule doesn’t exist. Instead, we need a specific combination of fruity, cheesy, green, and roasted aroma molecules to obtain strawberry scent.
When the foundation of taste and texture align, shared aromas can crown the pairing. However, focusing on olfactory similarity may be an overwhelming task as a bottle of wine consist of 1000 aroma molecules. A simple ingredient like a freshly shucked oyster on a half shell is made up of herbaceous, fruity (apple, pear), floral, citrus and earthy (mushroom) scents. The aromatic DNA of oysters leaves a lot of room to experiment with wine styles beyond bubbles.
Bold and fruity pairing
Gewurztraminer is an aromatic grape variety, usually made in an off-dry style with a hint of sweet-ness. The low to medium acidity of the wine accentuates a round mouthfeel and balances the luscious textures of oysters. As far as molecules go, the shared terpenes make the benchmark lychee, rose, and perfume aromas of Gewurz pop. Add a dash of coconut milk for even more interest!
Zingy pairing with a herbaceous edge
Young Hunter Valley Semillon, with its fine acidity, provides a refreshing contrast to oysters. Historically, the grapes had to be harvested before the rainy season resulting in low alcohol wines with generous lemon/lime aromas. The subtle grassy, herbaceous notes from the varietal methoxypyrazine molecules are surprisingly present in oysters as well. As you might imagine, the combination leans towards a zingy ceviche.
Verdict: use aromatic similarity as a spice rather than a substitution of the fundamentals.
4. Wines taste better during the holidays.
That exceptional bottle of Tuscan red served by the winemaker in the middle of the vineyard didn’t taste quite the same at home. Familiar situation, isn’t it?
The human brain is wired to love stories, and we crave to immerse in experiences. In other words, not only the wine matters but the context of the consumption too.
How can we overcome this? It turns out that enjoying food and wine together is a strong context on its own. Wines that we tasted as part of a meal, especially in combination with appropriate foods are more likely to deliver.
Verdict: enjoy your treasured wines at the dining table.
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Marcell Kustos, PhD