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Wine and Food

Wine is a fantastic accompaniment to food but some combinations are better than others. In this section we look at the different aspects of wine and food matching to help you get the most out of your meal.

The five parts are

Wine and food matching

The only golden rule with wine and food matching is that when matching wine to food, make sure you like the wine and the food! If you don’t like either, then you are unlikely to enjoy the combination. It sounds obvious, but many people get bogged down with trying to find the perfect match and lose sight of simply enjoying the wine and food.

10% of wine and food matches make truly great combinations, 10% don’t work at all and 80% go okay. The key is if you like the wine and you like the food, there is only a small risk that it will be a really bad combination

There are other guidelines with wine and food matching that you should consider. Note the word, guidelines. These are not hard and fast rules. The enjoyment of wine and food combinations is such a personal experience that it is impossible to find a combination that everybody will like. But you can work with the natural characteristics to enhance them so that most people would prefer the combination. With wine and food matching it is one part science and two parts magic.

Before we look at specific elements I want to explain how different parts of the wine work together. Many drinkers will know that sugar in wine hides acidity in wine. This is a reason why many German and English - in the early days of English Viticulture, were sweet, to mask the rapier acidity. You can think of this a bit like a sea-saw. If you add some sugar to an acidic wine the sugar in the wine goes up and the acidity goes down.

In fact we can make this a bit more advanced than this. All the nice things in wine, sugar, fruit and body are all on one side of the sea-saw and all the nasty stuff, tannins, acidity and the heating effect of alcohol are on the other. If I add sugar to the wine, the sugar goes up, but it also drags up the level of fruit and the body in the wine, making the wine taste richer and fruitier. The acidity goes down but so do the tannins and the heating effect of alcohol.

If I add a squirt of lemon juice to my wine the opposite happens, the acidity goes up dragging the tannins up and making the heating effect of alcohol more noticeable. The extra acidity masks the sugar in the wine and pushes down the fruitiness and makes the wine taste thinner with less body. So the wine tastes lighter and harder. By eating food you are doing a similar thing. Your mouth will become accustomed and de-sensitized to tastes and aromas quite quickly.

Dessert wine should be sweeter than the dessert.

Eating something sweet de-sensitizes us to sugar meaning that the wine will taste less sweet, hiding fruit in the wine decreasing the body, increasing the tannins and acidity in the wine. In short the wine loses richness and becomes harder.

So if you are having a very sweet pudding you will quickly become used to and expect the rich sweetness. If you then drink a wine that is not as sweet as the dessert it will taste incredibly dry and even a dessert wine that is less sweet than the food will taste relatively dry. So, for a successful combination, make sure the wine you are drinking is sweeter than the food you are eating.

Acidic wines work well with oily and fatty food.

Acidity in your food, (tomatoes, lemon juice in salads) de-sensitises you to acidity, this helps soften tannins and bring up the fruit body and sweetness in the wine. In addition acidity cuts through oily dishes providing a refreshing sword cutting through the fat and oil of some food. For example a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or Champagne goes well with fish and chips.

Salty food hides tannins.

Salt stops people tasting tannins. By decreasing the tannins you lose acidity and the heating effect of alcohol. The wine will become richer, sweeter and fruitier. While some tannins are enjoyable many people like food combinations that mask tannins rather than highlight them. As a result salting meat before cooking often helps food taste better.

Bitter foods make wines more tannic

While sugar and acidity appear to de-sensitise you to the acidity and sugar in the wine. Bitter foods tend to enhance the bitter effect in wine. So eating an artichoke or old fashioned brussell sprouts increases the perception of bitterness in the tannins. Suppressing the sugar, body and fruit of the wine. One solution if tannins are not your thing, is to salt the food heavily. Think Christmas par-boiled brussel sprouts fried with salty bacon, and seasoned with salt.

Umami enhances tannins.

Umami is what many people call the 5th sense. If you have not heard about it, it is a flavour we get in the mouth and is often associated with Asian cooking. It is often associated with fermented foods, cooked mushrooms, parmesan cheese and tomatoes. The risk with Umami is that it tends to make tannins harder pushing up tannins, acidity and the heating effect of alcohol and suppresses fruit, body and sugar. This is well known and many umami dishes are often heavily salted to neutralise this effect.

Hot spicy food

Hot spicy foods tend to enhance the heating effect of alcohol in the wine. Increasing the tannins and perceived acidity while suppressing the sugar, fruit and body of the wine. This can be counteracted by making sure the wine is sweet, this will offset the effects of food on the wine somewhat but does dull down the spicy effects of the food. Many people who follow the French approach to food and wine matching will say that a hot dish needs a wine with sweetness in it. However if you ordered something hot, it is likely it is because you like hot food, so why try and hide it? The Asian approach would be to have a tannic high alcohol red wine. This will enhance the heating effect of the food.

As you can see there are two solutions to hot dishes depending upon you philosophical solution to wine, and what you are trying to achieve.

To be honest I can argue the case for one wine as a good match of food and then argue the case for the other. The only true solution is to understand the balance argument we mentioned earlier and experiment with what works for you. Just know how the food and wine change each other.

Match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine.

There is one key guideline to matching wine and food that is fairly universal that is to match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine. That is there is no point matching a delicate white wine with a hearty stew. The white wine will be lost in the weight of flavour from the stew. Similarly a huge heavy wine such as a Barossa Shiraz with a delicate seafood dish will result in the flavour of the fish being lost.

Wine and cheese matching

Before we look at combinations of wine and cheese we need to understand what cheese is.  Cheese is made from either cow, goat or sheep’s  milk. It can be high or low in salt, umami, fat and acidity. Each of these components react with wine.

The general wisdom for cheese and wine matching:

• White wines match best with soft cheeses and stronger flavours.
• Red wines match best with hard cheeses and milder flavours.
• Fruity and sweet white wines (not dry) and dessert wines work best with a wider range of cheeses.
• The more pungent the cheese you choose, the sweeter the wine should be.

Determining why some of these guidelines work is very hard. But from referring back to the basic guidelines of food and wine matching we talked about last week, we can get a couple of matches.

Red wine and cheese is often thought to be the perfect combination, but it is white wines and cheese that often work best. However, if you are looking for a cheese to match with a red wine think high fat cheese. Cheese, especially high fat cheeses, tend to coat the mouth, masking the tannins. The cheeses to avoid with red wine are those that are high in salt. Salt tends to highlight tannins. As many cheese have significant salt content, required for flavour and to control the microbial processes, red wines and cheese are not necessarily the best combination. But if you must, examples of cheeses high in fat include Cheddar, Cheshire, Double Gloucester, Parmesan, Roquefort, Stilton and Wensleydale.

Another reason fo red wine not working with umami rich cheeses, is that some reds are also thought to contain umami. If the wine is balanced containing umami, it may become unbalanced, if the mouth becomes desensitised to umami from eating an umami rich cheese, the wine could suddenly go out of balance creating a wine feeling more tannic and astringent. Often the very substance you are attempting to mask.

With some cheese being very pungent matching them with sweet wines makes sense. This follows the guideline of 'match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine'. Sweet wines have lots of weight and so hold up well against stronger flavoured cheese. It is also true that cheese is usually fairly dry so the guideline 'dessert wine should be sweeter than the dessert' also holds true.

But what about parmesan and Champagne as a combination! Well, parmesan is incredibly high in umami at 1.68g of glutamatic acid for each 100g. To put it in perspective marmite has 1.96g/100g, while cheddar cheese is only 0.078g/100g. This shows the level of umami in cheese can range quite considerably. Knowing foods high in umami are enhanced by other foods high in umami you can expect that a wine high in umami such as vintage champagne would work well with parmesan. Manzanilla sherry with its high umami and hints of salt should also combine well with the flavoursome parmesan - try it and see for yourself!

Sparkling wine and food matching

While most people think of fizz as a pre-dinner drink in actual fact it works very well with many types of foods and is a wine that can match a huge range of diverse styles of food. It's because sparkling wine too comes in a range of styles that can be categorized into 3 main types:

Light

There are crisp & simple sparkling wines, such as Prosecco, and many other tank method sparkling wines as well as most English sparkling wines and some non vintage Champagnes. Their defining characteristic is their acidity which is sometimes described as quite racey! Matching these wines is all about matching the acidity. Salty foods match well. The briney nature of oysters makes for a classic match but you can also go for the second sin of healthy eating - fatty foods. The acidity assisted bubbles will freshen tempura of all types; onion rings, savoury fritters. If these crisp wines have more intense flavours perhaps fruity or a floral nose such as pears or apple, you will have to also match the aroma to the food as well. This is more difficult but you can have fun experimenting.

Rich

The second category is crisp & rich sparkling wines and includes wines that are made to the traditional method and have experienced significant autolysis, that is yeasts that break down in the bottle and develop strong bready flavours and aromas. Wines like this include vintage Champagnes, many New Zealand sparklers and the best of English Sparkling wines. The ageing also often softens the acidity, although still fresh, and the wine well develop an umami character. Try sushi and soy sauce with sparkling wine. The richness of sashimi grade fish on sticky rice is a good match. The umami rich soy sauce works with the umami in the fizz. The salty fish combines with the acidity of the wine. But be warned the acidity sharpens the razor’s edge of wasabi, so avoid this. Hard salty cheeses such as Spanish Manchego or the Italian classic, Parmigiano Reggiano complement the sharpness of the sparkling wines, again the acidity and salt tie in and the two rich umamis work together. A strange combination but one to consider is quiche. The crispness of the sparkling wine cleans the palate of the egg and cheese and the weight of the wine means they work better than crisp & simple sparkling wines.

Heavy

Heavier traditional method sparkling wines such as Reserve and Grand Reserve Cava, again tend to have a bready yeasty aroma from long contact of yeast with the wine and autolysis, but these wines are much softer with a more full mouthfeel and simply do not have the acidity of most sparkling wines. As such they are perhaps among the most full bodied dry sparkling wines you are likely to come across. If you think about almost any food you would match with a medium weight chardonnay and you have a starting point. Bubbles will give the impression of more acidity than the wine really has but you can get away with roast chicken at one end of the scale and soft cheeses such as Camembert or baked Brie at the other end due to their creaminess.

Spicy food and wine matching

This week we are looking at wine and food matching but specifically hot spicy dishes. Normally when people are thinking of hot Indian or Mexican style food, the immediate reply is lager, and this is not a bad combination but there are wines that go with hot spicy food. The key is all about playing down the heat and softening its effect.

The key things to look for in a wine that works with hot food is sugar. Sweet wines cool the palate. They take heat away from the mouth. A wine with an acidic backbone will also take the heat away with the acidity encouraging the cooling effects of saliva. In a similar way bubbles in fizzy wine can also create the illusion of freshness.

HIgh alcohol wine are a no no. Alcohol causes a warming sensation in the mouth and the throat, so adds to the heat of the food and should be avoided. Similarly hot food emphasizes the drying effects of tannins in wine, and as most people do not like harsh tannins, heavy tannic wines should be avoided.

So what does that leave is with? A semi sweet to sweet white wine with refreshing acidity and, better still, with bubbles. The wine that fits the bill is Moscato d'Asti with its higher sugar content and hence, lower alcohol level, it makes a refreshing drink to accompany spicy foods. Off dry wines such as many German Rieslings and the sweeter styles of English Bacchus are also worth trying.

If red wine is a must look for light low alcohol reds with low tannins and ideally a bit of sugar. You could try a Banyuls with its high residual sugar and low tannins, but if this wine is unavailable, and it being such a  niche wine it is likely to be. You could try a light Beaujolais or even a cheap sweeter style of rose.

Meat dishes and wine

Many meals are based around meat and different types of meat are often associated with different wines. While many people believe that red wines go with red meat and white wines with white meat, this is only an approximation. The key is to remember to match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine.

Poultry

While poultry can be cooked in a variety of ways the rule 'match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine' nearly always holds true. Dry white wines are the best place to start, especially with light chicken salads, but heavier, heartier roasted or smoked chicken can handle a light red wine or even a heavier rosé, providing an interesting option to the more traditional match of a full-bodied white such as an oaked Chardonnay or Pinot Gris.

Fish

The type of fish or shellfish and the method of cooking can make a huge difference to which wine to serve but again the rule 'match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine' is worth sticking to. Also remember that salt is a common feature of fish dishes and salty foods do not go well with tannic reds. As with white meats, most white wines and light reds with low tannins go best with fish. However acidity and salt work well together, both lifting a dish and reinforcing one another. For light, salty fish dishes, consider a crisp sparkling wine or Champagne.  This is even more true with fried fish where the acidity of the wine cuts through the oil and fat.

While the structure of the wine and food is important, scientist in Japan have also shown red wines containing iron can create an unpleasant fishy taste.  But as it is impossible to know which wines have iron in them, it becomes very much a trial and error process to determine which light red wine will go with fish.

Red Meat

Red meat red wine, that has always been the cry. But why?  Let’s have a look at red meat. It is usually heavy, often fatty, full of protein and has a meaty taste.

Obviously being heavy usually means meat needs heavier styles of wine (match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine). But some meat dishes are heavier than others, for example a beef stew will be heavier than a rare steak. Lamb can be delicately or strongly flavoured and so can take a lighter red (Pinot Noir is the classic match) or stand up to a more powerful wine. Heavy rich wines such as a Barossa Shiraz will go well with beef or lamb casseroles while a Bordeaux is going to be a better match for a lighter steak. Bordeaux wines and other tannic reds go well with rare meat because meat is high in proteins (especially the blood in rare meat), and proteins softens tannins.

Pork

With its full flavour pork often needs a full bodied white or a light to medium bodied red. Viogner and oaky Chardonnays are a good place to start for the whites and for reds, think cool to medium climate styles.

Sauces

Don't forget when matching wine with meat dishes to think about the flavours of the sauce and accompaniments - they are just as important as the meat in determining the right wine to serve. The general guidelines apply here.