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Matching Food with Wine - A Pleasure or a Dilemma?

On the 9th of April many people might be cooking a special meal to celebrate Easter and the choice of food would be relatively easy, a traditional local dish, a roast dinner perhaps or maybe a recipe followed from a cookbook. There are hundreds of wines available to buy and the choice of wine to accompany that meal might be a little more difficult. Having a glass of wine with food, especially in a social setting with friends or relatives, can enhance both the pleasure of eating and drinking. Sometimes, however, the wine will just not go with the food, or, conversely, the flavours in the food will destroy the flavour of the wine. For those who are aficionados of wine the choice is quite easy, almost intuitive; they know what a particular wine tastes like and can imagine the perfect combination of the wine and food. For those who are not so much in the know, it is a lot more tricky. Without knowing the taste of a wine before drinking it, you would not know if it was a good partner for the food or not! Therein lies a dilemma.

Does reading the wine bottle label or shelf edge description help you before purchase? Probably not because the information can be so general as to be useless. For instance, you often read on a bottle of white wine: ‘A perfect accompaniment with fish, chicken and pork’ or for red: ‘Perfect with beef and game’ both of which might be true, but not much help if you have a particular recipe in mind and are perhaps risking more money than usual for the wine. You would have to know much more detail about the wine – its level of sweetness, its body, alcoholic strength, intensity of flavours and levels of tannins before any predictions could be made for its suitability for consumption with a meal.

However, there are well established general guidelines that can help your choice.

First, decide what principal ingredients you will be eating, for instance, is it beef, lamb, salmon or a cheese based dish? Second, decide upon the method of cooking, this will determine the intensity of the final flavours of the dish, for example steaming fish (light) or slowly cooked roasted, braised or stewed red meat (intense). Finally, will the meal be served with a sauce or condiments? Note that the style of the sauce served with or cooked with the main ingredient is as important as the food it accompanies. The main flavours that might appear in an individual meal are: salty, acidic, sweetness, fatty or oily, hot and spicy and umami and for each of these there will be a style of wine which is most suitable to accompany them. Here are some general things to consider:

  1. The flavour intensity of the food should equal the flavour intensity of the wine.

  2. Sweet foods go with sweet wines.

  3. Acidic foods need high acid wines to accompany them.

  4. High protein content and chewy meat is softened with tannic wines.

  5. Balance salty food with sweet wines.

  6. Fatty or oily food tastes best with high acid wines.

  7. Equate the weight and richness of the food with the body of the wine.

  8. Match or contrast the flavour characteristics of the food with the wine.

So, these are general compatibilities of food and wine but what wines have the characteristics listed above? Here are some examples of wines below labelled (1) to (8) which correspond to (1) to (8) above:

  1. For white wines Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or French, Alsace Gewürztraminer have high intensity of flavours while for red, an oaked Shiraz or Tempranillo have strong flavours.

  2. Some sweet wines are Botrytis Semillon from Australia, Sauternes from France and Hungarian Tokaji.

  3. Chardonnay from a cool climatic region (for example Chablis in France) can be acidic with high intense flavours, Sauvignon blanc is light bodied, intensely flavoured with high acidity, while most Italian red wines are high in acidity.

  4. An oaked Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz or Tempranillo (Rioja for example) are all high in tannins.

  5. Often quoted for this combination is salty Roquefort cheese and Sauternes because they are both French although many other sweet wines are available.

  6. Crisp, unoaked white wines that are high in acidity and will cut through fatty or oily food are Chablis or German Riesling and Italian reds and these make a good accompaniment to oily or fatty food and also food that is fried or cooked in oil which increases the fatty content.

  7. In hot climates such as Australia, Chardonnay can make full bodied, heavy weight white wines, particularly when oaked (for white meat cooked in heavy sauces) while Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied red wine and high in tannins especially when oaked (suitable for slow cooked red meat with an intensely flavoured sauce). Conversely, a Riesling white wine which is lightweight and intensely flavoured would be suitable with a steamed fish dish alone or with a lightly flavoured sauce and Pinot Noir is light in body and low in tannins and is suitable to drink with pork.

  8. To match the flavours of the food directly with that of the wine you could drink young, ‘cherry flavoured’ red Pinot Noir wine with cherry sauces or sweet Muscat wine with chocolate desserts.

Chilli heat or umami flavours (savoury flavours that occur in mushrooms, dried meats and aged cheeses) are very difficult to pair with wines. Chilli heat in spicy dishes is more a tactile sensation than a flavour, and the perception of it varies from one person to another. It will increase the bitterness, acidity and alcoholic burn of a wine, so it should be paired with a chilled, unoaked, dry, low alcohol, white Riesling wine for instance, or a low tannin, red wine, such as a Gamay. Umami flavours, prevalent in Japanese food, on the other hand, make red wines and any oaked wines taste bitter so it is best to drink wines with this type of food that are low in tannins and not oaked, lightly flavoured with enough acidity to cut through the clingy feel in the mouth such as a white Riesling from Germany or a Gewürztraminer from Alsace, France or even a Fino Sherry. Originally wine styles evolved to complement the cuisine of a region, and this might be a good starting point for food and wine matching. For example, white Muscadet wine produced near the seaboard of the Loire valley in France is perfect with the local crustaceans of Brittany; traditionally sheep grazed among the vineyards of Bordeaux and perhaps not surprisingly Bordeaux reds go perfectly well with lamb dishes! So when you are in a wine producing region of the world, note what menus are offered in the local restaurants.

Whatever food you may be serving at Easter remember there is no single choice of wine that must be drunk with a particular dish of food because people have different perceptions of the flavour components of food and wine, and some palates can taste a range of flavours while others are limited to taste just a few. However, some food and wine pairings are definitely a better match than others. If you try to vary the wines you buy and drink, you will eventually become an expert in determining what wines you like to drink, and which go best with the food you like to eat. Hopefully this guide will help you along the way and matching food and wine will become a pleasure rather than a dilemma!

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