You can try this simple dinner pairing at home, it will illuminate how different wines affect the taste of food–based on your personal taste! This experiment uses 4 wines (a white, red, sparkling and sweet wine) and 8 specific foods. It’s time to forget everything you ever learned about food pairing and go back to the basics!
6 Primary Tastes
While each of us can sense hundreds or thousands of aromas, we only sense a few tastes:
Umami refers to our tongue’s receptivity to glutamates, such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Since MSG has a (undeservedly) bad reputation, the Japanese term, Umami, has become widely accepted. Umami can be found naturally in many foods. Famously in seaweed and soy sauce, but also in tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, cold cuts and meats in general.
Setting Up Your Food Pairing Experiment
To demonstrate the power of food and wine pairing, you will need to put together 8 food items, 2 sauces, and a selection of 4 wines.
The following food items should be prepared very basically so that their primary taste component (e.g. “salty”) is highlighted. The 2 additional taste sensations of Picante (spicy) and Green are optional, but very useful to include!
- Salty – Potato Chips store bought works fine, but make sure they’re plain salted.
- Sour – Vinegar a simple red wine vinegar salad
- Bitter – Walnuts a staple at wine tastings
- Fatty – Brie
- Sweet – Jelly jelly on baked Brie for dessert
- Umami – Steak plain with two sauces, a red wine reduction and a béarnaise
- Green – Spinach sautéed, buttered, and salted
- Picante – Hot Sauce to dip potato chips in
The wines selected for this dinner included a Malbec, a Chardonnay, a sparkling wine (to demonstrate fizziness) and a dessert wine (late harvest Chenin Blanc). Just as you could pick any foods you want to taste with, the choice of wines is completely up to you. These were all chosen because they are well known and likely to be found in most restaurants (except maybe the dessert wine–an Auslese Riesling or other sweet white will work too).
Putting Your Pairing Experiment into Action
With all of the food items assembled on one plate, except for the dessert, the tasting is conducted by trying each of the foods with each of the wines. If you want to really remember what works with what, write it down as you go. Determine if the combination is better, worse, neutral or in between (1 to 5 for how well it goes).
- Take a small bite of each food separately, chew, and then sip a little of one wine before swallowing
- Rate pairings as you go, or take notes, perhaps using a scale of 1 to 5 scale (1 = poor, 5 = great)
- Repeat process until all tastes have been paired with all wines
- Next, try multiple food-item combinations based on your best wine pairings
- Drink and be merry!
Remember that there is no such thing as a right answer, and everyone will have different opinions on what works best. That said, I have done this tasting enough times to have a consensus on a general answer to which wine pairs with which food.
The Red Wine Dilemma
While there are a huge variety of red wine styles, for a wine like Malbec with this tasting the results are inevitably surprising. For most people the red goes with almost nothing, except the plain meat and the meat with the red wine reduction sauce. With the sour, buttery béarnaise sauce it is pretty universally reviled. Red wine with meat may work with the right sauce, but woe to those who try to live by this rule.
Also surprising is how few people like the Brie with the red wine. Wine and cheese is about as classic as it comes, but does the combination work as well as you think it does? Cheese coats your mouth making it easier to like bad wines, but it doesn’t often seem to improve the wine you are drinking with it.
Vinegar is thought to kill red wine, and for some it does. For others though, the sour of the vinegar makes the wine taste sweeter, slightly improving it. It all has to do with how strong the vinegar tastes to you (your threshold for sour). Spinach, also, is not the flavor murdering vegetable it is often thought to be, rather the combination is usually seen as neutral. You might want to try artichokes in place of the spinach.
The red wine was unsurprisingly awful with the jelly, but you may want to try dark chocolate some time. Walnuts were a step below neutral as was Picante. The potato chips were almost always considered neutral. Good to know for party snacks.
So-So White Wines
I would argue that there are more food friendly white wines than Chardonnay, but its ubiquity gains it a place in this tasting. The Chard never shined, but it was better than neutral with the salty chips. It was amazingly bad with the Picante, and it was better with the béarnaise sauce than the red wine. Yes you can serve white with steak, if you have the right sauce. No one liked it with the jelly either. For everything else it was more or less neutral, cleansing the palate if nothing else.
Universal Love for Sparkling Wine
The chef in me loves to prepare a full seven course meal accompanied by a different sparkling wine with each course. It works great because of the range of styles, from sweet to bone dry, from the clean flavors of a young simple bubbly, to the caramel and toast of the great top of the line offerings. It also works great because, in all the years of doing this food and wine paring dinner, it has rarely scored below a neutral for any combination, for any taster.
Salty, sweet, and vegetable all get top scores, while bitter and the meat with both sauces are better than neutral. The steak, without sauce, still gets a solid neutral as do the salad and the Brie. In fact, there is only one kind of wine that seems to universally go better with food than sparkling.
Outstanding Scores for Sweet Wine
Pairing a dessert wine with a food that is sweeter than it is, is not a great idea, so the jelly really does not go with the wine. Only the steak with the red wine reduction sauce got a neutral. Every other single thing got the top rating, everything, for everyone. This is the result that surprises most people, and the result that has led me to often write about the pleasures of sweeter wines.
There are some food and wine combinations that I really love, but few are universal. The fact that the wines with residual sugar, the sparkling and dessert wine, did so well is not really all that unexpected, given that sugar makes most things taste better. What is the real surprise is how rarely any other combination wows anyone. Basic wines with basic foods often have the blessing of not interfering with each other. On a daily basis, that is usually good enough.
What this all proves is what I have said more time than I could count when I was a wine steward. The best combination is food and wines that you love individually. If they happen to improve with each other, that is a bonus, and one worth remembering.
photography by Janet Engelhard. Experiment and article provided by Wine Folly