Food & Wine Matching: Basics
To achieve the best match it is necessary to analyse the basic components in both the wine and the food. The principal is to try to balance them so that neither the food nor the wine overpowers the other.
The main elements of food and wine matching to consider are:
Try to match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine:
Rich, heavyweight foods, like red meat casseroles need full-bodied wines.
Normally it is powerful Red wines that are the favoured choice but it is the weight of the wine, not the colour or flavour, which is the most important consideration.
- Hence a full-bodied White wine is usually a better match with meat than a light-styled Red wine.
- Lightweight food like poultry and fish are complemented by more delicate wines.
- Whilst a White wine is the instinctive choice light, low-tannin Reds also work.
Flavour Intensity and Character
Flavour Intensity – match full flavours together, like Sauvignon Blanc and asparagus, mild flavours like Muscadet and oysters.
Flavour intensity, although similar to weight, is not the same thing.
A big bowl of boiled pasta or potatoes without a dressing or sauce is heavy in weight but light in flavour. As opposed to red or green bell peppers which are lightweight but very flavoursome.
- The same goes for wines; the Riesling variety makes lightweight, intensely flavoured wines
- whilst Chardonnay makes heavy (full-bodied) wines that are lightly flavoured.
Quite often it is not the main ingredient in a dish that provides the dominant flavour: In a creamy chicken curry, the sauce will be heavier and more robustly flavoured than the chicken. In this instance you need to match the wine to the sauce.
The flavour characteristics of some foods and wines are very similar and consequently they make good combinations:
- Light fruit-based desserts can be matched with the "grapey" flavour of the Muscat variety.
- Spicy dishes can be matched with Gewurztraminer, a variety often described as spicy or Gruner Veltiner.
(Spicy wines may have white or black pepper, cloves, ginger, allspice aromas and flavours for example.)
- Cream or butter sauces go well with wines that have been fermented or aged in new oak barrels.
Oak imparts vanilla-scented, buttery, creamy flavours to the wine.
- Delicately flavoured wines like Italian whites (Vementino, Pinot Grigio, Gavi, Soave, Verdicchio, Orvieto) and Loire Muscadet complement shellfish and seafood.
High acid wines complement fatty foods in the same way that lemon cuts through the greasiness of smoked salmon.
Food and wine can both have acidity. Tomatoes, citrus and green apples are high-acid foods. Certain grape varieties naturally produce high-acid wines, Muscadet for example. Wines from cool climates will have more acidity than those from hot climates.
- When vinegar or lemon juice is used as a condiment you will need to find a high- acid wine to complement it.
- A classic example is Champagne served with smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon.
- High-acid wines are also used to cleanse the palate when eating oily food.
- Even without the lemon, smoked salmon is made more palatable when the Champagne cuts through the natural oiliness of the fish.
In Italy where many dishes are made with lots of olive oil you will find the majority of Italian Red wines have noticeable acidity and so complement the regional dishes perfectly:
- Think of Barbera, Chianti, Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, Valpolicella, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
In the wines above, their natural acidity matches the acid characteristic also found in the tomato sauce whilst cutting through the olive oil.
Salty foods are enhanced and balanced by a hint of sweetness:
- Parma Ham and Melon is a classic example.
The same thing can be achieved with wine:
- Sauternes, a lusciously sweet wine from the Bordeaux region, is a famous match with salty, Roquefort cheese.
Whilst salt clashes with tannin (it makes tannin seem more bitter), it works miracles with acidity:
- An example of this would be salty nibbles served with Champagne before a meal.
For a dry wine to work with salty food it should have low tannins and noticeable acidity.
It is easier to find White wines with these characteristics than Reds, but there are some Red wines to fit the bill, Beaujolais is a perfect example.
The more textured the food (e.g. fatty – like duck, chewy - like steak) the more tannin you need in the wine.
Tannins cause your gums to pucker and dry when you drink wine. Typically detected in Red wines (tannin comes from the grape skins and stalks used in red wine-making).
Grape varieties vary enormously in tannin content:
- Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tannat all have very thick skin and so it can make deeply coloured, high-tannin wines.
Wine tannins are attracted to fatty proteins:
- Your saliva is full of protein molecules and this is why your gums pucker and dry when drinking tannic wines.
- Lamb is a good example of a food with a high-fatty protein content which when eaten coats the mouth with fat.
- If you then drink a tannic Red wine the tannin molecules attach themselves to the protein molecules and strip them from your mouth, leaving it feeling refreshed and cleansed and ready for the next mouthful.
The wine should always be sweeter than the food. Sweetness in wine also acts as a foil to rich foods.
Sweet foods make dry wines seem over-acidic and tart.
The general rule of thumb is to serve a wine at least as sweet or sweeter than the food being served.
- The acidity will cut through the fat in the pâté and the wine's sweetness will complement the richness of this food.
- Sweetness also balances salt and so sweet wines are classic companions of blue cheeses e.g. Port with Stilton.
Wine Tasting Terms
Fleshy: Wines with concentrated flavours and a low level of acidity.
Forward: Ready to drink early
Full-bodied: Wines with a lot of fruit concentration and alcohol.
Hard: Wines with astringent tannins.
Length: The length of time you can taste the wine after it’s been swallowed. An indication of quality: the longer the length, the better the quality.
Mouth-filling: Concentrated wines that have a high fruit extract.
Oxidised:When a wine loses its freshness and becomes too old and takes on a stale smell and taste.
Rich: Wines with a good concentration of ripe fruit.
Soft: Wines that are round and fruity with balanced acidity.
Sweetness: Comes from the natural sugars in very ripe grapes that remains after the wine has been fermented.
Tannic: Wines with a firmness or roughness which gives ageing potential when backed with ripe fruit.
Tannin: Detected all round the gums and mouth by an astringent mouth-drying sensation (similar to drinking a very strong cup of tea). Tannin comes from the grape skins and pips, and from oak ageing; it is mainly found in red wines.
Tightly knit: Young wines with high acidity and tannins, yet to open and develop.
Unctuous: Layers of concentrated fruit, with layers of glycerine, particularly in sweetwines.
Viscous: Concentrated, fat, almost thick wines with a great density of fruit extract and glycerine.
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