by Mary Ewing Mulligan and Ed Mccarthy
It’s fashionable lately to say that wine is food. In the sense that wine’s traditional place is at the table, wine does function as part of a meal but—let’s face it—a meal of wine alone is not anyone’s idea of nirvana. Wine needs food, of the solid sort. It enhances food and is enhanced by it, at least most of the time.
For a reality so fundamental to the enjoyment of a meal, food and wine pairing is frustratingly imprecise business. Many people decide which wine to serve with which dish—or vice versa—through a vague mental process in which they imagine the food with various wines and choose the wine that feels right. That process presumes a knowledge of what various wines taste like, and that presumption excludes less experienced people. Is there a more accessible way?
When we choose a wine for a particular dish, we usually first decide the broad taste profile that the wine should have and then, secondly, we decide on the specific wine. The advantage of this system is that someone can narrow down the field of choices without having to have intimate familiarity with individual wines. (That’s where sommeliers and retailers enter the picture: they know intimately the specific wines that they sell.)
In deciding the broad taste profile that we want in a wine, we give secondary importance to the aromas and flavors of the wine and how they will match the aromas and flavors of the dish. American wine culture tends to overemphasize aromas and flavors at the expense of other aspects of a wine’s taste, such as texture and weight—and, for that matter, the intensity of aromas and flavors rather than the characterization of them. How many winemakers have you heard describe a wine solely by naming the flavors that he or she perceives in the wine? In our experience, the majority of American winemakers do that.
Unlike which flavors a wine has, flavor intensity—whether the flavors are subtle or whether the wine is bursting with flavor—is definitely an important consideration in wine and food pairing. Flavorful dishes need flavorful wines. Mild dishes, such as simple fish or pork roast, for example, can pair nicely with either subtle wines or wines with a medium amount of flavor intensity.
The weight of the wine is another critical consideration. Only wine geeks who care more about the wine than the food can enjoy pairing a full-bodied, powerful red or white wine with a light dish, because the food will get lost in the balance. Similarly, heavy dishes will overpower light wines—beef stew with Bardolino, anyone? Of course, people who aren’t really into wine won’t necessarily mind when the food dominates the wine; just think of the millions of bottles of Pinot Grigio sold each year, presumably not all of it enjoyed with light fish and salads!
A wine’s texture comes into the food-and-wine pairing game because two key textural drivers—acidity in white wines and tannin in red—can interact with a dish for positive or negative effects. The classic example is that protein in meat or cheese can soften a tannic red wine for a wonderful pairing. Crisp white wines, which have high acidity—such as all that light, mildly-flavored Pinot Grigio can bring life to a dish that lacks flavor excitement.
When we seek a wine to have with a particular dish, these are the factors that we consider. Light, medium or intense flavor? Light, medium or full body? And (for white wines) crisp or soft, or (for red wines) supple, firm or gripping?
These characteristics combine into certain typical taste categories for white and red wines. For example, among white wines:
Light flavor, light body and crisp texture characterize many young, unoaked white wines
Medium to high flavor intensity, medium body and fairly soft texture characterize many so-called aromatic whites, wines such as Riesling, Vermentino, or Viognier, which are made from aromatic grapes
Intense flavor, full body and soft texture characterize many rich, oaky white wines
Not many red wines are light in flavor intensity, except northeastern Italian Cabs and Merlots, generic Bordeaux reds, and similar wines. More frequently, the variables of flavor intensity, weight and texture would cast red wines into these taste categories:
Medium flavor volume, fairly light body and mild tannin are typical of many inexpensive, fruit-driven reds, such as the simplest Beaujolais wines, some southern Rhones, and entry-level New World Cabs, Merlots and Syrahs/Shirazes
Medium flavor intensity, medium body and firm texture characterize many savory red wines from grape varieties such as Dolcetto, Malbec or Sangiovese
High flavor intensity, full body and sturdy tannic structure characterize many powerful reds
After the determination of a general wine taste profile that’s appropriate for a dish, the actual flavors of the food—whether the dish is lemony or herbal, or has earthy flavors, for example—can become an element in picking the wine. We like herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs with vegetable dishes, for example, or a citrusy Albariño with a fish dish that has lemony accents. Contrasting the flavors of the wine with the flavors of the food can also lead to a good match. A Syrah with fresh, black pepper aromas and flavors can work with a stew that has long-simmered rather than fresh flavors, for example.
One situation in which the actual flavors of the food and the wine are particularly important is pairing wines with dishes that have fruity flavors, as many Asian-and Latin-inspired dishes now do. Wines with fruity flavors work best with these dishes. But the flavor intensity, weight and texture of the wine must also be appropriate for the dish.
No magic formula will ever cover all the possible variations in wine tastes, food tastes and the combining of the two. Matching wine and food is necessarily a creative, situation-specific exercise. But thinking Big Picture about typical taste profiles of white and red wines simplifies the enormity of the vinous part of the equation.
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