Wine and food pairings for most people are complicated and intricate quandaries that make their heads hurt more than a night of heavy drinking. In actuality, pairing wine with food is very simple. It is true that there are times when a particular wine will have a culinary soul mate that, when paired with, will be exponentially better, creating a magical gestalt experience.
Unfortunately this happens maybe one percent of the time. Most often with a little knowledge of basic food and wine chemistry, the meal will be wonderfully enjoyable and the wine will enhance the experience but most importantly, not distract from the food.
There are three important chemical attributes that wine brings to the table: acid, tannin, and sugar. These three elements of wine each present themselves wrapped in diverse and wonderful flavor combinations. The amalgamation of odors and flavors in a wine, coupled with the aforementioned chemical properties leads to endless permutations. People will often try to pair the complex combinations of flavor and bouquet in wine with equally complex combinations of flavor in food. To most this ends up seeming like gastronomic calculus.
Focusing on the three main chemical components makes things infinitely easier. Wines like Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire or Chardonnay from Chablis that are high in acidity are tamed when paired with acidic food such as ceviche. However, if the dish is overwhelmingly acidic like one served with a vinaigrette there are few wines save Champagne that will stand their ground. If the food is spicy, say Mexican or Indian, that sense of heat can be cooled by a chilled wine with a bit of sweetness, such as a German Riesling. Meat loves wine with tannin like Cabernet Sauvignon that, much like a chemical janitor, mops the tongue free of fat, leaving it refreshed and ready for the next bite. Sweet desserts are often paired with sweet wines, but the much higher sugar content in the dessert can make these wines seem flat and uninteresting. It is far better to pair dessert wines with their natural salty counterpoint, cheese.
So, with so many frustrating decisions to make in our lives, finding the "perfect" wine to have with our food should not be one of them. Follow the simple rules of pairing, and wine will be exactly what it should be with food: delicious.
[Photo by Flickr user calistan]
Los Angeles resident Michael Newsome, a wine buyer for Whole Foods and a Certified Italian Wine Specialist, joins us every Tuesday for an exploration of California wine. See his previous posts here.
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