On an all-inclusive vacation in Jamaica, we signed up for a free wine tasting event hosted by one of the hotel’s wine stewards. I think the fact that it was free placed some restrictions on the wine selections at his disposal. How do you lead a wine tasting when you only have four or five house wines to offer? Besides which most of the group had already tasted them at some point on vacation. He cleverly turned the event into a wine and food pairing exercise and saved the day. We were each given glasses of popular varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling accompanied by portions of Granny Smith apple, Havarti cheese, and spicy jerk chicken.
We tasted a wine and noted its character. Then we took a small bite of one of the food items and tasted the same wine again. It was eye-opening how a dry red with a lush, fruity palate turned quite sour following a bite of green apple. And yet the same wine presented hints of savory herbs and black pepper when paired with the cheese. The spicy chicken overpowered the dryer wines but found its match with the sweeter Riesling.
There are some excellent and detailed books on food and wine pairing such as Wine With Food: Pairing Notes and Recipes from the New York Times by Eric Asimov and Florence Fabricant, or The Food & Wine Guide to Perfect Pairings, if you’re interested in a painstaking journey into balancing the flavors of food with the perfect wine. As for the Boozy Lifestyle, our goal is to understand the basics and avoid gastronomic catastrophe.
Wine flavors come from sugar, acid, alcohol, fruit and tannins. The basics of food flavors include bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and savory, as well as textures in the mouth like fatty or creamy. Pairings may combine similar attributes or contrasting ones. One school of thought is to pair light foods with light wine and heavy foods with full-bodied wines. But this is one rule that’s easy to break without inviting tragedy. The best way to determine if a pairing is good or bad is if it tastes good to you, but following some simple guidelines will help avert a pairing disaster.
Fatty foods like red meat and dairy sauces are balanced by wines with higher acidity or tannins. It’s why steak is often paired with Cabernet Sauvignon (fatty meat with mouth-drying tannins).
Acidic foods like a lemony fish or vinegar salad dressing need a bright, acidic wine like Sauvignon Blanc to match the acidity of the food.
Sparkling wines are often recommended to pair with salty foods, but another great match for salty and fried food is beer, especially a medium-bodied ale or lager. A pint of Killian’s Irish Red is a marvelous mate for fish and chips at the local Irish pub.
Sweet wines with dessert can be tricky. If the dessert is sweeter, it makes the wine taste bitter. The extra alcohol in port helps alleviate this problem, or you can leave the wine behind and opt for a cordial like Bailey’s, Chambord, or Kahlua. Pairing a dry red with a cloyingly sweet chocolate dessert can be awful.
For most people, the need to pair wine with bitter foods isn’t all that naturally occurring. After all, how often do you think of pairing wine with your radishes or brussels sprouts? While I was doing some reading on the subject of bitter foods, I came across an article by Alex Swerdloff about a scientific study that claims that people who enjoy bitter foods are nasty, bitter people. The researchers explained in the journal Appetite, “General bitter taste preferences emerged as a robust predictor for Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism and everyday sadism.” I love radishes. And brussels sprouts. Does that make me a bad person?