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Simple Science of Food and Wine Pairing

See the theory of food and wine pairing in action with this easy to use chart. Then, understand the simple science behind food and wine pairing based on our basic sense of taste.

You can learn the fundamentals of how taste components like sweet, sour, spice, bitter and fat go together. Then, try pairing wine by letting the characteristics of your food suggest your wine.

Food and Wine Pairing Science

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How it works in action

When it comes to food and wine pairing, most folks lean on the phrase “What grows together, goes together” as a starting point.

For example, you could pair Italian Sangiovese with Italian pasta and make a decent pairing without trying.

But if you think about wine as an ingredient you can start to construct your own unique flavor combinations.

In this example, we chose fish tacos and broke them down to their core ingredients. The fish turns out to be a pretty polarizing ingredient that doesn’t usually pair with red wines. Additionally, cilantro and lime will push this dish closer to a much more specific wine.

If you follow the chart, you’ll see that a light-bodied white wine looks to be the best option for this dish. And, it is! Of the wines on the list shown, you’ll do great with a Vermentino, Albariño, or Pinot Grigio.

Why do certain wines go with certain foods?

When you start analyzing the structure of wine, each type of wine features different characteristics such as acidity, tannin, alcohol level and sweetness. If you start thinking about wine traits as flavor ingredients, it becomes easier to pair them with a meal.

So how come a bold red wine doesn’t go with a fatty fish like salmon?

Tannin and fat actually counteract each other quite well, so it would seem like an oily fish such as salmon would pair well with a red wine. The reason it doesn’t work is because the tannin in the wine and the fattiness of the fish cancel each other out leaving you with a residual fishy flavor. Basically, this pairing brings all the negatives of each component to the forefront as the final taste in your mouth.

Fish pairs well with wines that have a cleansing effect (a.k.a. high acidity). The wine acts as a scraper of the fish flavor left in your mouth. This could be why highly zesty wines like Champagne go well with many different types of foods. If you’re interested, you can read more about pairing wine with fish.

Food pairing is a science

Dr. Paul Breslin, a sensory biologist at Rutger’s University, has been studying the effects of taste on the palate. In a recent study he conducted, he focused on how oiliness and astringency interact. He took a closer look at how greasy food leaves an obnoxious taste on the palate. In the study, when tasters rinsed their mouths with water, the greasy feeling would not subside. However, when people rinsed their mouths with tea (a liquid with light tannins and moderate acidity), the greasy feeling went away.

What Dr. Breslin found was that our saliva glands produce proteins to lubricate our mouths. When we eat greasy foods, our mouths over-salivate and make our tongues feel slippery. Tannin and acidity counteract this slippery feeling by pulling out the proteins from our tongue. Of course, this action can also go in the other direction when you drink a very tannic wine with no food. This will leave you with an equally obnoxious astringent and dry feeling in your mouth.

This study illustrates how powerful the acting forces are on the basic characteristics of taste.

So, the next time you grab a bottle of wine ask yourself:

‘What am I having for dinner?’


Sources
You can find Dr. Paul Breslin’s study ‘Opponency of astringent and fat sensations’ on cell.com

About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly