For the longest time, we humans have tried to marry the best of what nature provides us. One such sophisticated pairing comprises two essential constituents of our dining pleasures – food and wine. Not only does it encapsulate the pleasure of bringing the two together but it also creates an alluring experience on our palate. While for some the excitement and drama of marrying the best from the kitchen and the cellars is enticing enough to travel across the world, most are still baffled and intimidated by the thought of indulging in it. For us on the local turf, followers of communal dining practices, combined with social alcoholism taboos, food and wine pairing was deemed to pose a challenge. However, it’s not as complicated as it may seem. Thank god we have some rules in place to guide us.
Most diners who attempt decoding this complicated practice begin by following the cardinal guideline of pairing white wines with white meats and reds with red meats. When a great match occurs, it’s difficult to tell what led to such a success; and in case it fails, the formidability of colour-coded pairing principle seems shaky. The rule surely isn’t fool-proof. Moreover, it creates a culinary anarchy stripping away the freedom of the diners to experiment with their own ideas. What’s required, thus, is a deeper understanding of elements that constitutes the wine at hand and a dish you’d order, or vice-versa.
Most dishes are based on yin-yang between elements contributing to its final flavour, some of these elements are found in wines too. Three dominant pillars form a dish i.e. its ingredients, cooking techniques, and sauces & condiments of choice. Wine, being a mysterious elixir, has five: acidity, sugar, alcohol, tannins, and oak. Concoction of these elements, combined with the preferences of your palate, decide the fate and success of any pairing. Since every dish will have a unique construction, and no two wines ever produced are the same, the perception of every pairing will differ. Thus, it’s not just the elements we must understand, something more is required to guide us to do this right – a theory maybe.
While the common wisdom rules that, like people, food and wine resembling each other pair well, the ‘opposites-attract’ theory can over-rule the foundation of that wisdom. Taste being such a personal and subjective affair, it is worthless zeroing in on a single pairing theory. Two palates wouldn’t ever be the same and thus the result of pairings will differ too. After all, it’s all a matter of taste. However, the elements, whichever palate they may meet on, will create near-identical results. A good pairing will match the elements and flavours and leave it on your palate to decide its acceptability. Thus, finally we face the longest existing dilemma. Much like the chicken-and-egg, who should rule the pairing, food or wine? It’s imperative to understand that neither one can take the center stage alone. It’s the synergy created by both that is essential and must be respected. However, since wine is your choice of beverage tonight, let it command a tad elevated position.
To enhance this synergy, here’s a key to understanding some of these pairings:
If in a race, this would be the horse to bet on. It provides tartness, sourness, and at times bitterness, to the pairing.
Contrast: Acidity is the ultimate factor to cut through richness, fat, oil, sweetness, salt, and mild spiciness. This is how Sauvignon Blanc can pair well with salty seafood or dry Champagne balance the richness of Ricotta filled Ravioli in burnt butter sauce.
Tartness In Food: Dishes involving tart ingredients like vinaigrette, tomatoes, capers, or tamarind can instantly make the wine appear flabby. To counter this, extremely tart wines lined with heavy dose of acidity are best bets. Wines that can be puckering by themselves, like a Pinot Blanc, Muscadet, cold-climate Sauvignon Blanc, sway with these dishes.
Enhancing Subtlety: How do you enhance the flavor of Saffron in a cheesy Potato Gnocchi? Or emphasize the multitude of aromatics in a Biryani? How a squeeze of lime over your favourite dish can enliven flavours, the same can be achieved by substituting lime with the acidity of a wine in a pairing.
Suggestion– let wine’s acidity over-rule that of the dish. It is quite a challenge to pair wines with low acidity like Gewurztraminer and Viognier.
From off-dry to medium sweet to luscious dessert wines, sweetness in wines can vary. And this allows us to play with it a little better.
Masks Spiciness: Most Asian cuisines, and a few examples from the Indian kitchen, have underlying mild spiciness. A Good idea is to foil them with a hint of sweetness, than washing it down with beer. Sometimes, it can alleviate the burning sensation from blackpepper too, which can be enjoyed in certain dishes.
Beware, this would work only with mild spiciness. Don’t try with ferociously hot ones.
Contrast: Salt and sugar go hand in hand. Adding salt to caramel is a principle when preparing desserts. However, even salty cheeses like Roquefort, English Stilton, or any blue cheese pairs well with wines like Sauternes or Ports.
Tartness: Wine’s sweetness can be utilized to counter dishes’ tartness. Many tamarind-lifted dishes in Indian fare are a great match with our local saccharine-kissed Chenin Blancs or amicable German Rieslings.
Sweetness Compliments Sweetness: Ever wondered why Glazed Pork Chop with Apple Chutney pairs well with off-dry Rieslings? While wine’s acidity cuts through pork’s fattiness, wine’s sweetness compliments the sugar in the glaze and chutney. Similarly, off-dry Chenin Blanc makes perfect sense with Fillet of Sea Bass served with Mango Salsa, Teriyaki or Kung Pao Chicken.
General Rule: Sweetness in wine should shadow the dish’s sweetness. Champagnes and sparkling wines are often popped open at birthdays and drink beautifully too. However, when shared with the birthday cake, it suddenly turns too zesty and almost undrinkable. Replace that bubbly with a Sekt or a semi-sweet wine and it will all make sense.
Alcohol is a disguising element that can be paired better intuitively that based on written principles. Albeit its aid in cutting through fat and richness in meals, its primary contribution to the wine is in adding weight, body, density, and texture. It’s the same principle that defines the body of a beer to a wine to a whiskey.
Balancing Weights: Wines low in alcohol (7-11%) seem lighter than the potent ones (14-17%). It will be pitiful losing a Burgundy Pinot Noir to a masculine T-Bone steak, than to a grilled Salmon. Similarly a fillet of sole will not be appreciated if paired with oak-dominated, Australian Chardonnay versus a Pinot Grigio or Semillon. Considering the balance of weights between the dish and the wine is the key.
Kerosene Effect: Contrary to Belief, Whiskies aren’t a great match for our fiery Indian dishes. Spice accentuates alcohol’s perception on the palate, making it seem splashed with kerosene. Salty dishes imply similar results. Pairing Indian cuisines with fresh lime soda doesn’t sound like a bad idea anymore!!
These are the gum-numbing and mouth-drying compounds found in grape skin. They can also be delivered by oak barrels in wines age.
Tannins Cut Protein & Fat: The roughness on your palate when introduced to tannins in a wine is because they cut the proteins on your tongue and cheeks. They can do the same to a heavy red meat dish too. Thus, fancily put, red wines with red meat. When protein in a dish lacks balancing wine’s tannins level, the wine pairing seems jarring. Heavily tannic wines deserve a protein rich partner in the dish.
Metallic: One element that isn’t best pals with tannins is fish oils. A bite of fish and a sip of a tannic robust red is enough to teach this memorable lesson. The two put together create a disturbingly unpleasant metallic sensation, resembling licking a pole post
Hides Bitterness: All those bitter ingredients or dishes that baffle you what to pair with are best shown with tannic reds. Tannins are a great vehicle to send the bitterness of bitter gaud, arugula leaves and Brussels sprouts, to a far-off land. Even some cooking methods like grilling, charring, barbequing, or blackening can also add bitter edge to the dish
Oak doesn’t deliver as much to a pairing as it does to the wine itself. They make them soft, round, and supple. It’s these features it adds to the wine that are considered while pairing with a dish.
Flavours: Smoke, char, wood, vanilla, toast, and caramel are often indicators of oak-aging in a wine. Tannins it adds can be chew and bitter too. Match these flavours via dish’s ingredients or its cooking technique (grilling, charring, smoking, or caramelising).
Intensity: Seldom, lesser is better, and such is the case with wine oakiness in pairings. Heavily oaked wines can be difficult to pair with dishes as food ideally accentuates the flavour of oak and make them stand out. Furthermore, oak can reduce the pairing options too. Considering unoaked Chardonnay can be paired with Sea Bass, Chicken Malai Tikka, and Spaghetti Alio Olio, however, an oaky Chardonnay may only settle well with the Chicken Tikka. Selecting subtly oak-kissed wines is highly recommended.
Food is an elaborate study, much like wines. When the two meet, there are numerous combinations that can be imagined and executed. Matching food and wine is more than the play of colours, weight, and flavours. These elements, however, provide a formidable base that’s the foundation for conceptualising any pairing, irrespective of palate preference subjectivity. Following these guidelines you may still find yourself only making educated guesses. As for exploring, learning, and experiencing new sensations, hit and trail may still be your best bet.