When Two Become One
The Science of Wine & Food Pairing
By Certified Sommelier, Jimmy Quaile
The ‘apple of my eye’, a ‘bitter pill to swallow’, ‘sour grapes’, and ‘take with a grain of salt’ are all clichés that demonstrate the connection taste has with our emotions. It also has to do with evolution. A bitter taste was an indication that the food was poisonous, whereas the taste of sweetness was sign of nutrients and pleasure. Yet the science of how certain flavors are perceived is still debated. For years it was universally accepted that there were four basic tastes at the root of our enjoyment of food; sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. However in 1910 Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda described the savory taste of glutamates, which are characteristically found in broths and cooked meats that he believed didn’t fit into any of the four categories. It wasn’t until 1985 that the term umami was recognized as the fifth taste perceptible by the human tongue.
The century-old idea that different areas of the tongue are associated with each taste has also now been debunked. Scientists now believe that the entire tongue can taste all of these flavors. Taste buds, those small bumps on the tongue called fungiform papillae are made up of 50 to 150 receptor cells. These cells sense and relate to the brain the sum total of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. So why doesn’t all food taste the same to all of us? The number of taste buds varies from person to person. Approximately 25% of the population are thought to be Supertasters. A supertaster experiences tastes with far greater intensity and can discern distinct flavors more than the average person. Interestingly, 35% of women and only 15% of men have above average taste buds. Most of us have 10,000 taste buds and they are replaced every two weeks. As a person ages, some taste cells don’t get replaced. An older person may only have 5,000 taste buds. Ethnicity also plays a role. Asians seem to have a higher proportion of supertasters.
A single glass of wine contains thousands of chemical compounds. These chemicals are not only determined by the grape variety itself but by the soil and climate in which the grape is grown. Wines have acids (tartaric, malic, citric, and lactic) that activate the salivary glands and help enhance the flavors of food. Wine is also typically served in a specifically designed glass which concentrates the aroma and activates olfactory receptors in the nose. It is the interaction between the taste buds and olfactory receptors with the acids and other volatile components that comprise the sensation of taste.
All of this explanation should make the pairing of wine with food a scientific certainty. However any wine expert worth his salt will tell you the best wine and food pairing is the one you like! Pairing preferences are subjective. If you like a Cabernet with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, have at it. But there are pairing “rules” that are universally accepted and worth a try.
The ‘weight’ of the wine should match the ‘weight’ of the food.
Big and bold flavors need a big and bold wine.
Protein will soften tannins.
Acidity of the wine should match or exceed the acidity of the food.
Fish oils love acidity but hate tannins.
Acidity cuts saltiness.
Alcohol enhances spice which can add to the heat.
Sweet tames heat.
A dessert wine should be as sweet or sweeter than the dessert.
When in doubt match the color of the food with the color of the wine!
Dips & Chips
Sparking wine or Rosé
Soups & Salads
Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño or Verdicchio
Turkey: Dry Riesling, Cru Beaujolais or Pinot Noir
Beef: Cabernet or Syrah/Shiraz
Meat stews: Cotes du Rhône or Bordeaux
Chicken: Sauvignon Blanc or Beaujolais
Pork: Riesling or Merlot
Seafood: Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc
Fish: Pinot Grigio or Albariño
BBQ: Zinfandel or Syrah/Shiraz
Pasta with red: Chianti, Barbera, or Valpolicella
Pasta with white: Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay
Vegan: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Gewurtztraminer
Chocolate: Ruby Port or Banyuls
Fruit: Moscato or Late Harvest Riesling
Nuts: Sherry, Tawny Port or Vin Santo