Introduction to Food and Wine Pairing
A few weeks back I caught up with a friend of mine from my postgrad days. We got chatting about food and he offered to come up to the flat and cook one of his mum’s signatures for a few people. He was going to provide the cooking, we had to come up with a single girl for him to chat up for the night. Fair enough.
The day fast approaching, I rang him up and asked him what he needed for the food. He said he had most things, but could I pick up a kilo of beef, two kilos of tomatoes, and a kilo of green chillies. Yep, a kilo of green chillies. That’s how they do it in Karachi apparently. First thought in my head was I was going to need to stick the toilet roll in the freezer in preparation. Second thought was this was a great chance for me to test out my recently read theories for food and wine matching.
I reckon this must be the most complex and contentious topic in the world of wine. The problem being everyone’s taste buds are different, and what works for someone might be horrible for the next guy. I’m probably being conservative in saying there are hundreds of books on it, but here’s me thinking that if it’s so up in the air, why not just get a bit of basic theory and – in keeping with the best ways of learning most things – learn by doing, and start testing a few out at home.
The Basic Theories
Flavours aside, there are a few major food components that will usually dominate a dish. It’s these that basic theory tackles as they are likely to have strong effects on the wine.
Umami (a savoury taste compound)
Bitterness (in wine the bitterness comes mostly from tannins)
The components in food make the components in wine either increase or decrease. The plan is to match that up. Let’s take acidity in wine. If a food stuff makes the wine more acidic, then you want to pick a wine that isn’t too high in acidity to begin with. Viceversa if the wine reduces acidity, pick one with high acidity to begin with. Easy, right?
Some Components Have A Positive Effect On Wine
By positive I mean those that make the good bits of the wine even better. Salty food and foods high in acidity can increase the perception of body, fruitiness, and sweetness.
They can decrease the perception of bitterness and acidity.
Try to aim for wines that have naturally high acidity, just to be on the safe side.
Some Components Have A Negative Effect On Wine
Sweetness, bitterness, and umami increase bitterness and acidity. They also increase the burning affect of any alcohol.
They can decrease the body, sweetness, and fruitiness.
So, for example, you go for a fairly full bodied sweet wine with your sweet desserts.
Chilli heat is also one for this category, but I think the big thing here is the increase in the alcohol burn. Aim for a wine not too high in alcohol.
Risky Wines For Pairing
Well, obviously enough, if you’ve got a really complex wine then you’ve got lots of interactions to worry about. Ok, fairly basic wines can maybe be looked at as a bit boring, but safe is not a bad start.
Final Couple Of Tips
If you’re cooking some fairly regional dish, and it’s from a wine producing country, then try to start your search with a wine from that area. Over the centuries wine and food have been produced together and likelihood is you’ll find the perfect match just down the road.
It helps if you’re the chef. You know what’s going into the food and gives you a better chance. Most people who have a knack of pairing wines and food are pretty useful cooks themselves, or work closely with people who are. Think back to those guys and girls on Saturday Morning Kitchen, they try the food themselves before they decide what to go with it. Now it’s a bit keen for us mere mortals to cook what you’re trying to match with earlier in the week too, but maybe just make a mental note of what worked in the past, and go from there.
So what did I do with the curry? I chickened out and went down to my local Majestic Wine and asked them. I got suggested a big Australian Shiraz (full body), a Malbec rose (fruity), and a Beaujolais (low alcohol). I went for all three and tried them out. For me, the Beaujolais worked, but given the potency of the curry, maybe I should have just gone for a glass of milk.
At least I had the perfect accompaniment in the freezer.