Wine pairing builds on the flavor balancing work we do in the kitchen. The five tastes (salt, acid, sweetness, bitterness and umami) push and pull on the tastes of a wine in predictable ways.
Let’s start with the most important elements of a wine. Acidity, sweetness, tannins, bitterness and alcohol. This is what we call the wine’s structure.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each:
Acidity makes a wine mouthwatering. It is most obvious in tart white wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Albariño, but acidity is crucial for keeping bold red wines and sweet dessert wines balanced and delicious.
Sweetness comes from unfermented sugar left or added after fermentation. In small amounts, it balances the harshness of acidity or bitterness. It can also be the main event in super-sweet dessert wines like Tokaji or Sauternes.
Tannins come mainly from the skins of red wine grapes, but they can also come from oak. They cause the mouth-drying astringency in big red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Bitterness typically comes from tannins. White wines can have a slight phenolic bitterness as well.
Alcohol gives wine an icy-hot sensation which can extend down into your chest at high levels. This is the same chemesthesis that we find with spicy foods.
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Through sensory adaptation, the lingering tastes from food impact the structure of a wine. In short, salt and acid make wines taste smoother and sweeter while sweetness, bitterness, and umami make them taste more harsh.
Let’s take a look at each.
Like it does in food, salt reduces bitterness, counteracts acidity and accentuates sweetness in a wine. This makes a wine taste smoother, fuller and more fruity.
The quick rule with salty foods is to choose wines that have enough acidity to not seem flat or flabby.
High-acid white wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño, sparkling wines like Champagne or high-acid red wines like Sangiovese or Beaujolais often pair great with salty foods.
The taste of acid in food reduces the perception of acidity. This accentuates the sweetness of a wine.
Acidity generally has the same effect as salt and comes with the same risk around low-acid wines.
The combination of briny salt and lemon juice in shellfish dishes is one of the reasons they pair so well with high-acid white wines like Vinho Verde, Muscadet, or Italian Pinot Grigio.
The taste of sweetness in food reduces the perception of sweetness in a wine. As a result, it accentuates the harsher elements of acidity, bitterness and alcohol.
The risk with sweetness in food is that a wine with low sweetness to begin with will seem overly harsh. This is why pairings like wedding cake and brut Champagne are much less enjoyable than people are willing to admit.
So the quick rule with sweet foods is to pair them with wines that are as sweet or sweeter. Semi-sweet German Rieslings are some of the most versatile food wines for this reason.
The taste of bitterness in food simply accentuates the bitterness of a wine.
Since bitterness can be subjective, it’s helpful to know when a wine pairing will lean in that direction.
Semi-sweet German Riesling is again a good choice when pairing with bitter foods.
The taste of umami accentuates the bitterness, acidity of a wine. It also reduces sweetness.
This is one of the reasons why fish and red wine is so often discouraged. Bitterness in the wine gets amplified into a strange iron-like flavor.
Umami-rich charcuterie tends to call for less-tannic red wines for this reason, too.
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Phew! Okay. So to review, here’s a quick quiz.
Which wine would pair best with a rich dark chocolate cake?
b. Cabernet Sauvignon
If a wine tastes too acidic, what could be added to a dish to create a smoother pairing
b. Sea Salt Flakes
c. Cane Sugar
Which wine would best pair with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
a. Semi-sweet Riesling
b. Brut Champagne
c. Pinot Noir
Which wine would pair best with Lime-White Pepper Scallops?
a. Sauvignon Blanc
b. Cabernet Sauvignon
c. Oaky Chardonnay
This guide was adapted from the wine pairing learning path on the True Wine app. Start learning for free.