The World of Wine
By Ceci Rodriguez
Pairing Food With Wine (Second Part)
Tannins in wine come primarily from grape skins, seeds and stems. Tannins are found, to a much greater degree, in the skins of red grapes than in the skins of white grapes. They are extracted from these solids during the fermentation process. Tannins are also found in any oak, or other wood, used to ferment or age the wine. These “wood tannins” may contribute to a wine’s flavors and ability to age.
Tannins are entirely flavorless and cause mouth tissues to pucker, resulting in mouth-drying, astringent sensations. Tannins bind with proteins so tannic wines usually pair well with foods high in protein such as beef or duck. Tannins tend to reduce sweetness in food, so a sweet dish will suffer with tannic wine. Saltiness tends to accentuate tannins, so very salty dishes may taste more astringent with tannic wines unless the food contains enough fat or protein to soften the tannins.
Next, one should understand that many foods are sweeter than one might at first believe. It is a mistake to assume that dry wines go better with sweet dishes, they do not; dry wines tend to get lost with sweet dishes. Moreover, sweeter wines don’t necessarily increase the perception of sweetness in the food. Instead, the sweetness in both the wine and the food simply integrate with one another, creating a desirable, harmonious gustatory experience. Certain foods do increase apparent sweetness in a wine, so in these cases, a drier wine will ensure final balance among the wine and foods being served.
There is a temptation to focus mainly on matching flavors when pairing wine with food. Unfortunately, this often occurs to the detriment of considering the role of texture in wine and food pairing. Just as a meal’s ingredients and method of preparation produce different textures, so too does wine have texture. One should never overlook how the texture of a specific wine will interact with the textures of food. A wine may match a dish in terms of sweetness, but it may overwhelm a delicate preparation and obscure its nuances. As a result, a sweet wine of lighter body may be preferable. Hours of hard work in the kitchen may be ruined in the five seconds it takes to pull a cork on the wrong bottle of wine.
The level of alcohol is the final major factor to consider in wine and food pairing. Combining wine and food create chemical interactions that intensify the flavors and textures of each. This is true as well of the alcohol present in wine. Just about every wine will taste more alcoholic with food. As a result, wines which possess a higher than normal percentage of alcohol by volume may reach the point where alcoholic “burn” becomes unpleasant. Of course, individual tolerance varies from person to person, and there is no specific level which will be universally agreed upon. That said, generally speaking, wines of 14% alcohol by volume or higher increase the chances of a person perceiving “heat” or “burn” in both the wine and, by association, the food. High alcohol wines are thus poor choices for spicier dishes where the heat is already present before the first glass is poured.
In passing, it should be noted that older wines may be more fragile and require more thoughtful food pairings. Stong spices and textures may overwhelm the subtle nuances in these wines, the very aspects for which the wine was carefully matured over many years.