The Science Behind Food and Wine Pairing

Updated by Jim Deckebach

Wine PairingGreat restaurants are known as much for their famous sommeliers as they are their famous chefs. It's not enough to have great wine or great food. It is the perfect pairing of each that brings out the best aspects of both. This paring is balanced and the elements work in harmony with each others Wine pairing has long been viewed as an art, but there is science behind the classic pairings and individual preferences that go into pairing food and wine.

There are basic principles in wine pairing.  Wine pairings have two categories. The first category is the contrasting pairing, where the balance is achieved via contrasting flavors. The second category is the congruent pairing, where the shared flavor profiles create balance by amplifying each other. There are also nine basic methodologies to follow:

  1. The wine should have a higher acid content than the food does.
  2. The wine should have a higher sugar content than the food does.
  3. The wine and food should be equally intense.
  4. Red meat pairs best with red wines.
  5. Fish or chicken goes better with white wines.
  6. Fat balances out bitter wines.
  7. Wine should be matched to any sauces served with the meal.
  8. White, rosé, and sparkling wines create contrasting pairings.
  9. Congruent pairings usually include red wines.

There are scientific principles behind each of these established wine methodologies, as well as historical precedents.

History of Wine Pairing

Archaeologists have found evidence of winemaking dating back 8,000 years ago. The oldest wine cellar discovered to date is almost 4,000 years old. There's no evidence about what kind of wine cellar decor was used, but since wine was often safer than the local water supply, it's safe to assume the owner stared at the wine deciding which would pair best with dinner. Classic pairings arose out of this long relationship between food and wine. The people creating these pairings didn't understand the science behind them, but instead, the wine and cuisine of the area grew and merged with each other. This is where the wine truism "what grows together, goes together" comes from.

Simple Science of Food and Wine Pairing

We are typically capable of experiencing seven different tastes: astringent, bitter, pungent, salty, sour, sweet, pungent, and umami. The perfect food and wine pairing combine these basic tastes to enhance their positive attributes and provide a deeper or more pleasant overall taste. Smell also plays a powerful part in how people experience tastes and wine aromas play an especially important part of how people experience wine. The notes smelled before the wine is tasted, no matter if the notes are fruity, earthy, floral, herbal, mineral or woodsy in flavor, determine how the wine is tasted.

Each wine resting on your wine racks features the following characteristics: acidity, tannin, alcohol level and sweetness. Acidity can be found in all wines and provides a tart taste. The level of tartness depends on the level of acidity. When wine-drinkers refer to the brightness or freshness of wine, they are referring to the acidity of the wine. Tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes. Tannins are astringent and are mainly found in red wines. Tannins usually pair well with fatty foods (which is why reds and red meat are a classic pairing), but fish never pairs well with a wine with a high tannin count. The tannins serve to intensify the fishy taste to an unappealing level. Studies have shown that tannins work well with greasy food because the tannins cut through any greasy aftertaste. Wines with a higher alcohol level are currently in vogue. The higher alcohol level is achieved by using older grapes, which also provides a bolder taste than wines using younger grapes. Sweetness is also referred to as dryness. Sweeter wines and those referred to as dessert wines pair well with fine desserts and chocolate.

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