Com-Pairing Components of Wine

June 28, 2017




The big three when it comes to wine and food pairing are acid, tannin, and flavors. 







A chef once told me, "If you taste a dish and it needs something but you can't put your finger on what, the answer is probably acid." Acids like lemon and lime juice brighten and enhance flavors in food, and wines with those flavors can do the same!


Malic acid is an organic compound that tastes tart. You don't have to break into a chemistry lab to find it, either: just think of the way a green granny smith apple makes you pucker. The name itself is even derived from the latin word for apple. It's found in grapes and a lot of other fruits too, and when isolated it can be used to give extreme sour candy its signature sting. 


The best and grossest part of acid is that it makes your mouth water. That's why you may have seen Champagne served at cocktail parties before dinner--it's not only super classy and delicious, but a great appetizer! Lastly, acid doesn't mix with oil, so it'll cut through creamy and rich sauces to cleanse your palate between bites. 



The best way to explain tannin is by example. Times you've experienced the effects of tannins are:

  • drinking black tea after you forgot about it and left the tea bag in for like, 20 minutes

  • chewing on a grape skin

  • biting into an apple seed

  • eating rhubarb

Tannins don't sound great but they're very important. A red wine without tannin would taste one-dimensional and "flabby", like grape juice. Tannin gives the wine a structure that balances the sugars and acid and it's especially important in pairing wine. 


Acids make your mouth water; tannins dry it out. When you're chewing on a juicy steak and your palate is overwhelmed with those delicious, delicious fats, a wine with tannin can swoop in to dry out your palate so you're ready for the next piece. Just be careful with spicy foods--tannin exacerbates the heat! 



Wine has lots of different flavors, I promise. When you're first starting out, it might be hard to pick out notes of "boysenberry jam" and "white pepper" but over time you'll get the hang of it! A great way to practice is to head to a farmer's market and sniff as many of those fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs as you can. (I say farmer's market because usually the produce is riper and more flavorful, but a grocery store works too!) Then take some produce home and smell it right next to the wine you're tasting that's supposed to have those flavors in it. Sniff the peach then sniff your Viognier and try to find the same smell. Over time your nose will make the connections. 


Once you do have a handle on the flavors in your wine, compare them to the flavors in your food. If your wine smells like black pepper and you're eating something that you'd normally put pepper on, like baby back ribs, then it's probably a good pairing. If you're eating those peaches from the farmer's market, maybe not. Play around with flavors the way a chef would; it's fun to experiment!



"Body" in terms of wine boils down to the way a wine feels in your mouth. A Cabernet Sauvignon has more body than a Moscato because Cab has a lot more tannin and higher alcohol plus a longer finish, so it feels intense and you'll continue feeling the effects of the tannin long after you swallow. A Moscato is lighter and simpler. 


and since you're so sweet, let's talk SUGAR

I didn't cover sugar in my video because I feel it's less important than the first three. But if you're into spicy foods it's definitely relevant! 


The last time you were in over your head with extra-hot wings, I'm sure someone told you to drink fruit juice or milk. Fruit juice is great at quelling spice because it has lots of residual sugar. The grape juice was pressed and never fermented so all of the sugars from the fruit get right to your glass. When wine is fermented the yeast eats the sugar and converts it to alcohol, so if the fermentation finishes there will be no more sugar and plenty of alcohol. However, the winemaker can opt to stop the fermentation in the middle and leave some of the sugar--known as "residual sugar" or "RS". This is popular in cooler regions like Germany where it's desirable for a little bit of RS to make the high acid wines feel less tart. 


Wine that has zero RS is referred to as "dry". Wines that have a little bit are called "off dry" or "medium dry" and if there's a lot left then they just call it "sweet" or "dessert". To make it even easier, an organization called the International Riesling Foundation has created a little scale that some winemakers put on their bottles:


Photo courtesy of Claiborne and Churchill Winery


Wines that are "off dry" will have enough RS to help you with that fire you're breathing after having a spicy curry. But, be wary that sweet is also a type of flavor and if it's not balanced by acid then it can be overwhelming. If you wouldn't put sugar on a turkey sandwich, maybe don't pair a sweet wine with it.


Now you're equipped to put together a match made in a vineyard! Cheers!








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