This tutorial is for the advanced wine lovers who wish to understand the science behind wine & food pairings. If you are just starting to like wine, perhaps you could check out the Wine Basics section of the website first. Otherwise, dive in folks!
Find a Full-Size Version of the Wheel of Walls Here
On the above chart, you can easily identify the 5 elements of structure that are key to the understanding of food & wine pairings:
We will now define each of these elements and explain how to use them while pairing food with wine.
As you probably know if you’ve read the “Grape Tasting” the receptors for acidity are located on the sides of your tongue. These areas will react to various acid levels by watering more or less. This acidity allows us to classify white wines into 3 categories going from light-bodied to medium-bodied and eventually full-bodied.
This classification is based on the acid level in the wine. Because acidity can be balanced by higher sugar levels, it can never be treated on its own but always together with the sweetness. The most important is not the level of acid or sugar in the wine, the most important is the mouthfeel that emerges from the combination of both. A high sharp acid (often malic or citric), that will make the sides of your tongue water a lot, will react to food like lemon juice, and you can easily pair these wines with any dish where you would have squeezed some lemon (i.e grilled fish, roast chicken, roast pork…).
The nature of the acid is also important. On the “Wheel of Walls” chart, you can see various types of acid that can be encountered in wine, let’s briefly go through them:
Tartaric acid: The acid of grapes par excellence, it can sometimes be found under the shape of crystals at the bottom of older wine bottles. It contributes to the tartness of a wine and is the acid used for defining the acidity of a wine. If it helps in getting rid of bacteria and infections in the wine, its aromatic impact is not as great as other acids such as malic or citric.
Lactic acid: originally present in dairy products, this round and creamy/buttery acid is fabricated by lactic acid bacteria during what we call “Malolactic fermentation” (the process where malic acid is turned into lactic acid). Often found in wines made of Chardonnay, Gavi di Gavi, white Rioja and nearly all red wines, it helps giving a smooth mouthfeel to wines. Because of its richer texture, it allows these wines to be paired with creamy or buttery dishes, and in general with dishes where you wouldn’t squeeze lemon juice. For example, if you squeeze lemon juice into cream, it will split, that is why wines with a softer acid like the lactic acid are more suited to creamy dishes.
Very important for red wines, tannins are only rare in white wines and we will focus on reds for this part of the tutorial.
As you can see on the Wheel of Walls, three different elements will help us assess tannins in a red wine:
The tannin level is what allows us to classify a red wine as being light-bodied, if tannins are low, medium-bodied if tannins are slightly higher or full-bodied for a dry red with high tannins.
Overall, as you can see in our “Box Pairing” system, it is also the key to finding the right pairing since we usually pair light-bodied reds such as Pinot Noir, Beaujolais (made of Gamay) or even Garnacha from Spain with lighter dishes and even seafood sometimes. However medium-bodied reds, such as wines made of Merlot, Tempranillo, most Shiraz or the Italian Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, go with slightly richer foods. For the full-bodied reds, such as wines made of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo or most Syrah, we often prefer the strongest dishes like game, blue cheese or richer cuts of beef.
Texture of the Tannins
Once you have narrowed the pairing down to that stage, the texture of the tannins will allow you to fine-tune your choice of red even further. In general, remember that rustic foods need rustic wines. So, strong basic dishes like stews or gravy, or rich traditional French meat dishes, that originate with hunters, often call for harsh tannins. Cahors is a perfect example, made of at least 70% Malbec, it is usually quite tart with firm harsh tannins and needs a few years ageing before it is even enjoyable.
Some techniques can be used to soften the tannins, the most famous probably being oak-ageing. You can find more info in our tutorial “The Oak Ageing”, but let’s say that it opens to a new range of tannin textures like silky, supple, velvety or smooth. Considered finer, these wines are for finer foods. More delicate meat, such as lamb, are more suited to these wines.
In general, whether the ageing happens in oak or in the bottle, older wines will tend to have softer tannins that are also better integrated. Which leads us to the final point about tannins.
Integration of the Tannins
The integration of tannins is extremely important and is proof of the quality of the wine. Some wines feel like their tannins aren’t blending in with the juice, they sometimes feel almost sandy or unbalanced compared to the acidity and the overall body of the wine. If a wine shows tannins that are too high and aren’t integrated, check if the acidity level is high and if there is enough fruitiness and complex aromas. If yes, perhaps laying the bottle down will give it a chance, if not, it is perhaps a poor quality wine that isn’t worth any of your time…
The sweetness level of a wine is technically based on the amount of residual sugars (R.S) left in the bottle. To put it in perspective, we usually talk about a dry wine when residual sugars range between 0 and 4g/L. We consider wines to be sweet when their sugar level exceeds 45g/L, with examples of great dessert wines reaching much higher levels (Sauternes ranges between 150 and 200g/L, Pedro Ximenez or Tokaji sometimes reaching 450g/L and even more in great vintages).
However, if you were trying to dissolve so much sugar into a glass of water, you would quickly reach a saturation point where you cannot mix in any more sugar. Acidity is what allows wine to keep its balance, and in Germany for instance, wines can qualify as Trocken (=dry) if their R.S don’t exceed 4g/L or up to 9g/L if the acid content is no lower than 2g/L below this amount, to offset the sweetness.
On the Wheel of Walls, you can see the full spectrum of sweetness levels going from bone-dry to very sweet, with levels like medium dry (up to 12g/L RS or 18g/L with the right acidity) and medium (up to 45g/L RS). If you are still struggling, click here and check this post out.
When pairing food and wine, it is usually good to keep the sweetness of the food at the same level as the sweetness of the wine. That is to say that food like oysters and other shellfish, that are particularly dry, call for dry wines, whereas some cheese contain a little bit of sweetness from the milk (i.e. some blue cheese, cheddar…) and can be paired with slightly sweeter wines. When it comes to the luscious sweet dessert wines, it can be hard to find a matching sweetness even in most desserts, so I would recommend to pair them with either a high acid dessert (lemon tart…) or to use the wine as the dessert, on its own.
Palate & Body
Both of these elements depend on the acid, tannins and sugar I just spoke about. The palate will be the general mouthfeel given by the texture of the wine, whether it is syrupy for wines high in Residual Sugar, or creamy for those that have undergone a malolactic fermentation. This palate is the sensation that comes from the balance of all previous elements of structure.
The body of the wine is also defined by the other structural elements. We saw that whites have their body defined by their acid content and reds by their tannin content.
The alcohol level also plays an important role in the body of the wine, but since a well-made wine is based on the balance between its alcohol level, acidity and tannins for reds, if the ABV is high, then acidity and, for reds, tannins should be high too.
Now, I hope you guys enjoyed this, and remember that there is no "Absolute Truth" in wine, this is only my opinion. If you guys disagree with this, please start debating with us here. Thanks.
Certified Sommelier (CMS)