Food + Wine: Finding the Right Balance
When the right wine is combined with the right food, a whole new experience can emerge. Some elements in the wine will interact with elements on the plate and, by working together, create something new.
The art of pairing food and wine is about finding the right balance between structural elements in the food and structural elements in the wine. So, what is it you have to focus on? Most people think that the aromas in a wine are the key to food pairings, when really, they should be looked at as a Bonus. Let’s find out what the important stuff is…
Walls & Paint
In order to understand what really matters in food & wine pairings, you need to get your head around the different components of wine. They can be broken down into 2 categories:
- Structural Elements
- Aromatic Elements
The first ones are what really matters with food!
The Structural Elements are like the walls & foundations of the house, they are the “body” of wine. As a matter of fact, depending on their levels, we consider the wine to be light-bodied, medium-bodied or full bodied.
Think of a house, if the structural elements are the walls, aromas are the decoration. When it comes to pairing food and wine, if you rely on the decoration but let the walls collapse, you will be left empty-handed very soon… The structural elements are the following:
Astringency (Tannins + Oak Ageing)
Bitterness is sometimes referred to in some manuals, but I personally think that it doesn’t belong to wine. Bitterness is expressed at the back of the throat, it is a defining element of beer.
These elements work in balance with each other, resulting in a wine that can be either harmonious if well-made, or unbalanced if poorly made. Let’s take a look at how they interact with each other.
Sweetness VS Acidity/Astringency
Sweetness is balanced by both acidity & astringency. The latter is mostly found in red wines (as it generally comes either from the tannins of black grapes or from extended oak ageing, more common in reds). Acidity is present in both white wines & red wines.
Experiment #005: Sweetness VS Acidity
You need: 1 litre of water, 50 grams of sugar, 1 lemon, two glasses & a spoon to stir.
To understand this balance of sweetness with acidity, try the following simple experiment:
dissolve 50 grams of sugar into 1 litre of water (roughly entering equivalent sugar levels to most dessert wines)
Squeeze some lemon juice into another glass on the side
Have a sip of the sweet water, see how sweet it feels
Rinse your mouth with a bit of lemon juice (you don’t have to drink it, you can spit it out)
Try the sweet water again and see how much of the perception of sweetness has decreased
Acidity will reduce the overall perception of sweetness, so that the higher the acidity levels are, the lower the perception of the sweetness will be.
Keep that in mind for your food & wine pairings:
For acid-based cuisine (tomato sauce, olive oil, fresh goats cheese, lemon & butter sauce, lemon tart…), the sweetness in the wine will be less perceived. So most wines will end up tasting quite sour & unbalanced. Two choices can be made: prefer either off dry wines with slightly more sugars in them OR prefer fuller bodied wines that have a higher acidity (more full-bodied)
For sweet food (tropical fruit, apple, pears, desserts…): the acidity in the wine will seem lower than it actually is, potentially leading to quite a flabby mouthfeel. Prefer wines with higher acidity OR always make sure that the wine is slightly sweeter than the food (not to be overpowered). Some sweet foods are easier to pair than others, due to their higher acid content. That is true for white fruits (apple, pear…), stone fruit (apricot, peach…) & some cheeses (lactose is a sugar, acidity levels can vary with longer affinage, check So’s tutorial on the cheese families for more info)…
Acidity Loves Fish!
It is so obvious, what would most people squeeze on the top of grilled fish or seafood? Lemon juice! And what is lemon juice? Pure evil acid!
It is known that acidity helps enhancing the taste of fish and seafood, and to a certain extent, roast white meat too (you can squeeze lemon on roast chicken or roast pork too). That very acidity, contained in mouth-watering whites like those made of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling or Albarino (and many more!), is key to a successful pairing! Find out more about cool pairings with my Box Pairing System!
Experiment #006: Sweetness VS Astringency (Tannins)
You need: some black grapes, a knife & a chopping board
A bit like the grape tasting (check it out here), we are going to compare the various elements in this little berry and see how they interact with each other:
Peel off one black grape
Chew the pulp and see how sweet does it feel?
After that, chew a whole black grape (with the skin and all), see how the astringency of the tannins in the skin reduce the perception of sweetness?
The idea here is to show you that sweetness & astringency work in balance. That is to say that more sweetness in the food can hide the tannins of the wine and the other way around, more tannins in the wine can lower the perception of the sweetness in the food.
More and more wine drinkers today prefer youthful, easy-drinking & quite powerful reds with soft juicy tannins. To achieve this style, winemakers can allow the grapes to ripen a little more than usual and use the natural higher sugar levels to hide the more austere tannins.
You know the old “mmmmmmm” moment when you have a slice of good stinky cheese with a glass of big red? (am I being too French?..) Cheese contains a natural sugar called lactose, which is the sugar of milk. When this sugar binds with the tannins in the wine, this leads to the “wow” moment of pure perfection…
Astringency (Tannins) Hates Acidity!
These two are the basic enemies in wine, somehow, they start fighting on our tongue and give us contradictory orders.
Acidity makes the sides of your tongue water
Astringency tends to dry your gums & the backsides of your tongue
When you mix the two, your poor tongue doesn’t know how to react… Shall it water? Shall it go dry?... It’s lost and it starts moaning to your brains…
Winemakers have figured that out a long time ago, forcing all red wines to undergo what is called a Malolactic fermentation (post to follow), that lowers the sharpness of acidity to leave room to the astringent tannins.
For food & wine pairings, this is why your rustic reds with high tannins WILL NOT like fish. Fish contain natural acids in their oil. While these are good for you, they fight the tannins and sometimes give the wine a metallic taste.
Surprise your Guests: Fish & Red Wine!
If you wish to pair red wine with fish (which can be done), prefer light bodied reds with low tannins, such as Pinot Noir, Beaujolais (made of Gamay grape) or some Spanish Garnacha.
One way of killing the last bits of tannins they might contain is to chill the red for about 20 to 30 minutes. More food & wine pairings made easy can be found in my “Box Pairing System”.
Astringency (Tannins) Love Fat & Meat Proteins!
I was probably a tannin in another life, because I love creamy sauce and a nice grilled meat too… What happens when you pair a big red that has lots of tannins with a creamy dish is pretty much the same as what happens when you pour a drop of milk into your long-infused black tea.
Tea contains tannins & by adding milk (fat & lactose, which is sugar), you will force them to bind with it and develop a rounder, richer mouthfeel. That’s why they usually taste lovely together!
When it comes to meat proteins & tannins, one of the most disgusting things of the Wine World is what should help you to understand it… Do you remember going to a wine tasting and looking down at the spittoon with horror, trying to hide as you were spitting out the lovely red you just tried? All these horrible bits of saliva in suspension on the surface? These are proteins that have merged with the tannins in the wine, just like those in a steak would. Your tongue, after drinking the red, feels smooth & silky, and the same would happen with a piece of meat, only much better!
You only have to remember that fat and meat proteins both lower the perception of tannins, so that you need a red wine that has more tannins to pair with them, or else it will feel like it’s too weak…
Alcohol: Some Like it Hot…
There is something with alcohol that can sometimes gives you a little bit of a burn… When a wine has a high ABV, it can “heat up” the back of your throat, tongue & even your nostrils as you breathe.
Just like sweetness is balanced by acidity & astringency, alcohol itself is balanced by all of them. If a wine has a high ABV (13.5%+), it needs to have higher levels of acidity, astringency and perhaps a touch of sweetness to hide it.
If a wine has too much of any of these four structural elements, then it is unbalanced, not enjoyable.
Spicy Food Hates High Alcohol
We often refer to spicy food as “hot & spicy”, because it does give you a sensation of heat already. If you add the heat of a high ABV wine on top of it, it will just be unbearable…
For spicy foods, prefer low ABV wines. And why not slightly off dry wines? Sweetness tames the burn of spicy foods. Try it at home, if you eat something too spicy, have a spoonful of caster sugar, it will instantly reduce the sensation of heat. On top of that, since sugar is what becomes alcohol in wine, off dry wines often have lower ABVs, as some of the sugars remained in the wine instead of becoming alcohol.
That is pretty much the science behind food and wine pairings. For a more advanced explanation of each of these structural elements, check out my other posts in the “Somm Advice” section.
Now that we have seen all of these boring bits, it’s time to properly focus on the cool stuff: matching food and wine!!!
Certified Sommelier (CMS)