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Introduction to Pairing and Components

As a sommelier everyone wants you to pair and it’s a tricky beast. Trying to somehow objectify the pretty much completely subjective nature of personal tastes is a steep and slippery slope.  Many of us spend our lives developing this skill only to be pleasantly surprised or disappointed with pairing that defy our own learned conceptions. But why are our perceptions even worth being a baseline to another? Different people like different things. Sadly we are often in the position of punting, Burgundy always works…

As Tim Hanni (one of the USA’s first MWs) says ““A perfect wine pairing doesn’t exist. We’re doing a lot of damage the way we’re matching wine and categorising it. We need to start a campaign to stop wine and food pairing as we’ve created a lot of bullsh*t around the idea….” Imagine if you were the foremost expert in rating orange juice, and the best, most expensive orange juice was the one you had first thing in the morning after brushing your teeth? What would you rate it? Our body chemistry is not static, our responses to stimuli are not perfectly consistent.

So a simple medium-rare Steak Au Poivre with roasted spring carrots? Ok, you can find a wine to complement the filet, or the pepper sauce or the carrots, but really only to an individual palate. What’s your pleasure?? So is it hopeless? Maybe, but there are at least some basic tenets that you can hopefully use as a box of tools to make the perfect home for a stranger…

For those who have been through WSET certifications you will be familiar with pairing concepts according to a dish’s sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami components. For those not familiar with umami, it is a dish’s savory element. For me it’s a richness that is almost tactile in the way its perceived but is actually not physically tangible. If you have the CSW, basic pairing is not included in the syllabus. If you have not done a simple component exercise with salt, citric acid (usually lemons), pepper (red pepper flakes), MSG (or cooked, unseasoned shittake mushrooms) and sugar it is highly advised to try these basic components against a variety of wines to gain a foundation on the chemical and sensory reactions occurring that occur. 

Salt is your friend. Salt makes pretty much all wines taste better. Just try it with Muscadet and a California red blend.

Sugar is not your friend. You usually want your wine sweeter than the dish. Sweetness in food enhances tannins/bitterness, dryness and acidity in wine while subduing any sweetness or softness in the wine. For many Americans, sweetness in popular wines is masked by high alcohol so that “dry” Central Valley Zin blend will in reality have 18 g RS and be able to work with desserts or fruit where a truly dry, low RS wine would be destroyed.

Acid is a fair weather friend. Acid in food generally moderates acid perception in wine making wine richer and smoother. Acid in food tends to elevate tannin making lean, dry wines even more austere. Lower acid wines can taste flat and heavy on the palate but squeeze a lemon into flabby California Chardonnay and you may find the wine improves and moves into greater balance. 

Umami in food will amplify bitterness, tannin and acidity in wine. Luckily umami seldom exists without salt or acid to mitigate its effects. A touch of MSG on your tongue can help you isolate the specific nature of umami. Certain sweeter wines with moderate acid can go toe to toe in this arena with surprising success.

Sulfur compounds in Brussel Sprouts and Asparagus etc are disastrous for most wines, however we’ve seen Muscadets, Sherries and drier Madieras work quite well.

Fat is almost always welcome at the party. Less of a flavor and more of a texture, the cloying oiliness that brings instant satiety to most humans but can stick to your mouth and throat gets lifted back into solution and washed away with acid. Fat counters tannin’s drying effect, While a sweet wine doesn’t usually help fat, there is a hedonistic gluttonous pleasure that can work but is easily overdone for most palates. The Fois Gras and Sauternes pairing can be delicious but after about 5 bites it starts to be a struggle.