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The Basic Principles of Food and Wine Matching
By Randal Caparoso©

Foods and wines are matched in the exact same way as the way they are tasted: on the palate, where it comes together. In other words, you match wine the same way that you match anything that tastes good together.

Take, for instance, a large scoop of icy cold, creamy sweet vanilla ice cream, which is made all the better with a generous scoop of hot chocolate syrup. The match works because both are soft and sweet, and the chocolate adds its own unique flavor ("chocolate!") plus a fun, contrasting sensation, hot vs. cold.

But are we ready to eat? Maybe not, because we all like even a little more complexity in our food, which we can get by adding slices of banana, for more soft sweetness plus the contrasting flavor of "banana", and light, airy whipped cream, sweetness again plus another textural contrast. But we're still not done: who can do without the chopped walnuts (another nice contrast without the similarity of sweetness) and, of course, the maraschino cherry for the final sweet, contrasting touch?

Oh, I've forgotten - we still need that cold glass of milk to wash it all down. But why not orange juice? That doesn't usually work because the flavor and acidity of oranges represent a little too much contrast for most people. Not that it can't be done, but for most of us orange juice and banana split is just not a "good match."

Which is exactly how foods and wines are matched: with a little common sense, and a lot of personal preference. Whether you are preparing a dish for a wine, or selecting a wine for a dish, I find that it's helpful to know and understand the following six basic principles of making a match:

1st Principle: Wine Is a Food

All food and wine matching is more easily understood when the taste components of wines are thought of in the same way as ingredients in a dish. Just like good cooking involves a balancing of ingredients and technique, good wine/food matching involves focusing on how specific components in wines interact and achieve a sense of balance and harmony with specific components in dishes.

2nd Principle: The Five Basic Taste Sensations

That is to say, what your taste buds perceive, whether you are tasting wine or food:

  • Sweetness - Related to amount of residual sugar in both foods and wines; sensed by taste buds located towards at the tip of the tongue
  • Sour/tartness - Degree of acidity in both foods and wines (more so in whites than in reds); tasted at the center and sides of the tongue
  • Saltiness - Not a significant component in wine, but important in how a wine relates to it in foods; tasted somewhere in the center of the tongue
  • Bitterness - Tasted in many foods, and in the tannin content of red wines (to a lesser degree in whites); tasted towards the rear of the tongue
  • Umami - The flattering, amino acid related sense of "deliciousness" found in many foods, and to a limited extent in wines (location of "umami taste buds" on palate indeterminate)
3rd Principle: Key Tactile Sensations

Like the hot/cold of chocolate syrup and ice cream, these are some key factors in many food/wine matches:
  • Density, body or weight - The sense of light vs. heavy contributed by proteins, fats and/or carbs in foods, and primarily related to degree of alcohol content in wines (bolstered by tannin in reds)
  • Soft/crisp textures - Tactile contrasts in foods; and in wines, smooth or easy vs. hard, sharp or angular
  • Spicy/hot - Feel of heat when chiles, peppers or horseradishes are used in foods; not felt as a tactile sensation in wines, but suggested in aromas and flavors or "spice" notes
4th Principle: Flavor Is Aroma Related

Without the sense of smell, neither foods nor wines have "flavor." Example: the taste and tactile sensations in an apple, a pineapple, and an onion are similar in that they are all sweet, crisp yet juicy, with some degree of acidity, but they all give a distinctly different flavor perceived through the sense of smell.

By the same token, both Cabernet Sauvignon and a Petite Sirah are two types of red wine that tend to be dark, full bodied, dry, and fairly hard in tannin; but the Cabernet gives aromas and flavors of herbal, minty, berry/cassis aromas and flavors, whereas the Petite Sirah gives ripe berry/blueberry and black peppercorn-like aromas and flavors.

5th Principle: The Two Ways Foods & Wines Are Successfully Matched

Two gastronomic pioneers of the 1980s, David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson, deserve full credit for first formulating these two self-evident concepts for food and wine:
  • Similarities - When there are similar taste sensations in both a dish and a wine For example: the buttery sauce in a fish dish enhanced by the creamy or buttery texture of an oak barrel fermented white wine
  • Contrasts - When sensations in a wine contrast with sensations in a dish to positive effect (example: the sweetness of a white wine balancing the saltiness of a dish like ham or cured sausage, and vice-versa)
6th Principle: Intrinsically Balanced Foods & Wines Make the Best Matches

No matter what your personal taste, invariably you discover this natural occurrence: the easiest foods and the easiest wines to find a match for are the ones with their own intrinsic sense of harmony and balance. This is because taste buds and sensations of tactile qualities work for you collectively. When you add salt to a pineapple, for example, you not only make the pineapple salty, you also increase the sensation of sweetness and decrease the sensation of sourness. But when it comes to food as it relates to wine, it is always easier to match a dish that does not need as much alteration of taste (like throwing salt on a pineapple) to make it taste better; and vice-versa in the way a wine relates to food. It is easier to find matching components of similarity and contrast in foods and wines that are already well balanced.

This is not to say that a young, overly bitter or hard textured Cabernet Sauvignon cannot be served with food. But it does narrow your food choices somewhat: instead of a lamb chop finished with a sweet natural plum reduction or a slightly salty, spice scented Asian marinade - ingredients that can make gamy lamb more interesting, but increase a young Cabernet's toughness - you are probably relegated to simply grilling the lamb to a slight char to, at the very least, reduce the drying effect of the wine's tannins, and serving it with a more neutral sauce (if any) made with Cabernet and the lamb's own natural juices.

Then again, if the Cabernet is extremely rough to the point that it is barely drinkable, not even the simplest piece of charred meat will help it taste better. The same thing for a lamb chop that is drenched in a sauce or marinade that is too sweet, too salty, too spicy hot or sour: the palate knows when a dish is unbalanced, and so even the finest, smoothest, most elegantly balanced Cabernet Sauvignon will not make that poorly prepared lamb taste better.

After this, it's all a matter of actual tasting, and soon becoming familiar with the wines we like - just as we continue to discover delicious, new foods - followed by the combinations that make the most sense to you. The nice thing is the fact that the variations in both foods and wines are virtually endless, and so it will always be as much fun as you want it to be.


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