Taste and Flavor for Food and Wine Pairing

My purposes for this blog are several including a great excuse to enjoy great food and wine, explore food and wine pairings I have not yet experienced, uncover the “why” of food and wine pairing that creates a sensation greater than the sum of it’s parts, and of course to enjoy making it all look good through photography.  The purpose of this article is to begin discussing our experience of taste and flavor to lay the foundation for understanding why food and wine pairings work – or don’t.

For those of you who already have a solid understanding of this, I apologize.  However, among my group of friends and others who have written to me, I know that the understanding of pairings vary dramatically; from those who are eager learners to those who are more skilled than I am.  I trust everyone will find a grain of useful information.

To begin the discussion I want to focus on taste and flavor.  While some argue the distinction between taste and flavor is splitting hairs, I believe there is good reason to distinguish and hope to make the case here.  We are all aware of the five basic tastes; sweetness, bitterness, sourness, saltiness and the less well understood and more recent acknowledgement in western cuisine – umami.  And this story of tastes is a debate that has not yet ended.  Consider the flavor of piquance that comes from the Spanish word “picante” which reflects our sensation of spiciness – as in spicy hot – a taste with roots in Chinese, Indian, and Japanese cuisine.   Personally, I like the expanded definition of tastes; it gives us more and better ways to describe our experience.  For our less than scientific purposes, we will admit all six.
Because umami is less well understood in Western culture, let me take just a moment to talk about it.  Umami comes from the Japanese and means a pleasant savory taste.  Some research suggests that rather than a distinct taste, umami refers to a distinctive quality or completeness of flavor which in the West we would generally describe as savory or simply delicious.  Personally, I generally use it as a declaration of particularly delicious food like a steak fresh off the grill when I exclaim “ooooooh mommy!”  Umami is common among proteins, like the NY strip steak I just seared and grilled to perfection, and vegetables – think of ripe tomatoes, eggplant, fish, mushrooms, soy sauce, and spinach.  When you think of these foods, you can imagine the mild and pleasing taste that is difficult to describe.  Just thinking about it starts the salivation with flavors concentrated in the back of the mouth.

While on the subject of umami, a good question is whether we experience umami in wine.  The answer is yes!  But unfortunately it is not commonplace.  Umami develops in wines that are at the peak of maturity and quality and typically appear in wines that have been treated with extreme care and involve artisanal methods such as barrel or cuve fermentation,  malolactic fermentation, extended barrel development, bottling with no filtration, and aging in temperature and humidity controlled cellars.  Chances of experiencing umami in wine increase with bottle aged wines in the three to ten year range.  The debate of umami and wine continues to rage – mostly because of the chemical-receptor processes involved (too deep for me!), but I am confident I have experienced it.   A recent umami experience with umami in both the wine and the food came with my Ghost Block Cabernet Sauvignon pairing with lamb from the Decanting Napa Valley cookbook.  That was a serious ooooh mommy moment.  Finally, don’t expect to find umami flavors in young fresh wines.  These wines focus on the tastes that generally do not include umami.  When it comes to umami and wine, think of mature rather than fresh.

But when we experience food, these basic tastes are just the start.  Other strong contributors to our experience include smell, texture, temperature and the visual component.  I won’t dwell on the visual component, but I am confident we have all had the pleasure of a beautiful dish (or not so much) that affected our expectations and therefore influenced our judgment of the flavor.  This brings up an important point; the difference between taste and flavor.  Taste refers to the receptors that send a signal to the brain.  Flavors are the more complex combination of all these additional components.  In other words, when you take your first bite of a perfectly prepared and plated foie gras, the combination of appearance, aroma, texture, taste, and temperature all contribute to your experience and judgment of flavor.  It is this integration of the senses that compose the flavor.  This helps explain why we describe wine in terms of flavors (fruit, citrus, acidity, earth, fresh, dark, deep, spice, and so on) rather than taste.  

Another way to think about it is understanding taste as physical (bitter, sour, salty, sweet, umami) and flavor is the sum of our perceptions from all these tastes plus the aroma, texture, temperature, and appearance.  Flavor is cognitive – meaning it is the recognition that happens post-sensory.  Taste is a finite chemically induced piece of information, while flavor is infinite mental construct which can also include intangibles of memory and place such as that bite of lobster macaroni and cheese that takes you back fondly to a New England dockside food shack with lobster boats bobbing in the distance.

To wrap up this first installment of our basis behind food and wine pairing, the conclusion is that flavors are complex and infinite.  The good news is that with an infinite (ok, maybe almost infinite) set of flavors and flavor combinations, we have lots of room for making food and wine pairing an extremely pleasurable experience.  In future posts we will look at flavor descriptions, flavor and aroma, and some of the rules of thumb that help us understand why pairings work – or don’t.

Rules of Thumb:

1. Don't Outshine the Food-The wine you drink should compliment your meal, not overpower it. With an extravagant meal pair a good, but subtle wine...and if you want the wine to be the star, simplify your food, purposely making it second fiddle.

2. Acid is a Good Thing-Acidity is the key in great wine pairing. Acid in a wine can pronounce the flavors of individual ingredients, cut down rich, fatty, oily or salty foods, and refresh your palate. It acts like the lemon wedge on your plate; one squeeze and the whole dish is amplified!

3. Opposites Attract-Having two contrasting profiles can create an amazing balance. Spicy food (i.e. Indian, Korean BBQ, Thai) goes wonderfully with a sweeter wine, such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer, or for reds, a nice fruity Zinfandel or Grenache. Salty foods go with sweet wines as well; it kills off a lot of the excess sodium. Like a chocolate-covered pretzel...it just works!

4. Stick With Your Own Kind-It may sound obvious, but generally a specific regional cuisine will pair well with a wine from the same country. For instance, pairing Sicilian food with a Chianti Classico or Super Tuscan is the perfect match. It's synergy when you eat Prime Rib with a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a Spanish Albariño with Paella, or French Burgundy with Coq au Vin.

5. Tannins like Fat-When you have wine with heavy tannins (those things that make your mouth dry and your lips pucker), it's good to eat something high in protein, fat, and with a slight bitterness (i.e. sharp cheeses, arugula, grilled meats); it cuts the richness of the meal right in half.

6. The Alcohol Matters-High alcohol wines carry so much weight (i.e. Zinfandel, Dessert Wines) that if you pair them with a super-heavy meal, you will need to be rolled out of the restaurant on a two-wheeler. Full-bodied, high alcohol wines are usually harder to pair with a complete meal because they overwhelm a lot of different foods. Many sommeliers have an easier time pairing low to medium-bodied wines because they can accompany many more options.