Choosing wines according to basic taste
No plate of food consists of only one ingredient with one singular property. On the contrary, a memorable dish contains several flavors and textures that come together to make a whole. Furthermore, taste is an individual experience where everyone has a different setup of taste buds for enjoying the experience. But it is still possible to single out a suitable wine with your food by having the basic tastes in mind. Some tips that should lead you in the right direction::
Wine with sweet food
Ingredients like sugar, honey and fruit are sweet, but so are many dairy products and vegetables. Not least root vegetables which bring a lot of sweetness into food. A distinct sweetness in food will, in turn, make wine taste less sweet and more bitter and coarse on the tongue. Therefore:
- A general rule is that the wine should be at least as sweet as the food.
- Beer – or wine – with pronounced bitterness will not go well with sweet food.
Wine with acidic food
Acidity in food often comes from vinegar, wine, tomatoes and citrus fruits. Almost all fruits are acidic. Some soured milk products – including some cheeses – also bring acidity to food.
Discernible acidity in food makes accompanying beverages feel less fresh, less bitter and more sweet. A beverage that tends more to towards sweetness than acidity (a wine buff might prefer the word “freshness”) will be experienced as insipid and stale. Therefore:
- Moderately acidic food, for example a casserole with large quantities of wine and tomatoes, will go well with an acidic (fresh and lively!) and dry (as in not sweet) wine.
- Very acidic food, for example a salad with a vinegar-based dressing or a lime-based ceviche, does not really go well with wine at all. A very fresh and very dry rosé might do the job with the salad, but a light lager is a better choice to accompany the ceviche.
Wine with salty food
Salt is dominant in many foods but in few beverages. In most cultures salt has been a method for prolonging the life of food, which has resulted in many salty classics. Pronounced saltiness in food moderates the sensation of sweetness, bitterness and freshness in the accompanying beverage. Therefore:
- With distinctly salty food – for example smoked and salted food – a bitter ale is often the best choice. The salt will have the effect of bringing the bitterness down to a more enjoyable level. But the opposite strategy may also work:
- The best choice to go with cured, salty cheeses is often a sweet wine. The pronounced saltiness in – for example – a blue cheese and the equally pronounced sweetness in – for example – a port wine will balance each other.
- Saltiness will also moderate the coarse feeling on the tongue caused, among other things, by the bitterness of tannins in wine.
Food with salty beverages
To accompany beverages with a hint of saltiness, for example some sherries and some single malt whiskies, any salty food will do. The saltiness in the food will moderate the sensation of saltiness in the beverage, making it more enjoyable.
Wine with bitter food
Bitterness is a taste that is seldom allowed to dominate in any dish of world renown. Many vegetables are bitter, for example lettuce, endives, rocket, radicchio, some kales, white asparagus, artichokes, and more. Smoked food and grilled meats can also be bitter.
Bitterness in food makes the accompanying beverage seem more bitter and coarse on the tongue, more sweet and less fresh. Therefore:
- Although bitterness is hard to combine with wine, a “soft", "rounded" and "balanced” red wine (no extremes in any direction, especially not towards bitter tannins) should do the job best.
- Any bitterness and coarseness on the tongue coming from the wine will be accentuated by the bitterness in the food.
- If the food is still experienced as being too bitter for the wine, a little extra salt and/or lemon (acidity) on the plate might make things better.
Distinct bitterness in drinks is common thanks to the hops in beer. Bitterness in beverage makes the accompanying food seem less sweet, less salty and less fresh. A bitter beer or wine will increase the sensation of coarse bitterness and hotness in food. Therefore:
- Bitter beer, as everyone knows, goes beautifully with salty food.
- A bitter beer is experienced as even more bitter if accompanied by hot (as in spicy) food. A beer with modest bitterness, as in Mexican and Asian beers, is a better choice.
- A red wine with bitter tannins is perfect for “cutting through” the fattiness in rich, red meat and any fatty sauce (béarnaise…) that goes with it.
Wine with umami
The fifth basic taste is known as umami, which is Japanese for ”savouriness” or ”delicious”. It tells the taste buds that the food contains precious proteins.
Umami is a subtle taste enhancer that goes beautifully with almost everything including wine and beer. But foods with a distinct umami punch, for example anchovies, aged cheeses, fermented soy, seaweed and concentrated broths, brings out the bitterness in wine and beer. Therefore:
- Food with conspicuous umami seldom goes well with red wines or bitter beers.
- Asian dishes, which often contain umami rich ingredients such as soy sauce, fish sauce and seaweed, often go best with white wine with a little sweetness and beers with little bitterness.
- The most aged, cured umami bombs on the cheese platter – for example blue cheeses – actually go better with sweet white wines than with red wine.