The Holiday Season is almost here and we know what that means – lots of delicious food to be enjoyed with our favorite wines in the company of our dearest friends and family. But choosing the right wine to complement our holiday meals can sometimes be confusing. We have all heard that we should drink red wine with red meat, and white wine with fish, but why? To understand food and wine pairing, we first need to know the five basic tastes we detect in food that are the basis for pairing with wine: 1) sweetness, 2) saltiness, 3) bitterness, 4) acidity, and 5) umami (savory). So, how do these five flavor components impact your holiday wine pairing?
Sweetness in food can increase the perception of bitterness, astringency, and acidity in wine. Sweetness can also decrease the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in wine. A good general rule with sweet food is to pair it with an even sweeter wine. Think of that holiday apple pie paired with a late-harvest Riesling, an ice wine, or a Sauternes.
Saltiness in food is very friendly in pairing with wine. Salt in food can increase the perception of body and fruitiness in wine while also decreasing the perception of astringency, bitterness, and acidity. Salty food should be paired with wines that are acidic, fruity, and crisp. Classic pairings are briny oysters with Sauvignon Blanc, or popcorn with Chardonnay (one of my favorites). Another holiday favorite is ham which is often a combination of sweet-and-salty flavors. Pair this meal with a crisp Rose, off-dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or a soft fruit-forward Zinfandel, Grenache or Pinot Noir.
Bitterness in food on its own may be tasty, but it can increase the perception of bitterness in wine. Bitter food paired with a tannic red wine will increase the sensation of those tannins in the wine. It is best to pair bitter food with red wines that are low in tannins (such as Pinot Noir) or consider white or rose wines. Consider pairing those holiday Brussel sprouts or arugula salad with a Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay.
Acidity in food is good for pairing with wine. Foods high in acidity will increase the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine. Acidic foods will also decrease the perception of acidity in the wine; therefore, you must pair your acidic food with an equally acidic wine or else your wine will be perceived as “flat” and “flabby.” Acidic wines are also great for pairing with rich and creamy foods which coat the tongue and prevent other flavors from being released. The acidity in the wine cuts through creams, cheeses and rich foods to balance out flavors. A rich and cheesy holiday lasagna with its acidic red sauce pairs lovely with the high acidity of Sangiovese or Chianti.
Umami is a taste that is difficult to isolate and is often described as “savory.” Some examples of umami would be something meaty, mushrooms, corn, cooked tomatoes, seaweed, miso, soy sauce – fermented foods and those high in glutamate (yes, MSG). Umami in food increases the perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity, and the warming sensation of alcohol in the wine. Umami also decreases the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in wine. Umami without accompanying saltiness in food is difficult to pair with wine. However, the combination of umami and salt in food such as cured meats, smoked seafood and parmesan cheese will have less of a harsh effect on the accompanying wine. So, when your holiday meals contain “umami” dishes, make sure to prepare them in a way that adds some salt to the flavors. Good wine choices for foods high in umami are low in alcohol, crisply acidic, fruit-forward and even slightly sweet. Consider a crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, a fruit-forward Pinot Noir or Zinfandel, or even a sparkling Rose with your holiday turkey.
So how does this support the “red wine with red meat” and “white wine with fish” common practice? We all love our hearty Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot along with our aged prime rib of beef served during the holidays. These big reds are softened as the tannins in red wine bind to the proteins in meat, which is often high in salt content as well. Fish can also be high in umami which is why it is often paired with a white wine, being lower in tannin. A tannic red wine with fish would have increased perception of bitterness and astringency.
Serving holiday tamales? Be aware that spicy “chili” heat can increase the perception of bitterness, astringency and acidity, as well as the increase the burning sensation of alcohol in the wine. Foods high in spicy heat will also decrease the perception of body, richness, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine. It is best to serve those holiday tamales with a lower alcohol white wine that has some sweetness and fruitiness while avoiding tannic red wines. Tamales might pair with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, or a Riesling.
I hope you have gained some insight on how the different tastes in food pair well, or not, with some of your favorite holiday meals. Keep in mind, however, that food and wine pairing can be very subjective and a matter of personal preference. During the coming holiday season, I hope you enjoy delicious meals with your favorite wines amongst your dearest friends and family.
Irene Scott – OCWS Wine Education Chair