Basic Techniques of Wine Pairing

Basic Techniques of Wine Pairing, by Irina Ponomarenko

In selecting a beverage to go with a meal, a diner is often faced with conflicting advice: recommendations for as simple a dish as a grilled steak range from a smooth Merlot to a tannic Tannat.  Suggestions for pairing chocolate run the gamut from Moscato d’Asti to Cognac.  If still unsure, the diner is instructed to simply select his or her favorite wine.  The majority of servers are still not well-trained in the concepts of pairing - one hopes for a trained floor somm to come to the rescue.

A harmonious pairing consists of finding the right balance between contrasting and complementary elements of food and wine.  The majority of sensations perceived in food require the opposite sensation in the wine, a contrasting pairing.

The WSA/NASA patented food and wine pairing system, used in sommelier curricula taught around the world for over 70 years, establishes the concept of hard and soft qualities in wine - hard being acids, tannins and minerals and soft comprised of sugars, alcohol and poly-alcohol (glycerines). The degree of any of these qualities in evaluating wine will determine food pairing.  We evaluate the foods in another system, which graphs the degree of fattiness, spice, minerals/salts - but still consider hard and soft qualities in the foods.

Then the concept of pairing in contrast OR concordance is revealed. It is a method that sounds unromantic, lacking in sensuality - but the principle helps students stop guessing and start training and trusting their senses.

Take for example sour, salty, spicy or bitter flavors in food; these create a certain aggressiveness on the palate. A smooth wine softens and balances the “hard” profile of such dishes.  

On the other hand,  a tannic wine, or a wine with high acidity and/or minerality accentuates the corresponding flavors in the dish making the combination one-dimensional.  A tannic wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Tannat, makes a spicy dish taste even hotter, and a piece of charred grilled meat somewhat bitter.  A softer wine, perhaps a Zinfandel, will dampen the flames and smooth out the bitterness.  Champagne, which is high in acidity and minerality, may emphasize the saltiness and mask the delicate flavors of caviar, while a smooth vodka will showcase them.

Wines with substantial alcohol content and high tannins produce a drying sensation in the mouth.  To balance the combination, we need juicy, succulent food: a beef stew with a Barolo.

Creamy, fatty, or starchy dishes will be dulled by a low-acid wine. To balance the softness of the dish, we need a more “angular” wine.  Acidity, minerality, or effervescence create the perception of removing the fat from the mouth.  Riesling is a great example of a wine high in both acidity and minerality, that goes well with a variety of German dishes rich in both starch and animal fats.

Sweet food requires sweet wine.  A sweet dessert will simply strip a dry wine of its flavors.  
Food and wine should be comparable in body and intensity of flavor.  A full-bodied or aromatic wine will dominate a light dish, and vice versa. For example, Moscato d’Asti is an aromatic but light-bodied wine that can be overwhelmed by the density of white chocolate.  A simple sponge cake is a better pairing.  -end-

Intrigued by this system? Talk to us about our Silver Pin Sommelier Certification, which includes a week-long pod on pairing food with wines.