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Wine Basics

Wine Basics

Wine and Food Pairing

Wine has the ability to greatly enhance a dining experience. A properly matched wine complements and elevates the flavors of a dish in addition to coaxing out hidden, subtle flavors that may otherwise go undetected.

While there are some purists who are convinced that definitive rules must be followed when it comes to wine and food pairing, most would agree that it is more a matter of individual preference. Part of the fun of food and wine pairing comes with experimentation and learning for yourself where your preferences lie.

Wine Properties

Certain properties of wine can be illustrated by breaking a wine down into descriptive components such as:

  • Body
  • Acidity
  • Sweetness
  • Tannins

These components are used to characterize individual wines and to distinguish one wine from another. Each of these properties varies from wine to wine based on the type of grape used (called the varietal,) the climate where the grapes were grown, and the winemaking process itself. While most people cannot be expected to master all of the details of food and wine pairing, even a minimal understanding of which types of wine pair best with which types of foods is a tremendous asset.

Wine Body

The body, or mouthfeel, of a wine refers to its fullness and weight and how it feels (not how it tastes) in your mouth. Body is related to alcohol content and wines with more alcohol have a fuller body. A wine's body is generally categorized as light, medium, or heavy. An odd, but effective way of understanding this concept is by drawing parallels to milk. Light bodied wines feel similar to non-fat milk in your mouth, somewhat thin and watery, and pair best with foods such as shellfish and light pastas like angel hair with herbs and olive oil. Chablis and Beaujolais Nouveau are good examples of this type of wine.

Medium bodied wines are somewhat heavier and feel similar to whole milk, lightly coating the inside of your mouth as you drink them. These wines are better paired with more hearty, flavorful foods such as Cioppino or pasta with pesto. Pinto Grigio and Pinot Noir are both medium bodied wines.

Full bodied wines can be compared to half and half and often feel thick and almost syrupy in your mouth. They pair best with rich foods and robust flavors, especially those that are higher in fat and protein like steak or pasta with cream sauce. Two examples of full bodied wines are California Chardonnay and French Bordeaux. Dessert wines such as Sauternes or Port have the fullest body of any wine and can be compared to heavy cream in your mouth.

Wine Acidity

Acidity in wine is described as a clean, fresh, juicy flavor and is usually most prevalent in grapes that are grown in colder climates. Acidity is a component that is detected much more clearly in white wine than it is in red because the tannins in red wine often overshadow or mask it. In fact, acidity does this in white wines, just as tannins are what gives red wines their backbone or structure. All wines must contain some level of acid to maintain balance, however. In fruit, acid decreases in grapes as they ripen and their sugars become more developed. The right balance of acid and sugar is necessary to make a good wine and is one of the primary factors that determines when grapes are ready to be harvested.

Acidity in wine is associated with tartness and crispness, and wines that are too low in acid taste dull and flat. Overly acidic wines, on the other hand, are excessively tart and make your mouth pucker and your salivary glands go crazy. Acidity in a wine can affect the flavor of food just as certain foods can alter how acidic a wine tastes. These wines offer a good balance when paired with somewhat acidic foods, such as tomatoes or citrus. They are also perfect for cutting through the richness of fattier foods like those made with butter or cream. When paired with sweet foods these wines tend to taste overly tart and when paired with bitter foods they often appear to be quite bitter themselves. Two examples of acidic wines are Sauvignon Blanc and Barbera.

Wine Sweetness

Sweetness in a wine is best described as the opposite of dryness. Sweetness is determined by how much residual sugar is left in a grape after it has been through the fermentation process (after the sugar in the grapes has been converted to alcohol). Sweetness, as it relates to taste, is affected by the amount of acid, alcohol, and tannins present in a wine; this is how a wine that measures high in sugars can still be drier in taste. Sales of sweet tasting wines have noticeably risen recently in the United States, due in large part to an increase in popularity of ethnic foods. Good example are Vietnamese and Indian cuisines, which are predominantly fragrant and spicy. The sweetness in the wine helps to balance out the heat in this type of food and allows you to taste all of the flavors of a dish and not just the spice. When pairing these wines with sweeter foods the wine actually tastes less sweet because the sugar in the food cancels out the sugars in the wine. German Riesling and Cagnina di Romagna, a wine from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy, are two sweet wines that pair surprisingly well with savory foods.

Wine Tannins

Tannins in a wine come from the skins, seeds, and stems of the grape and are responsible for the structure and backbone of red wines. White wines have very little contact with these parts of the grape and therefore tend to be quite low in tannins. Tannin presents itself as a bitter flavor, or sensation, and can often be quite astringent causing your mouth to dry out and pucker. A cup of tea in which the tea bag has steeped too long has the same effect. As wine ages, the intensity of tannins mellows, which explains why many red wines are meant to age in the bottle for years before they are ready for consumption. As tannins fade, the fruit flavors in the wine become more complex, ultimately resulting in a wine with solid structure and a mellow flavor.

Tannins also act as a preservative, which allows these wines to age properly without going bad. Younger wines have much higher tannins than those that have been allowed to mellow and balance out. Tannic wines pair well with red meats that have some fat on them, such as a New York steak, lamb chops, or pasta with a rich meat ragu. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends are two of the most popular types of these wines.

Wine Aroma: Defining the Bouquet

Detecting aromas in wine is one of the most subjective parts of wine tasting as well as one of the most difficult components of wine and food pairing. While matching a wine's aroma to food is not the most crucial part of the pairing process, when it does happen it can elevate the wine and food combination to another level. Matching the peach undertones of a Gewurtztraminer to a dish that contains peaches, for example, intensifies the peach flavors in both.

There are an infinite number of aromas found in wine ranging from pepper, soil, and nuts to strawberries, grass, and herbs and well beyond. Each aroma offers great cues as to which flavors pair well with these wines. It is somewhat difficult to pick up a glass of wine for the first time and discern what it is you smell or taste, but it is a skill that can be learned and that vastly improves with practice. Once you are more confident in identifying aromas and flavors in wines you will be surprised at how much more adept you become at pairing wine with food.

Wine Pairing Considerations

Some final factors are worth taking into consideration when undertaking the task of food and wine pairing. If your goal is to sample numerous wines throughout a meal, or over the course of an evening, then you need to consider the intensity of the flavors before you begin. Just as the foods and flavors in a meal tend to start out light and become more complex as the meal progresses, so should the flavors of the wines. Start out with wines that are lighter in body and higher in acid and increase the intensity as you go. Wines that are richer in flavor, aged in oak, sweeter, higher in tannins, and more complex should be consumed with the latter part of the meal.

Often a good way to determine which foods pair well with certain wines is to consider where the wines originate. Long before transporting wine was a common practice most wines were consumed in the region in which they were grown and produced. These wines were made in such as way as to pair well with traditional foods of that region and dishes were created to match the grapes and style of wines made there. It is therefore a safe bet that by preparing foods that are common in a certain region you will most likely have a perfect match for the wines that are produced there.

The Recipe for Success

Check out the recipes to the right for some great examples of food and wine pairing!

About the Author

After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.