Are you looking for the ultimate guide to food and wine pairing? It may not exist, but you can rely on sensory science findings instead.
Published March 21, 2023
Is food and wine pairing junk science?
The debate is out there. Many people support the statement that Food and Wine Pairing is Junk Science, an article published in Vinography in 2020.
Other wine aficionados write beautiful books presenting their personal theories.
Because that's what it is. It's personal; it's about their preferences.
I grew up in France, where the old adage was that white wine goes with white fish, and meat, and red wine pairs well with red meat. The rationale was that the flavor intensities should be balanced.
But these beliefs could be challenged.
In a 2020 Australian study, the participants in a food and wine pairing exercise liked the pairing better when the combination was slightly unbalanced in favor of the wine flavor dominating the pair.
I've been fortunate to participate in many winemakers' dinners, where the meal and wine combinations were cautiously crafted. In such a dinner situation, I enjoy the food more than the wine because I like to appreciate each wine by itself.
For me, the combination of food and wine flavors happens after I swallow. I would ask myself: Do the lingering flavors from the food and the wine go well together?
I would notice more often flavor dissonances rather than harmony.
I've shared before that I had never read any scientific evidence explaining what it takes to create a successful food and wine pairing.
And seriously, I rarely have the food and wine in my mouth simultaneously to assess how perfectly the combination works.
However, scientists studying taste and flavor interactions made several discoveries.
Specific taste and flavor combinations are known to suppress or amplify each other.
Sweetness decreases our perception of bitterness (hence adding sugar to coffee) and sourness.
Saltiness and umami tastes enhance the overall flavor of a dish.
The perception of sweet aromatics increases the sensation of sweetness, even though sugar content may not be as high as it seems.
Fattiness suppresses wine astringency; that's maybe why a tannic malbec goes well with a steak.
I also use greek yogurt as a palate cleanser between mouth-drying or hot-spicy foods.
In 2019, French researchers interviewed 10 wine and 10 beer experts performing food and beverage pairing professionally. These participants shared that their pairing method mainly depends on the objective of the pairing, which could be :
to create a unique perceptual experience by combining the two products, or
to highlight one of the two products and make it more attractive, or
to enjoy each of the two products in the pair as much as possible.
It makes sense in a winemakers' dinner for the wines to be the heroes, but I think people try too hard to create unique experiences or for their guests to enjoy both products as much as possible.
However, if the risk of failing your meal and wine pairing stresses you, let me suggest a safe choice: non-vintage champagne, especially if you want your culinary talents to shine.
A 2021 research showed that an appropriate food and wine pairing for American consumers resulted in an increase in flavor intensities overall and a change in wine taste attributes. A preference for wine flavor dominance was observed, and the experience of sensory complexity in the pairing made it more appropriate.
The one recollection of a unique food and wine experience was when I tasted a chocolate dessert with a red wine from the Cote du Rhone, a Rasteau, more specifically.
I hosted in February a virtual event to lead a pairing experiment inspired by a 2012 Italian study.
We tasted two wine styles (Chianti-Rosso di Montepulciano and California Zinfandel matched with two chocolate varying in cacao content (50 % and 70%+).
We tasted the wines first and described their flavors,
Then we selected our favorite red wine, which for all was the Zinfandel.
We then tasted a piece of milk chocolate (50% cocoa content), let it melt a bit, and sipped a bit of Zin.
We cleansed our palate, repeated the experiment with dark chocolate, and later redid the pairing with the Rosso di Montepulciano.
You'll see my tasting notes below. But the key takeaways were:
This experience goes along with the results of several studies showing that sensory complexity is important in the appreciation of food and wine pairing. And wine lovers prefer a slight dominance of the wine flavors over the food.
Rosso di Montepulciano
Cherry, dried fruits
Cocoa, toasted oak, floral-rose, prune
Concentrated flavors, plum, prune, sweet aromatics, fig, cocoa,
Thin mouthfeel, hot alcohol, dry finish
Pairing with milk chocolate
Chocolate milk flavor and sweetness dominate.
Milk flavor and creamy mouthfeel of chocolate dominate
Pairing with dark chocolate
Cherry wine flavors come forward.
Wine flavors mixed with the dark chocolate become more complex.
Participants at the wine tasting event asked these two questions. Here are my answers.
Q: What do you think about these general guidelines to pair by contrast or by similarity?
A: I think it's a safer bet to pair by similarity than by contrast. To me, contrasting means that one item will be so unexpected that it may dominate, pleasantly or not, the match. Most people like familiar flavors. Creating unexpected flavor combinations is okay; however, the new shouldn't dominate the pairing.
Q: Spicy food and wine pairing
There are two kinds of spices, the flavorful ones without heat, like saffron, and the ones exhibiting heat, like red peppers.
The heat is a feeling in the mouth, sometimes a painful sensation. So you want to balance the heat with refreshing products or thick products. So that's why in India, dishes come with yogurt: it's thick, refreshing, and will decrease the heat mouthfeel.
Wine can also exacerbate heat with high alcohol content. So if you match a high-alcohol wine with a hot spicy meal, your mouth will be on fire!
You may consider experimenting with refreshing wines or off-dry wines. I'm not sure there's a perfect match.
Do you have any questions on food and wine pairing?
Please get in touch with me here.