A Puzzle about Pairing Wine and Barbecue

burnt endsAccording to the standard rules for pairing food and wine, there should be no dry red wine that will pair well with sweet barbecue sauce. Food that is much sweeter than the wine you’re drinking will typically make the wine taste thin and sour and will do nothing for the food. But this is why pairing principles should be thought of as guidelines rather than rules. There are always exceptions.

This past weekend I was smoking Kansas City style burnt ends which needs the classic Kansas City style, molasses-based sauce, to which I added honey and brown sugar for complexity. This is a really sweet sauce and hot and spicy as well.

Zinfandel is the standard recommendation for wine with barbecue. I wanted to put this recommendation to the test because there is no way this should work.

I picked up an ordinary supermarket Zinfandel from Cline Cellars—not bone dry but not sweet enough to be considered off-dry. Yet the result was outstanding.  The sauce brought out fruit notes in the wine; the wine seemed to blend with the sauce adding depth to the overall experience. The wine suffered no loss of flavor or texture.

So what is going on here? What is it about Zinfandel that enables it to stand up to and enhance sweet barbecue sauce?

The wine was very spicy with lots of pepper on the nose and palate. So there was a flavor match with the barbecue sauce. And this particular Zinfandel had unusually robust acidity (for a Zin) which matched the acidity of the sauce, to which I had added cider vinegar and lemon juice. Matching the acid levels is always a crucial element of good food and wine pairings. I’ve noticed that when the acid levels in the wine and food are roughly equal the perception of tartness recedes making other flavors more salient. But neither of these factors explains why a dry wine would go with this sweet food.

My hypothesis is that the crucial element was alcohol. The Zinfandel was 15% and the alcohol was quite obvious on the palate. For some reason we sometimes perceive alcohol as sweet.

There is in fact evidence that some people are genetically disposed to perceive alcohol as sweet. But this genetic variation is not common and in other contexts I haven’t noticed perceiving alcohol as particularly sweet. Thus, I’m not sure genetics is the right explanation.

Perhaps the answer lies in this research:

A lot of research has been done on the effect of ethanol in wine, especially since trends in the industry have come to favor alcohol-heavy wines…. the immediate effect of increased alcohol content in wines is enhanced bitterness, slightly increased sweetness and a somewhat increased burning sensation. On top of that, researchers have also found ethanol to decrease sourness in these contexts.

Perhaps the sweetness of the barbecue sauce masks the bitterness of the alcohol allowing the sweetness of the alcohol to become more salient while reducing perceptions of sourness. I have no idea how plausible this is but it’s the only explanation I can think of.

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