In wine and food pairing, a lot of attention is given to flavor matching. We seek wines that match the flavor profile of the dish. Earthy wines go with earthy foods, herbaceous wines with a salad, wines with a briny flavor note go with seafood, etc. While this relationship is important to create that magical synergy that the best pairings have I think it’s a mistake to begin with this relationship. It’s seldom the case that your choice of wine will have a negative influence on your food. But it’s rather common for food to ruin the flavor of wine. And its taste, not flavor, that is the culprit in pairing disasters. In other words, the most important thing to know is how the presence of the 5 basic tastes in your dish will impact the wine.
Here are the basic relationships to know:
1. The most important factor to assess is how sweet your dish is. Sweet food will make your wine taste thin and sour. Serve a sweet sauce with a $150 Barolo and you might as well pour the wine down the drain. The wine must be sweeter than your food.
2. Foods with high acid (sour or tart foods) will make the wine taste sweeter and softer. Try tasting a bit of lemon with a wine to observe this effect. The sourness in the food seems to mask the sourness in the wine.
3. Salt also makes wine tastes softer and brings out fruit notes. Is there anything better than potato chips with sparkling wine?
4. Bitter foods will boost the bitterness and astringency of a wine, especially red wines with lots of tannins. Try walnuts with a young, tannic wine to observe this. Bitter foods are better served with white wines that lack tannins.
5. Umami can be tricky. Umami will boost every flavor. That can be good or bad. Umami can boost bitterness and acidity throwing the wine out of balance. It can make oaked wines taste too oaky. But umami also boosts umami. Foods full of umami can make an aged wine taste wonderful because aged wines have lots of umami.
Of course the amount and intensity of a taste and how dominant it is will be crucial information to think about.
This is obviously not all there is to wine pairing. Matching the weight of food and wine is important as well. But if you keep in mind these basic relationships you can avoid most pairing disasters.