Easy in this instance is a relative term. Nonetheless, there are a number of methods applied to pairing wine to food. Some are laden with rules, but others incorporate common sense into the method. The starting point for any methodology is deciding what the focus will be; wine paired to a special dish, or food paired to the special wine. A pairing can contrast or compliment flavors or do both.
One simple strategy is to pair regional foods with regional wines. An Italian Barolo from Piedmont pairs wonderfully with northern Italian cuisine, such as wild game and risotto. A Loire Valley Muscadet and briny oysters are heavenly. Argentine Malbec is definitely home on the range with Pampas beef.
Pairings are always easier and better with food friendly wines. Some wines are best standalone, others best with food and still others able to bridge both. The wines should have good acidity, balanced alcohol, integrated tannins when present, and light on the oak please. For example, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has razor sharp acidity and no oak to mute the fruit flavors.
One pairing method used by many chefs is to match to the five principal tastes on our palate. Those are sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami. Some examples will follow, but first a discussion on umami.
Umami was discovered in 1908 by Professor Ikeda at Tokyo Imperial University. He isolated this elusive taste when eating a traditional Japanese broth that featured seaweed, which contains the active ingredient glutamic acid, or glutamate. Umami is sometimes defined as savory as in Miso, soy sauce and mushrooms. Also found in cooked tomatoes, cured meats and aged cheeses.
When dealing with salty foods like potato chips a popular choice is Champagne or sparkling wine. The acidity of the wine cuts into the salts and oils of the chips. On the other hand, pairing chips with a very tannic red wine would turn one’s mouth into a desert. The red wine would be much happier with a big steak where the fats and juices of the steak harmonize with the tannins and bitterness of a Cabernet Sauvignon.
A high-acid wine works with acidity in food. Many Sauvignon Blanc wines possess great acidity and can handle salad dressing, while a California Chardonnay with low acid (malolactic fermentation) that was heavily oaked will wallow in the salad and never come up for air.
Ham and Manchego cheese definitely possess umami. That is one of the reason so many Barcelonans dine on these with a fine Amontillado sherry at tapas bars. Meanwhile, here are some tips for bringing wine to dinner as a guest.
- Check the dinner menu, or ask the host want they want
- If the host is a sommelier, bring flowers
- If the host is doing TV dinners, bring Scotch
- Remember to chill whites/sparkling/rose wines prior to departure
- If bringing appetizers come early, or bring Romanée-Conti if late and no one will complain
In New Mexico, when in doubt, bring Gruet. Slainte!