For some people, learning about wine can seem rather overwhelming or daunting. Add to that a certain amount of social pressure and it’s easy to understand why many people do not even dare take a stab at wine tasting. At home you need never feel self conscious, awkward or ashamed in choosing wines. When enjoying wines in the comfort of your own home, you can easily become ‘at home’ with your choices.
There are two ways you can dive headlong into experimenting with different wines. And why not dive right in? After all, what do we enjoy about our homes? At the most basic level, we enjoy shelter or comfort, rest, and meals. The rest and comfort of your home is an excellent environment if you choose to select a few bottles from various price ranges and styles at a time and open them up for your tasting pleasure during your leisure. But, while rest and comfort will aid in the enjoyment of trying out wines, our meals at home offer the perfect catalyst for the excitement involved in tasting various wines.
The pairing of foods and wines is done in the exact same way as the way they are tasted: on the palate, where it comes together. You match wine the same way that you match anything that tastes good together. Foods and wines are matched with a little common sense, and a lot of personal preference. All food and wine matching is more easily understood when the taste components of wines are thought of in the same way as ingredients in a dish. After all, wine is a food. Good cooking involves a balancing of ingredients and technique and good wine/food matching involves focusing on how specific components in wines interact and achieve a sense of balance and harmony with specific components in dishes.
Let’s begin with how the taste buds perceive what you are consuming, whether you are tasting wine or food:
Sweetness pertains to the amount of sugar in your food/wine and is sensed by taste buds located towards at the tip of the tongue. Tartness has to do with the acidity in both foods and wines. The taste buds at the center and sides of the tongue pick up this sensation. Saltiness may not be a significant component in wine, but is important in how a wine relates to it in foods. Saltiness is perceived somewhere in the center of the tongue. Bitterness is tasted in many foods, also in the tannin content of red wines and to a lesser degree in white wines. The rear of the tongue is responsible for communicating tartness to you. Umami is the term used to describe the flattering, amino acid related sense of “deliciousness” found in many foods, and to a limited extent in wines.
Just as umami is so difficult to define, it is also difficult to determine just where on the tongue we perceive it.
Along with taste sensations we also have tactile sensations. For example the density, body or weight of a food is contributed by proteins, fats and/or carbs, while primarily related to the degree of alcohol content in wines (bolstered by tannin in reds). Soft textures contrast with crisp textures in foods while wine textures contrast in terms of smooth or easy vs. hard, sharp or angular. Spicy and/or hot sensations as with chilies, peppers or horseradishes are found in foods but not felt as tactile sensations in wines. Instead they are suggested in a wine’s aroma and flavor or “spice” notes. Actually, most foods’ flavors cannot be detected much without the sense of smell. By the same token, both Cabernet Sauvignon and a Petite Sirah are two types of red wine that tend to be dark, full bodied, dry, and fairly hard in tannin; but the Cabernet gives aromas and flavors of herbal, minty, berry/cassis aromas and flavors, whereas the Petite Sirah gives ripe berry/blueberry and black peppercorn-like aromas and flavors.
There are essentially two ways foods and wines are successfully paired. The first is by the similarities they share. For example: the buttery sauce in a fish dish enhanced by the creamy or buttery texture of an oak barrel fermented white wine. The other way is by the contrasts they contain as when sensations in a wine contrast with sensations in a dish to positive effect. For example: the sweetness of a white wine balancing the saltiness of a dish like ham or cured sausage, and vice-versa.
No matter what your personal taste, invariably you will discover this natural occurrence: the easiest foods and the easiest wines to find a match for are the ones with their own intrinsic sense of harmony and balance. This is because taste buds and sensations of tactile qualities work for you collectively. This is not to say that a young, overly bitter or hard textured Cabernet Sauvignon cannot be served with food. But it does narrow your food choices somewhat. For example: a gamey meat such as lamb can be made more interesting with a sweet natural plum sauce but that would also increase a young Cabernet’s toughness and so you are probably relegated to simply grilling the lamb to a slight char to at least reduce the drying effect of the wine’s tannins, and serving it with a more neutral sauce (if any) made with Cabernet and the lamb’s own natural juices.
Then again, if the Cabernet is extremely rough to the point that it is barely drinkable, not even the simplest piece of charred meat will help it taste better. The same thing for a lamb chop that is drenched in a sauce or marinade that is too sweet, too salty, too spicy hot or sour: the palate knows when a dish is unbalanced, and so even the finest, smoothest, most elegantly balanced Cabernet Sauvignon will not make that poorly prepared lamb taste better. When it comes to food as it relates to wine, it is always easier to match a dish that does not need as much alteration of taste to make it taste better; and vice-versa in the way a wine relates to food. It is simply easier to find matching components of similarity and contrast in foods and wines that are already well balanced in and of themselves.
At this point, it is all a matter of actually tasting and becoming familiar with the wines you like — just as we continue to discover delicious, new foods. The nice thing is the variations in both foods and wines are virtually endless, and so it will always be as much fun as you want it to be. And, if you want try the suggestions of others, opinions of good pairings by others are virtually endless as well. Just know that as you become more comfortable with wine-food combinations at home, you will have no reservations about selecting wines while dining out.