By Richard Household
Your Taste and Your Enjoyment
I enjoy a wonderfully charmed life which, in summary, means I travel a lot, taste wonderful wines a lot and eat superb food in amazing places a lot. Whether I’m judging for the International Wine and Spirits Competition, running WSET wine courses, hosting wine dinners or visiting vineyards my working life is never dull. I am always exploring, tasting and trying to learn more.
The most common questions I get asked, aside from ‘what is my favourite wine’ or ‘what is the most expensive wine I have tasted’, are more often than not about matching the right wine with food. So I thought I would share some of the principles I use to make sure that the wine takes centre stage at any meal, giving a wow factor at your dinner or event.
A little bit of background first with some tasting basics and then I’ll go through my 5 golden rules. Here goes …
Our taste buds can cope with 5 sensory perceptions and understanding them can really help with food and wine matching.
There is no doubt that food can affect how a wine tastes … for better or for worse, so some understanding about how flavour interacts with wine can help a great deal to avoid clashes and provide more pleasure. Having said that, we all have personal preferences and different levels of tolerance to flavour (heat and spice for example) but in general terms this works quite well.
Salty food can work wonders with wine. It increases the perception of body and texture in wine and can help to soften tannins and decrease a wine’s astringency. In other words it can soften a wine and make the fruit more pronounced. So you can really go to town here – powerful wines from the Rhone, Bordeaux northern Italy and so on with rich, complex dishes.
Sweet foods can be a challenge. If you don’t choose a wine with sweetness to match then the wine will be overpowered and taste lean, lacking in fruit and unpleasantly acidic. There are exceptions. You can pair sweet wine with highly salty dishes. Blue cheese with sweet wine is a delight!
Fat and acid in food and wine works really well. A fresh wine with plenty of acidity will cut through fatty food. It helps to balance the dish while refreshing the palate. It is a great combination and one of my favourites.
Bitter food will increase the bitterness in a wine, so you need to have a white wine or a red wine low in tannins, a Beaujolais for example.
Umami in food will increase the perception of alcohol, acidity and bitterness in a wine, while decreasing the wine’s texture, body and fruit characteristics. As a result this can be a real challenge with food. Salt is excellent at counteracting these effects but where there is no salt in the food – asparagus, eggs and mushrooms then wine pairing can be a challenge. You should choose very fruity wines with low tannins.
Having said all that my guidelines and advice for choosing the right wine with the right food is a lot more straightforward!
Firstly, good wine goes with most food. When all is said and done, great well-made wines will marry beautifully with most foods. This is because they tend to have excellent balance between fruit, acidity and tannins. They rarely have one dominant character for food to exaggerate or overpower. That’s why the same great wine can taste slightly or very different with different dishes. Rioja Reserva or great Burgundies are good examples of this.
Secondly, be bold and adventurous. When you read all about different flavours, different senses, many rules and so on it can all get a bit daunting. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong! Variety is the spice of life.
Thirdly, good wine doesn’t always taste at its best without food. This is a big one. A few years ago when I was a student (for that read many, many years ago) I worked in Oddbins in Wimbledon Village. We used to have tastings on Saturday mornings. The fruit driven New World wines mainly from Australia and South America always proved more popular because they tasted like alcoholic fruit juice. The more structured, layered and complex wines tasted tannic, acidic and had an edge to them when tasted on their own. As soon as you have the same wine with food then that edge goes away and the result is far more enjoyable. So don’t judge a wine without food – you are not getting the full picture.
Fourthly, preparation is everything. Temperature, glasses and decanting can make all the difference. I decant most wine whether young or old. If it is an older wine then it is partly to separate out the sediment or deposit. But the main reason, whether the wine is young or old, is to aerate the wine. Nice large glasses help to hold aroma and develop the flavour quickly. Temperature is a major issue for wine. We drink white wine and Champagne, in general, far too cold, giving them no chance to breathe and express the fruit. Conversely, we tend to drink red wine too warm which tends to exaggerate heat and alcohol. It is much better to start the wine a little colder in the glass and let it come up to room temperature. If you serve the wine at room temperature, then it has nowhere to go.
Lastly, don’t take all this too seriously. Wine is to be enjoyed and not worshipped. Don’t get obsessed with regions, winemakers, names, labels or what wine writers or merchants (like me!) say. Ultimately, it is your taste and your enjoyment. Taste the wine for what it is and not what a book or review says. I love a good winemaker story but if the wine is no good then it is all hot air – rather like most natural wines. Don’t get me started on natural wines … maybe that’s for the next article!
Be brave, explore and happy tasting!
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