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Food & Wine Interactions

by Tim Hanni, M.W., Beringer - Wine and Food In Balance Program
From the pages of Epicurean What is the taste of wine? I was convinced that I knew. After all, I'd been working with food and wine for years, first as a chef, then as a wine broker and retailer. I could pronounce Chateau Cos d'Estournel forwards and backwards and recite the yield per hectare per vintage in Criots-Batard-Montrachet. I had passed the Master of Wine exam in London in 1990-surely that qualified me as an expert. So here I was at Beringer, lecturing to a bunch of chefs who had come to me for wine/food pairing instruction. And they kept asking questions I couldn't answer. What was the taste of this or that wine? And why did that taste change depending on what we ate it with?

"Excuse me, I don't know," I finally replied. "But I'm willing to look into it." That's what we've been doing in Beringer's wine and food program for the last decade. It's been an exercise in humility- admitting how little we "experts" knew about something so fundamental-and also in discovery. Here, I'd like to focus on how taste determines our individual preferences for certain wines and for certain wine and food combinations. Seems obvious, doesn't it? But that simple thought can be obscured by the hoopla surrounding some wine discussions.

What is taste, we first asked-isolated from "flavor," "aroma," "bouquet" and other wine terms that seem to be defined in as many ways as there are reference books. Taste, we learned, comprises five basic sensations: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami-the Japanese term for a taste most easily understood as "savory," or, to use a more precise scientific term, "yummy"! Umami is the delicious taste arising from glutamate compounds in foods as diverse as crab, aged beef, mushrooms, baked potatoes, chocolate and broths.

Are all tastes equally good? Not to babies, as I discovered when I started feeding pureed foods to my infant son, Landon-a human taste-o-meter. He likes two tastes, sweet and umami. Applesauce? Smack, smack. Mashed potatoes? Yum, yum. But if I give him foods high in bitter, sour or salt tastes, it's "blah!" and back on the spoon-or worse. Adults have broader tolerances-we acquire a taste for quite high levels of salt, sour and bitter. But we also have very individual ideas about how much of each basic taste is too much.

Only three of these five basic tastes are found in wine: sweet, sour and bitter (astringency, sometimes confounded with bitterness, is a sensation of touch, not taste). And I love all three, even quite high levels of sourness and bitterness. In fact, I sometimes refer to myself and other wine lovers with the same inclinations as "wine mutants" because we crave the tastes that we were initially programmed to reject, as Landon does. But I respect the right of others to prefer fruitier, sweeter, milder wines. Chacun a son gobs, to use the well-known French phrase: it's merely a matter of taste, and we all know what we like.

Once we have decided the tastes we prefer in wine-or the tastes we want on specific occasions-we don't want those tastes to be altered in unpleasant ways by the foods we eat with the wine. Isn't this really the basic issue behind the hours and hours we spend debating wine and food pairings?

We've found that the way wine changes when tasted with food is predictable. Let's go back to those five basic tastes, all of which occur in foods. Foods that are sweet (from sugar, fruit or fruit juice, hoisin sauce, honey or the like) or high in umami (well-aged beef, tomatoes, meat stocks or sauces) make any wine taste stronger-by which I mean more emphatic in its basic taste (sourness, bitterness or sweetness).

You can easily demonstrate this for yourself. Take a sip of your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon, then take a bite of apple, then try a sip of the wine again. I'm willing to bet that the wine tasted more bitter-the sweetness in the apple makes the wine taste "stronger." So what about the classic combination of an aged porterhouse steak with a full-bodied red wine? For many tasters, the umami in the meat (on its own, without sauce or seasoning) will make-the wine taste stronger, just as the sweet taste of apple did. Now, if you appreciate those big flavors, great. But some folks don't. Again it's a matter of taste.

In contrast, sour components (vinegars, citrus, dry wine reductions) and salty components (including soy sauce, olives, olive brine) make wines taste milder-fruitier, less acidic, less bitter. Wait a minute- haven't we always been told that vinegar and lemon in foods are enemies of wine? See for yourself: taste your Cabernet, then lick a wedge of lemon, and try your wine again. The wine tastes great; its fruit, acid and tannins are in balance, just as the winemaker intended them to be. Try one more experiment. Taste the Cabernet again, sprinkle a little salt on an apple slice, and try the wine again. Delicious. Unless you preferred that stronger taste resulting from the sweet apple, of course.

"Oh, sure," you're saying to yourself, "nice demo, but how does this work in the real world, with real recipes?" Well, in Tuscany, they have long known that a glass of Chianti tastes better with a grilled beefsteak (red wine and umami, remember?) if it is served with a squeeze of lemon and a generous sprinkling of salt. In Burgundy, a rich red wine will be served with rabbit (umami again) in either a vinegar or mustard sauce. And in the Muscadet-producing area of France, they know that an acidic wine tastes much more delicious if the Belon oyster (umami city!) alongside is dipped in a mignonette sauce of shallots and vinegar. Recipes from traditional wine-growing regions are a microcosm of our principles of reactivity and adjustment. Cooks in these regions have learned to show their wines at their best.

"Fusion" cooking is nothing new-Escoffier was probably the greatest fusion radical in history-but today's chefs face astonishingly global ingredients and recipes, often from lands that have no winegrowing tradition. The chefs that I've taken through the demonstrations described above acknowledge that adjusting foods in this way-balancing bitter, sweet, salt, sour and umami components-are all part of classical techniques. But understanding the principles of reactivity behind these adjustments makes it easier for chefs to consistently produce dishes that are delicious in themselves and create a platform for any wine.

So the next time someone asks you what wine goes best with grilled salmon, take it with a grain of salt. Or a wedge of lemon. Or a little sorrel sauce. And drink the wine you love best.

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