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Food and Wine Pairings: Examining the Myths Through Science

April Sullivan
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Food and Wine Pairings: Examining the Myths Through Science

The concept of pairing wine with food goes back to the early days of winemaking in France, although originally, the reasons for this match made in heaven were far more prosaic. Centuries ago, drinking wine with meals was a far healthier alternative than water, given the level of contaminants in primitive water supplies.

Yet, even in the earliest years of European winemaking, savvy vintners tasted certain wines with certain cheeses, fruits, or meats and immediately realized they were on to a good thing. Many of these winemakers began crafting specific wines that paired well with popular regional foods. For example, Brie-making areas of France produced tannic varietals like Beaujolais (still considered a classic pairing), while in Italy, regions that produced Asiago cheese also produced fine complementary Chiantis or Brunellos.

Behind every longstanding cultural practice, you’ll also find a bevy of traditions and myths handed down through the centuries. Wine and food pairing is no exception, and over the years, the question of “What wine goes with red meat?” or “What wine goes with fish?” is sometimes answered by traditional ideas that may or may not be based on myths rather than science and taste. When it comes to food and wine pairings, here’s why it’s better to listen to the science.

The Science of Wine and Food Pairings

The process of wine tasting involves a series of building blocks, all comprised of layers that include components such as flavor, texture (or “mouth feel”), and aftertaste. Flavors can range from sweet to astringent and mild to sharp, while textures can range from dense to creamy or even watery.

Cheese is aged and matured in a similar fashion to wine and provides the same types of flavor and texture notes, such as sweet and fruity vs. nutty and sharp or creamy and dense vs. dry. This is one reason why cheese is such a delectable food pairing with wine. Essentially, all of this goes back to science — and particularly, the science behind molecules and how they respond to three basic components of wine: tannins, acidity, and alcohol level.

Tannins and acidity influence not only the way food and wines bind molecularly; they also affect the sweetness and tartness of a wine. Thanks to our knowledge of biochemistry and molecular binding, we know that tannins, which all wines have, bind to food particles and, in particular, to fat. As tannins attach to fat molecules, this hinders them from mixing with saliva and drying out the tongue.

Red wines are richer in tannins because they’re made with more skins, seeds, and stems. Their tannin-rich composition means they pair especially well with fatty foods, which is one reason why red wine pairs so well with red meats. High-tannin red wines don’t pair well with fish, however, because tannins intensify the “fishy” taste, exaggerating and distorting it so that it predominates and makes the flavor less appealing. Likewise, they don’t always pair well with aged, full-bodied cheeses because the flavors can sometimes clash.

Likewise, the level of acidity, which is also found in all wines, determines the level of tartness in a wine. Wine industry terms such as “freshness” or “brightness” refer to the acidity of the wine and how this acidity is reflected in the degree of tartness in the wine’s flavor.

Alcohol also plays a part in this tasting triumvirate. Higher-alcohol wines are produced with older grapes, and this creates a richer, bolder taste compared to wines made with younger grapes. In addition, the aromatic molecules in specific foods and wines also perform as sensory bridges and, as such, influence the flavors we perceive as well.

Best Wine and Food Pairings

If you’re still wondering, “What wine goes with roast chicken?” or “Which wines pair best with a cheese tray?” don’t worry — you don’t have to study biochemistry. Most vintners provide enough information about their wines that you can make an informed choice, especially if you have a basic knowledge of wine textures and flavors. Here are some popular examples.

Maroon Reserve Merlot

This Napa Valley favorite hails from a climate similar to France’s Bordeaux region, producing a smooth wine that combines intense fruitiness with notes of roasted pepper and baking spices. Dense and tannin-rich, this wine pairs superbly with roasted red meats as well as a wide range of milder-flavored cheeses.   

Emeritus Vineyards Hallberg Ranch Elite Pinot Noir

A distinctive wine with a unique flavor, this classic pinot noir boasts a hybrid of red currant jelly and red cherry flavors, along with white wine-like notes of white peach and hibiscus. This brightness makes it especially appealing for dishes like lamb or poultry as well as steak.

Maroon Reserve Chardonnay

A classic fruity chardonnay with dashes of fig, peach, pear, yellow apple, and hints of oak and butterscotch, this vibrant wine pairs beautifully with lighter meats, including all kinds of fish and seafood. Likewise, its balanced acidity makes it excellent for pairing with a variety of desserts.

Ghost Block Sauvignon Blanc

Boasting aromatic notes of white peach and grapefruit, followed by flavor notes of guava and papaya, this smooth, rich wine pairs especially well with spicy foods and heavier dishes like casseroles and risottos. It’s also delicious with green vegetables and especially good with citrus-enhanced sauces and dressings.

Theopolis Vineyards Rosé of Petite Sirah

Filled with notes of wild berries and fresh apples, with a bright acidity balanced by aromas of strawberry, watermelon, chamomile, and wildflowers, this vivid rosé pairs beautifully with barbecued meats, roast pork, and spicy foods like chili. It’s also excellent with denser vegetables and legumes, including eggplants, mushrooms, and beans. Its high tannin content makes it pair especially well with smooth cheeses like gouda.

Essentially, some of the age-old sayings about wine still hold true — but with today’s multitude of wine varieties and grape hybrids, it’s also a good idea to determine food pairings by considering the components of each individual wine. If you’d like to know more about the best wine and food pairings, be sure to subscribe to Melier’s newsletters, where you can learn more about wines and receive invitations to special events like our monthly Winemaker Dinner series.