With Matt Philpott
Majestic Wine Marketing Manager
Is wine and food tasting a science or an art? For us, it’s a bit of both. Knowing a thing or two about the anatomy and molecular chemistry involved can only help, but nothing refines your tasting abilities like good old-fashioned practice. Here’s our guide to the basics of tasting to set you on your way.
Taste vs. Flavour
We all know the universal taste categories – sweet, sour, bitter and salty, plus some would say piquant chilli heat and savoury umami. But flavour is a much broader and more subjective arena. You can test the distinction for yourself with your next glass of wine. Hold your nose when you take a sip to experience the basic taste sensations, then release it to let the more complex flavours flood in. The difference is unmistakable. Your sense of smell has a critical part to play in detecting flavour. And since both taste and flavour come into play when pairing up food and wine, the distinction is a crucial one.
1. Wines should complement, not dominate food.
A delicate fish such as steamed sea bream will be overpowered by red wines.
2. Choose a wine that matches the most dominant flavour in a dish
A full-flavoured sauce may well be a bigger influence than the main ingredient itself.
3. Complex wines for simple dishes; simple wines for complex dishes
See this rule of thumb in action with paella. All those rich, flavour-packed ingredients require is a crisp, simple white wine.
4. Match the wine to the body, texture and flavour profile of the dish
Cooking method affects the weight of a dish. Poaching and steaming presents meat or fish at its most delicate. Grilling, frying or roasting adds texture and caramelised flavours.
5. Always look out for local food specialities from a particular winemaking region
This is especially true in Europe. For instance, the high acidity found in many Italian reds marries well with the high acidity in tomato sauces used in pasta dishes.
What matters in the wine?
Crisp acidity in wines can pair up well in two ways. When it’s not cutting through oily, fatty, creamy or salty foods, it can brighten the natural flavours of a dish. Clean, crisp whites work with any dish that responds well to a squeeze of lemon – like freshly shelled oysters.
As well as mirroring sweet food components such as fruit and desserts, sweetness in a wine can contrast wonderfully with salty and spicy food.
Alcohol adds texture and body to a wine. This should match up to the weight of a dish, just as gutsy, spicy Côtes-du-Rhône does alongside a hearty beef stew.
In red wines, it’s the tannin that complements red meat, as this actually helps the protein and fats in the meat to break down in the mouth. Look no further than fillet steak with a fine, youthful Bordeaux.
Creamy, complex oak characters go brilliantly with creamy dishes and sauces, while toasty oakiness can bring out the caramelised flavours of fried and grilled food. Beware pairing oaky wines with spicy foods – they’re apt to clash.
Bottle ageing can add complexity to reds and whites alike, replacing acidity, fruit character and (in reds) tannin over time. Keep food matches simple, sticking to grilled or roasted meats and fish.
What matters in the food?
With tart foods, always aim to choose a wine with equal or higher acidity. White wines and fizz are usually better with acidic foods, with the honourable exception of highacidity Italian reds such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.
Salty dishes should be balanced by crisp acidity and/ or some residual sweetness in the wine. The former refreshes the palate; the latter can act as a nice contrast to salt. Be careful when matching salty food to red wines: salt amplifies tannins and oak.
Dishes with a sweet element require a wine with equal sweetness or possibly rich ripe fruit. For instance, the tropical fruit of an off-dry Riesling is a great partner to grilled swordfish with mango salsa.
Ingredients such as aubergine and cooking methods like char-grilling come with a bitterness that can be mirrored by the bitter tannins found in red wine. That’s why barbequed steak is so well suited to a good Cabernet Sauvignon.
Spicy food can be a matching minefield, clashing with oak, tannins and alcohol. Steer clear of full-bodied reds altogether and go instead for crisp, off dry whites, like lychee-filled Gewürztraminer – the perfect foil for Thai green curry.
Simple Sample: Sea Bass
How you cook your ingredients not only transforms their flavours; it affects your wine matches too. Here’s how:
- Sashimi shows off all the fresh fish qualities and oily, salty flavours of the sea. Pair raw sea bass with crisp, delicate Grüner Veltliner.
- Minimalist steaming or poaching retains plenty of delicacy, best complemented by any light white.
- Smoky grilled sea bass plays well with the oak in Californian Fumé Blanc.
- Pan-frying the fish introduces sweet, caramelised notes that go hand-in-hand with a nutty Soave from Italy.
- For an indulgent textured treat, deep-fry and enjoy with a glass of Champagne.