The art of tasting involves analysing each component of a wine to determine factors like grape variety, origin and quality. It takes a while to perfect, but in truth we’ve all been practising the underlying skills since childhood – skills that can readily be applied to food and wine pairing.
By Matt Philpott, Majestic Wine Marketing Manager
There are clear parallels between tasting wine and food. Both are composed of different molecular compounds: some that go well together, others that don’t. The first step is learning to savour and relate those tastes. Next time you bite into a crisp, acidic Granny Smith apple, remember the sensation and apply it to detect crisp acidity in a Sauvignon Blanc.
There are only a handful of universally recognised tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty, plus the piquant chilli heat and savoury umami identified by Eastern cultures. However, flavour is much broader and more subjective.
You can easily distinguish between taste and flavour – and see the role smell plays in detecting flavours – next time you pour yourself a glass of wine. Hold your nose as you take a small sip and note what you sense with your nose held. These sensations will be primary tastes such as acidity, sweetness and bitterness. Then let go of your nose and see how the more complex flavours start to flood in. The difference is remarkable.
The anatomy of taste
When we taste wine, we sense sweetness on the tip of the tongue, sourness or acidity on the sides, and bitterness (the drying tannins found in red wine) at the back and around our gums. Very few wines can be characterised as salty. Those that are, such as Manzanilla sherry, will register on the tip of the tongue.
One of the core ideas is to determine the dominant taste in any dish, then pair a wine with it by either mirroring or contrasting that taste to a feature of the wine. There are very few hard and fast rules, but they are worth noting. Fish, especially oily fish, very rarely works with tannic red wines. Spicy or salty foods tend to emphasise oak, tannins and alcohol in wine, so it’s best to use sweetness as a contrast. Finally, balanced acidity is absolutely essential in pairing a wine with a variation of dishes.
Of course, rules are made to be broken. So once you’ve tried out some classic matches, feel free to experiment a bit to fine-tune the art of pairing.
Winemaker’s Lot 20 Chardonnay ‘Llanuras de Camarico’ 2009, Casablanca Valley, Chile
￡9.49 or ￡7.49 when you buy 2 bottles*
Alongside taste and flavour, another factor to consider is texture. This stunningly rich, unctuous Chilean Chardonnay, for instance, will mirror the luxurious, creamy texture of a butternut squash risotto to perfection.
Winemaker’s Lot 30 Merlot ‘Mariposas Vineyard’ 2009, Maule Valley, Chile
￡9.99 or ￡7.99 when you buy 2 bottles*
This delicious Merlot, stuffed with chocolate and black cherry, has ripe, silky tannins in abundance. Those tannins are the perfect foil for the bitterness found in chargrilled meats, so I’d accompany this with a simple fillet steak, straight off the grill.
Riesling Federspiel 2008, Weingarten Weissenkirchen, Wachau
￡9.99 or ￡8.99 when you buy 2 bottles*
Coupling salty tapas dishes to a wine with the refreshing, citrus acidity of this stunning Riesling cleanses the palate of any saltiness and offers a great, sharp contrast.
Waimea Estate Pinot Gris 2009, Nelson, New Zealand
￡10.99 or ￡8.99 when you buy 2 bottles* Arriving mid-September
Spicy dishes like an aromatic Thai salad suit a contrasting wine pairing. This deliciously creamy, off-dry Pinot Gris has apricot and peach fruits that play brilliantly off the chilli heat of the dish. Yet again, sweetness and spice is always nice.
Rioja Gran Reserva Imperial 1999, CVNE, Spain
￡25.00 or ￡18.74 when you buy 2 bottles*
Tannins can cleanse the palate of the mouth-coating fats and proteins common to red meat dishes. However, slow-cooking meat begins to break down many of these fats and proteins, meaning less need for tannins. An aged red wine with softened tannins, such as this superb mature Rioja, can be set alight by a simple slow-roast lamb dish.
*All prices are valid until 1st November 2010 unless otherwise stated.