The Dynamics of Food and Wine

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

Every dish is dynamic — it’s made up of several ingredients and flavors that interact to create a (more or less) delicious whole. Every wine is dynamic in exactly the same way. When food and wine combine in your mouth, the dynamics of each change; the result is completely individual to each dish-and-wine combination. When wine meets food, several things can happen:

  • The food can exaggerate a characteristic of the wine. For example, if you eat walnuts (which are tannic) with a tannic red wine, such as a Bordeaux, the wine tastes so dry and astringent that most people would consider it undrinkable.

  • The food can diminish a characteristic of the wine. Salt diminishes the impression of tannin, for example, and an overly tannic red wine — unpleasant on its own — could be delightful with a well-salted rare steak or roast beef.

  • The flavor intensity of the food can obliterate the wine’s flavor or vice versa. If you’ve ever drunk a big, rich flavorful white wine with a delicate filet of sole, you’ve had this experience firsthand.

  • The wine can contribute new flavors to the dish. For example, a red Zinfandel that’s gushing with berry fruit can bring its berry flavors to the dish, as if another ingredient had been added.

  • The combination of wine and food can create an unwelcome third-party flavor that wasn’t in the wine or the food originally. (Actually, Burgundy, white or red, works better with turkey.)

Fortunately, certain elements of food react in predictable ways with certain elements of wine, giving you a fighting chance at making successful pairings. The major components of wine (alcohol, sweetness, acid, and tannin) relate to the basic tastes of food (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness) the same way that the principle of balance in wine operates: Some of the elements exaggerate each other, and some of them compensate for each other.

The following notes about pairings illustrate some of the ways that food and wine interact, based on the components of the wine. Keep in mind that each wine and each dish has more than one component, and the simple relationships described can be complicated by other elements in the wine or the food. Whether a wine is considered tannic, sweet, acidic, or high in alcohol depends on its dominant component.

Tannic wines

Tannic wines include most wines based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape (including red Bordeaux), northern Rhône reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, and any wine — white or red — that has become tannic from aging in new oak barrels. These wines can

  • Taste less bitter when paired with salty foods

  • Taste astringent, or mouth-drying, when paired with spicy-hot foods

  • Taste bitter with bitter foods

Sweet wines

Many so-called dry wines today actually have some sweetness, particularly inexpensive (about $12 or less) wines from California. Wines with unmistakable sweetness include most Moscato wines, White Zinfandel, many Rieslings (unless they’re labeled dry or trocken), and medium-dry Vouvray. Sweet wines also include dessert wines such as Port, sweetened Sherries, and late-harvest wines. Depending on their level of sweetness, these wines can

  • Taste fruitier when matched with salty foods

  • Make salty foods more appealing

  • Go well with foods as sweet as they are, but not sweeter

Acidic wines

Acidic wines include most Italian white wines; Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, and Chablis; traditionally made red wines from Rioja; most dry Rieslings; and fully dry wines based on Sauvignon Blanc. These wines can

  • Counterbalance oily or fatty heaviness in food

  • Taste smoother and less acidic when served with salty foods

  • Stand up to foods that have some acidity

High-alcohol wines

High-alcohol wines include many California wines, both white and red; southern Rhône whites and reds; southern Italian reds; fortified wines such as Port and Sherry; and most wines produced from grapes grown in warm climates. These wines can

  • Overwhelm lightly flavored or delicate dishes

  • Seem less rich and full with slightly sweet foods

  • Seem less rich and full with umami-rich foods