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Posts Tagged ‘alcohol’

HappyHour

I feel like I should put up a big disclaimer on this post.  So before you rush to the comments to start calling me Mr. Judgey McJudgerson, you should hear me out.  It’s been my experience that there is a significant portion of the American population that doesn’t have a healthy relationship with the toxin known as alcohol.  I’m not necessarily referring to the college aged binge-drinkers and early 20-something over-indulgers who are just out to have a good time, man.  I think most of that can be chalked up to youthful exuberance.  Instead, I’m referring to full-grown adults who after a stressful day/moment/milliseconds of life turn to their friends and say something to the effect of: “Phew! I need a drink!” which is silently suffixed by a look that you would hashtag as #amiright?.  And before you can get both legs of your Offended Pants on, you should know that I’ve been and occasionally still am one of those people.  However, I’ve been doing some reading over the years…

In my other life, I travel around working with electronic health records for various healthcare organizations and I tend to meet a large number of healthcare professionals, both those of the clinical focus as well as those of the operational or financial focus.  To date, my clients have spanned from the Big Island of Hawaii all the way to the coast of Maine so I don’t think my experiences have been regionally focused.  As an aside, since I know you’re curious, yes, there have been a few that have taken advantage of my wine education sessions while I was with them as well.  But I’ve come to find that this Half-Joking-But-Definitely-Doing-It culture about using alcohol to combat stress is pervasive across the country.  Actually, let me put one caveat to that:  there’s a contingent that don’t actually drink, but they’ll make the jokes anyway and quickly follow them up with “But I don’t really drink.” and then look at you in a worried fashion in case you still believe that they would ever ingest alcohol.

You can see this cultural mentality just about everywhere.  There are the “Mom Blogs” that justify why their glass of wine at the end of the day is necessary, there are the constant references to drinking alcohol as a cure for stress in movies and television (Mad Men, anyone?), and the whole concept of Happy Hour revolves around needing a drink after a stressful day of work.  Here’s the thing though, from the medical research readings and hours of experimentation and observation I have done on this subject, I don’t think it actually works.  I may not be an expert on the subject, but I am a reasonably intelligent person with the internet at my disposal (Plus a Health Informaticist who synthesizes a lot of public health recommendations)  and one time I took that Stress Management class in college so I can at least have a reasonably and somewhat informed opinion on the topic.  Let me tell you how I arrived at this conclusion.

This isn't whiskey...it's creative juice.

This isn’t whiskey…it’s creative juice.

First, let’s define the major components of what happens when we get stressed.  Almost immediately after encountering a stressor, whether it be rush-hour traffic, a casual meeting invitation from your boss to review your performance lately, a tiger, or a tiger driving next to you in rush-hour traffic, your adrenal glands begin to produce two hormones: Adrenaline and Norepinephrine.  These two hormones get your body prepped for what is commonly referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response.  Your heart starts beating faster, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tense up and your brain starts calculating whether you should get those fists ready or sprint as fast as you can away from the situation.  Around the same time your Hypothalamus begins producing Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH) and your Pituitary Glands start producing Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH).  Neither of these have much of an external effect, but the combination of them eventually produces the hormone called Cortisol.  Cortisol is the breaks to Adrenaline and Norepinephrine’s accelerator and it’s main purpose is to help regulate fluid levels in the body and control blood pressure so your body doesn’t spin wildly out of control.  In other words it is there so you don’t die.  However, Cortisol is also what we associate with the feelings of stress and in fact we can directly correlate our feelings of stress with the amount of Cortisol flowing through our bloodstream.

Meow.

Meow.

Once the stressor is no longer an issue, the body self-regulates and the levels of all three hormones begin to reduce.  These hormones aren’t unique to the stress cycle.  You may have heard of them in terms of other bodily functions.  For instance, the norepinephrine pathway is manipulated by a drug to maybe-but-most-likely-not-because-we-have-no-idea-what-it-is-actually-doing* treat depression.  Cortisol, is the hormone that helps us wake up in the morning.  And so on and so forth. So when thinking about managing stress, it is not a matter of eliminating these hormones from appearing in the first place, but allowing them to effectively balance themselves.  Acute stress, or stress that is endured for a short period of time and dealt with generally will not have any negative effects on the body.  Chronic stress, or constantly dealing with stressors and not managing them effectively is what leads to negative health consequences.

Now let’s put alcohol into the mix.  The amount of research on stress and alcohol is fairly limited, but there is at least enough to contradict one big assumption.  The general working theory that your average Happy Hour patron has is that alcohol can be used as a tonic to relieve stress.  Basically, the thinking is that alcohol applied to stress is like aloe applied to a mild sunburn:  Apply liberally and eventually the irritant will go away.  Unfortunately, it appears that mixing alcohol with stress is more like a two-way street than a topical application.  Not only does alcohol affect the stress hormones, but the stress hormones appear to have effects on the body’s reaction to alcohol as well.

When you are stressed and you take those first couple of gulps of your apple-tini, I think most people would report that you do feel better.  And why not?  Alcohol, in small doses, has a relaxing effect through stimulating the release of Dopamine and Serotonin.  Serotonin, consequently helps to mitigate Cortisol.  These two hormones don’t necessarily get rid of the stress hormones, but they make us forget about them for a bit.  However, at some point, that same alcohol begins to turn into another source of stress on the body itself.  What point is this?  The jury appears to still be out and I’m sure there are a myriad of variables that can affect this, but the threshold is probably lower than we all think.  Regardless, this means that upon reaching this point, the “medication” quickly becomes an additional source of stress piled on top of the stress that has built up in your body.  This is pure conjecture here, but perhaps “Angry Drunks” are just those who are really stressed out people who make themselves more stressed out by consuming copious amounts of alcohol.

From the opposite side of things, the stress hormones have a general effect on how our body responds to the alcohol consumed.  This is mostly seen in a dampening effect of our intoxication level.  Therefore, people tend to consume more alcohol when they are stressed out because that point where you feel intoxicated arrives later than it typically does.  How this happens is still not clear, but you could probably see this in your own drinking habits if you kept a journal of your stress levels while drinking (Doesn’t that sound like fun?!?!).  Consequently, if you are continually drinking while stressed out, your alcohol tolerance level will probably keep going up as well which could lead to chronic alcohol abuse/dependency, poor sleep, prohibition, and of course, more stress.  In other words, the very thing you are using to reduce your stress becomes the source of it.

Now who needs a drink after reading all of that? Just kidding! Don’t do that.  I think the lesson that can be pulled from all of this is that before we drink we should be aware of our stress levels and the reasons why we are reaching for a drink to begin with.  If you’re stressed, and you have a glass of wine or two with dinner, it is probably unlikely that you will suffer any consequences.  In fact, you’ll probably just enjoy it.  However, if your habit is to binge on a few drinks after a stressful day of work or child-rearing, that habit could be detrimental to your long-term health.  In fact, it might even be a good public health campaign to encourage people not to drink if they are feeling stressed and save the drinking for the happy or at least mood-neutral times.  I think there is some evidence to state that stress or just being in college could be a major contributing factor in the over-consumption of alcohol.  Stress can be better addressed through other activities like exercise or meditation which there is plenty of positive evidence to support.  Therefore, next time you get the invitation or inclination to indulge in some alcohol application to your stress problem, take a second to think about it, and then politely decline. Save the drinks for when you can enjoy them since that’s what they are there for anyway.

*This isn’t a joke, the drug commercial is legally obligated to state that they have no idea how the drug actually works.

Some additional links for more fun reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=emma+childs+alcohol+stress

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html

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WhiskeyGifThere was a time, not too long ago that I drank whiskey neat because I was a man or something.  OK, there were actually some good reasons for this:

  1. If you order whiskey neat in a bar, there is a low risk of them screwing up the drink.  Plus, you know exactly how much alcohol you are getting compared to everything else that might potentially go in the glass.
  2. If I’m having a good tasting whiskey, I just want to taste the whiskey.  No accompaniment needed.
  3. I have a beard sometimes and therefore it’s required of me by society to drink whiskey neat.
  4. Everyone I’ve talked to generally agrees that I look BA drinking whiskey neat.  Some have even gone as far as saying I look like a BAMF, but they may be over-exuberant.

Over this past winter however, I did a little dabbling in the H20 realm, and now I’ve been adding a few drops into some whiskeys depending on my mood.  As a frequenter of high class bars all around the world, as I know you are, you may have picked up on this little technique and even perhaps noted that certain high class bars will serve a small dram of water alongside the whiskey.  This is not a suggestion that the bartender thinks you may be alcoholic or can’t handle your liquor as I once thought in my early twenties when asked if I wanted a glass of water alongside my whiskey.  The presentation of water alongside whiskey is more of a, “If you desire it…” offering.

A whiskey enthusiast might state that adding a few drops of water to the glass will “activate” the aroma compounds in the whiskey.   A logical and cynical mind might respond: “What the hell does that mean?” Usually, the whiskey enthusiast really has no idea, but hopefully is at least speaking from the experience they have had where they prefer the whiskey with a few drops of water opposed to the whiskey sans agua.  So what’s really going on?

In the simplest sense, the addition of a bit of water is masking certain aromas and enhancing others.  That fact is really the actionable part of any research that’s been done so far on the subject.  If you want to get really sciencey, (Which OMG, yes, do I) then you can read a nice little paper on it here.  If you want an educated professional’s nicer description, you can read it here.

Therefore, if you want to have a go at this little bit of scientific manipulation here’s what you do:

  1. Grab two glasses
  2. Pour an equal amount of whiskey into both
  3. Smell and taste both, perhaps with some water in between
  4. Drop, let’s say, 5-10 drops of water into one of the glasses
  5. Smell and taste both again.  Do they smell or taste slightly different?
  6. Proceed to drink both glasses of whiskey.  Don’t act like you weren’t going to.

If you truly want to be scientific about it, I would get someone else to apply the water for you, but you’re probably drinking alone again so don’t worry to much about it.  The key word in step #5 is “Different”.  Notice I didn’t say “Better” or “Worse”.  Just different. Different strokes for different folks.

In applying this new found knowledge, whenever you come across a whiskey that you like, but it’s perhaps not “Popping” for you; give it a few drops of water.  You can really keep adding drops of water until the point where you start telling yourself that “This tastes like watered-down whiskey.”  If you come across a whiskey you don’t like, you are free to use it for fire-based parlor tricks, a fuel source, or a disinfectant in the event of a bar fight.  Water dilution will never help a bad whiskey unless it’s diluted to the point it can no longer be tasted.

Additionally, that scientific research article mentioned above which you didn’t read also concludes that cooling down the whiskey (AKA: adding ice) may have a similar, albeit through a different mechanism, effect.  Personally, I haven’t found a whiskey I prefer at “Ice temperature” opposed to room temperature or slightly below room temperature, but I will leave that to personal preference.

For those that really want to be an annoying snob to their friends, I would recommend only utilizing water sourced from a location near the distillery of the whiskey you are drinking.  While there is certainly no proof behind it, some people do claim that utilizing the whiskey’s local water is truly the ultimate experience. I think something could be said for not using overly hard or overly soft tap water, or perhaps even the ice that has been sitting in your freezer for the past month, but here in Minneapolis, the tap water is just fine.

Think of this as an extra tool in your drinking tool belt and not something that should be done every time.  “Whiskey need a little sprucing? *Sprinkle in some magic water!” And remember, if you hide the water, people will think you’re drinking it neat anyway.

*Extra points for creative sprinkling technique.

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The start of fall marks a very important moment in the year where the leaves begin turning, the nights and mornings are crisp and cool, and the sweaters come out of storage.  Most importantly though, this is the last chance you have to make some tasty beverages that you can enjoy during the winter holiday season.  This year, I’m prepping some Aronia Berry and Blackberry Schnapps as well as some Red Plum Liqueur.  Making treats like this require 3 months at minimum to sit so you should probably drop whatever you’re doing and get started.  You’re probably wondering why I didn’t alert you to this sooner if 3 months is the minimum, but I’m a realist.  You, as well as I most likely don’t have the patience or willpower to resist cracking one of these open if it was going to sit beyond 3 months, so really I’m doing you a favor.

Fortunately prep is minimal and there is quite a bit of margin for error so you can even embark upon this project after a hard day of apple picking and tipping back the hard cider.  Before the instructions though, let’s go over a little bit of terminology.  For our purposes, let’s assume you reside in the US for this terminology lesson.

What does it all mean, Aaron???

Liqueur or Cordial: Distilled spirit infused with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers, or nuts and a sweetener.

Schnapps:  Derived from the German word Schnaps, or “Swallow” in English.  Any kind of alcoholic drink with distilled spirit in it. Most bottled schnapps will usually be infused with some natural flavoring.  Does not necessarily need to be sweetened.

Therefore, liqueur or cordials are kinds of schnapps, but schnapps is not a kind of liqueur or cordial.  Now, if you are traveling to parts of northern Europe, Schnapps will likely be some infused brandy or aquavit.  Traveling to the UK and that cordial is most likely going to be some non-carbonated soda pop (Sound tasty?).

 

Recipes For Tasty Goodness

A note on which distilled spirit to use:  If you’ve ever seen a recipe that calls for neutral grain spirit, they are talking about vodka.  Before you get your flavored end-product, it all starts with a pure distillate that is about as close to being only ethanol and water that the producer could get it to (or cared to).  After that you add your flavorings to produce that whole array of colorful beverages in the liquor store.  Gin, although classified into its own category starts as vodka as well.  The difference between schnapps and all of those flavored vodkas? Not much.

Aronia Berry and Blackberry Schnapps

  • 16 oz of Aronia Berries (They’re super trendy right now so you can find them frozen or fresh in any upscale grocery store).
  • 10 oz of Blackberries
  • 750 ml of distilled spirit
  • 1 2000 ml mason jar or sealable glass container

Intense instructions: Put all of the ingredients into your glass container.  Seal. Put into a cool and dark place like your basement and do not touch it for at least 3 months.

Red Plum Liqueur

  • 6 Red Plums
  • 1/2 cup raw sugar or rock sugar
  • 750 ml of distilled spirit
  • 1 2000 ml mas jar or sealable glass container

Intense instructions: Put the plums into the jar. Put the vodka into the jar.  Pour the sugar over the top. Resist the temptation to shake or stir it. Put into a cool and dark place like your basement and do not touch it for at least 3 months.

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Yeah, it's a Tempranillo...I can feel it.

Yeah, it’s a Tempranillo…I can feel it.

Third part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell and Part 2: How We Taste.

For the most part, we do not touch wine in the traditional sense of dipping our fingers into the liquid or luxuriously lounging in a heady bath.  However, once it enters the mouth, our sense of touch is activated in what are termed trigeminal responses.  Touch is the final component that factors into what we commonly refer to as flavor.  While we usually give the starring credit to smell and somewhat lesser extent to taste, touch also plays a vital supporting role in helping us distinguish between one flavor and another.

We touch wine in a few different ways; there are first the obvious mechanistic ways that come to mind when we come into physical contact with something.  This is how we can tell that we have a delightful liquid in our mouths instead of a crispy potato chip.  Additionally though, we also experience the temperature of food and drink as well as the chemical reactions that can occur similar to how taste is received.  In the explanation of How We Taste, it was shown that some of the new contenders for tastes probably have more to do with touch than taste which we will explore here.  When it comes to enjoying wine with food, we notice touch in a variety of ways: Piquance, Coolness, Mouthfeel/Body, Acidity, CO2, and Astringency.

With regards to temperature, we actually have thermoreceptors in our mouths that help us pull away the pizza that is too hot (Unfortunately this is usually after it burns the top of our mouths and leaves that annoying hanging piece of skin), but those aren’t what we necessarily are factoring into the flavor.  Chemesthetic reactions are what happen when receptors in our mouths that are associated with pain, thermal sensation, or touch are activated by chemicals within the food.  The capsaicin of a spicy chili activates our pain and thermal pathways regardless of the actual thermal temperature of the food.  The menthol in mint also trick those same pathways into thinking a cool breeze is moving across our tongues.

You burn me right 'round, baby, right 'round...

You burn me right ’round, baby, right ’round…

In a slightly different manner, when Carbon Dioxide bubbles dance across our tongues, creating that prickly sensation, the CO2 is actually binding to some of the receptors on our taste buds creating the Chemesthetic reaction that feels a bit like you are getting poked.  This is found with much welcome in sparkling wines and other fizzy beverages.  While there are those who think they can discern something about the quality of the wine from the size and the frequency of the pokes, most of us just take a sip and the only thing that comes to mind is: “Bubbles!”  Unlike taste though, there does not seem to be much discernable range in the sensitivity between individuals concerning what we touch inside our mouths.  Yet, despite this uniformity, that does not mean that we cannot become accustomed or more tolerant to certain sensations such as those that continually seek out spiciness.  That has more to do with the centers of our brains that create addiction.

In wine, there is no capsacin or menthol, so it would be unusual for you to perceive chemically activated temperature fluctuations due to those, but we do commonly find these in the foods we are eating with our wines.  Alcohol, on the other hand we can perceive as a burning sensation depending on the other components of the wine, notably acid.  Our individual preference to the amounts of these we can handle varies greatly between individuals, especially when it comes to piquance so it is important to understand the two factors that can enhance or dilute this sensation.  For those who shy away from spicy things, it would also be best to stay away from pairing spicier foods with wines containing high or very noticeable alcohol.  Alcohol will enhance that burning sensation since for those that already don’t like the burn from capsacin, they probably also tend to feel a noticeable burn from alcohol as well.  However, for those tolerant of both sensations, they may perceive this to be more of a sweet taste.  This seems to be in line with where people fall on the taste spectrum that I discussed in my previous post as well.

On the other end, acid does a fine job of diluting the effects of capsacin.  When you notice the rate of saliva flooding into your mouth as you drink a wine, you are experiencing the effects of the acid in that wine.  Wines from cooler climates, such as a German Riesling will have the most notable and prominent effects compared to wines from warmer climates.

Additionally, there are a few physical reactions that happen inside our mouths when we take a sip of wine.  Most notably, when taking a sip from a wine derived from a cooler climate like a German Riesling, is the saliva inducing effects of acidity.  The more acidic a wine is, the more saliva comes rushing into our mouths and the range is anywhere from “Enamel-stripping” to what we call “Flabby”, or such low acid that the wine has no zip.  The levels of acidity are measured in terms of pH, which is actually measuring how active ions are in a solution.  Why does this matter?  If we recall back to Taste, the taste of sour comes from ions entering our taste buds.  More acid = more sour.

Mouthfeel and body are two somewhat ambiguous terms that are used commonly in wine descriptors.  As we saw in How To Taste, Mouthfeel is undergoing an attempt at hijacking (Bloody pirates!!) by the same Japanese company that brought us Umami.  However, for the time being, my personal assessment is that what is being referred to is the viscosity of the wine as well as the wine’s “shape” as it passes through the mouth back to the throat.  Imagine the shape of the interior of your mouth for a moment.  When closed for consumption, it has a narrow opening, balloons into a somewhat orb-shaped cave in the middle and then recedes back to the narrow opening in the rear.  How well the wine coats and conforms to this interior shape is what is being evaluated.   Wines can be thin and seem to just splash around playfully in our mouths like water or wines can be thick and full, almost requiring effort to push to the back of our throats.  Of course, we also have every variation in between.  This is also what is being referenced when people speak of a wine’s Finish which I will discuss in the next post on Flavor.

Soundwavecut

What actually causes our assessment of Mouthfeel and Body is a combination of alcohol or more likely its by-product of glycerol, the level of acid, sugar content, and in the case of red wines and some whites, tannin.  Glycerol, the same stuff you see sliding down your glass in the form of “Legs” or “Tears” when the alcohol of your wine is evaporating faster than the water, and residual sugar in the wine will increase the wine’s viscosity the more they are found in the wine.  This is why dessert wines and fortified wines have a bigger body that your table wines.  An increase in “fullness” of the wine’s body is credited largely to how many proteins from the wine are binding to either receptors or saliva in your mouth.  If you’ll recall, the higher the acid in the wine, the more saliva will come rushing into your mouth.  Thus, there are more things to bind to providing that the wine is bringing the goods.

The last part that factors into Mouthfeel which is also evaluated by itself by professional wine tasters, is Astringency.  In wine, astringency is found in the form of tannins which bind to our saliva and create that cotton-mouth feeling around your tongue and/or gums that some people (Mostly Super Tasters) can’t stand mostly because in addition to the sensation, tannins have a bitter taste to them.  The tannins come from the solid parts of the grapes (Seeds, skins, stems, etc.) and from any oak that has touched the wine while it is being made.  Tannins are also found in coffee, tea, and a wide variety of other foods that have bitterness in them.

Of course, each one of these sensations is not acting in isolation.  As was already mentioned with the effects of acidity on piquance, it is the balance of each of these interactions that affect our overall perception and create what I will nerdily refer to as the wine’s matrix.  For those that skipped through this article looking for a cheat sheet, here are a list of balancing interactions that you may experience within the wine itself, or when mixing wine with food.

First let’s look at the tastes from the last post.  Remember how we taste Sweet, Bitter, and Umami when molecules bind to your taste buds and we taste Sour and Salty when ions flow through the taste bud channels?  This means that when you have a combination of Sweet, Bitter, and/or Umami tastes, those will all enhance each other.  Same goes for mixing the Sour and the Salty.

TasteBalance

One of the best pieces of wine and food advice I’ve ever received was from Tim Hanni, MW and that was to always have a lemon wedge and salt nearby.  If you are ever noticing that your wine seems a little off or flat when you are having it with a meal, give the food a little spritz of lemon and you will notice a bit of lift in the wine and it will instantly improve.  This is the same thing you do when your soup seems a bit bland.  You add a dash of vinegar or citric acid to give it lift.  Salt can also have a similar effect, but only up to a point.  We salt to taste the food, otherwise it just tastes salty.  However, salt plays an important role regarding tannin.  If a wine is too tannic for you, try adding a bit of sea salt or kosher salt (Not iodized salt.  Iodine is bitter.) and then notice the tannins start to disappear.  This also works with a spritz of the lemon as well. Historically people have paired a big, tannic red wine with a piece of red meat because they thought the tannins were being softened by the fat in the meat.  Good outcome, incorrect reasoning.  The tannins are noticeably reduced due to the salt put on the piece of meat and nothing really to do with the meat itself.  Red wine with salty/lemony white fish? Don’t mind if I do!

Salt and Lemon. Wine and Food's BFFs.

Salt and Lemon. Wine and Food’s BFFs.

Here is a quick reference list for the tactile interactions that can happen and you should certainly experiment with:

  • Alcohol increases piquance
  • Acidity decreases piquance
  • Astringency increases piquance
  • Sugar decreases piquance
  • Acidity lifts fat
  • Acidity decreases astringency
  • CO2 in my opinion causes a certain level of confusion amongst your taste buds and tactile sensors.  This usually has somewhat of a masking effect on pretty much anything that could be considered an irritant (Piquance and astringency).

Of course, if you want to get really experimental, you can repeat the experience I had when I paired wine with all the things I wasn’t supposed to.  Bon apetit!

Additional sources for reading:

Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters – Gordon Shepherd

Why You Like The Wines You Like – Tim Hanni

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I know, I know, it’s taken me forever to get this up!  Hopefully, this conclusion to my exploration of the sushi and wine experience makes up for trying your patience.  I promised charts.  I promised science.  I promised that you’d be able to comfortably pick out what wine you want for the experience you want when having sushi.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I deliver all of those things in this riveting end point to your wine and sushi voyage.  For the very impatient (aka lazy bums, slackers, non-geeks), please scroll to the chart at the bottom to get the answers without having to learn.

Where We Left Off…

In Part 1, we did a review of the existing “literature”.  By that, I mean we Googled the heck out of pairing wine with sushi and came up with a whole lot of nothing useable.  Preferences were listed aplenty, but no guides existed to help you in the sushi restaurant.

In Part 2, we reviewed the components of wine and sushi and laid out some plausible theories as to what kinds of interactions could go down when mixing and matching.  Here I brought in the insight of Tim Hanni, MW to get his take on what actually happens when wine and food are mixed in our noses, our mouths and our brains.  We also discussed some of the existing claims out there and Tim happily took down a lot of the nonsense that has been floating around.  At the conclusion I delivered 4 specific interactions that really affect the sushi and wine experience.  To repeat and save you the trouble of clicking the link and having to read:

  • When a flavor component of the food is similar to that in the wine, the experience of that flavor is enhanced.  This is called flavor matching.
  • The perception of alcohol will increase when paired with sweet, umami-tasting or spicy foods.
  • The perception of spiciness will decrease when paired to a wine with more acidity.
  • Tannins will noticeably diminish when they encounter salt (soy sauce), citric acid (lemon juice) or vinegar (pickled ginger).

 Some More Science

In doing some more research on flavor components, I came across a fascinating article in Nature entitled Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairing.  When you mix wine with food, it’s really an extension of the existing ingredients that are already in the dish. We have our preferences as to which herbs and spices work in which dishes, so we should have our preferences as to which wines work with which dishes too.  In the article they broke down all of the components of food down to the compound level.  You see, it’s the combination of certain compounds that we interpret as flavor and aroma.  Then they ran through various recipe sites on-line and compared which components always showed up together and which ones did not.  The most interesting outcome of this study was that they found in Western cooking, we generally like to put together ingredients that share compounds.  In Eastern cooking, we generally like to put together ingredients that do not share compounds.  Now think back to the first interaction I listed.  If two items match up on flavor/aroma compounds, then that flavor/aroma will be enhanced.  If two items don’t match up on the compounds, then nothing is really enhanced, but things are made a bit more complex.  Trouble wrapping your head around that one?  Thankfully, the authors of the paper came up with an excellent chart to show which ingredients share components (closer together) and which ones have differing components (farther away).  Definitely click on it to get the larger view.  

To associate this with our sushi and wine pairing, this means that if we have a wine that shares a lot of compounds with the components in the sushi, we are going to get an enhancement of that particular flavor or aroma.  The wines that do this are going to typically be whites since they carry a lot of the green, tropical fruit, floral, and minerally components.  If we have a wine that diverges from the compounds of the sushi components, we are going get a more complex sensation of taste.  This will happen with the vast majority of reds with their more earthy, red fruit, and black fruit components.  I generally like to think of this concept in terms of sound waves because they do the same thing.  A sound wave is enhanced if the same wave gets overlaid on to it and the sound wave is neutralized if the exact opposite wave is laid on top of it.  [As a side note, the latter method is essentially how noise cancellation works.] [As a side note to the side note, I think the idea of creating flavor or aroma component “chords” is something very real and needs to be explored]  Therefore, the first decision you have to make is whether you want an enhancement of certain components with your wine and sushi pairing or if you want to add complexity to your experience.  Posting the common aroma descriptors of each varietal would make this post a bit lengthy, so I’ve simplified the concept in the chart at the end.

The second decision you have to make is how much of a wasabi kick you are looking to get.  If you’re eating sushi the “proper” way, you should only have a tiny dab with your bite (if any at all), but some people have been known to take a chunk just to get that brain burn feeling.  Again, a reminder that the wasabi you are having is really horseradish, mustard and food coloring and not actual wasabi, but the effect is generally the same.  One way to control the amount of kick is to simply control the amount of wasabi you are ingesting at a time.  However, one can neutralize some of the effects of the spiciness by taking a swig of wine that has some noticeable acid in it.  This is nice for those who are not so daring to swallow a chunk of wasabi outright, but might enjoy the pepperiness that it brings.  The exact proportions will differ by person, but it’s certain that if you take a lot of wasabi in at once, no amount of acid will diffuse that shooting burn you’ll get through your brain.  It’s the in between area that there is room to play.  On the flip side of that, if you have a wine with more pronounced alcohol content, that kick may be heightened depending on your level of sensitivity.  The more tolerant taster who doesn’t noticed higher alcohol content in wines as much (as a burning sensation in the back of your throat near the nasal cavity) may be more tolerant of spicy foods to begin with.  The more sensitive taster should take note though.  For those who like to live on the edge, take something 100 proof alongside a big chunk of wasabi.  I’m sure it will be a trip you won’t forget.  If anyone wants to create a shot based on that, all I ask is that you send a small portion of the revenue from all of your “I survived….” merchandise my way.

Last, we consider the tannin factor.  That cotton feeling you get wrapping around your tongue generally with red wines.  This was a big point of contention on the internet as the red wine purists couldn’t understand why their tannins had disappeared and the rest of the people didn’t want them there in the first place.  But are we just restricted to white wines or red wines sans tannins when eating sushi? No! You can have the wine you want with the experience you want, but you may need to take steps to get it that way.  Let’s remember that the sensation of tannin decreases significantly when you add in citric acid, vinegar or salt.  We can get citric acid from a lemon slice, vinegar from pickled ginger and salt from soy sauce while we’re eating sushi.  Use these as your tools.  You want all the tannin goodness your favorite wine can provide?  Stay away from dunking your bite of sushi into soy sauce; forgo the slice of pickled ginger in between bites.  Your tannins will be there every step of the way.  What’s that? You inconsiderately ordered a bottle of tannic red wine without asking the people you are with what they want and they don’t want any tannin at all?  Well they’ll be resigned to getting a bit more soy sauce on each bite than they’re used to; having a slice of pickled ginger in between bites; or maybe just squeezing a bit of lemon over everything.  The moderates can find their ideal balance somewhere in between with a little trial and error using the tools available.

Now, I wouldn’t have gone through all this work without trying these theories out on unknowing participants.  That’s not my style.  An event was put together with 15 people to verify the effects of these interactions with 4 different wines and an assorted collection of sushi.  Was it scientific? Not remotely.  Did it successfully verify that people who just like wine and also like sushi can use this information to identify what wines they like best with sushi? Absolutely. We used all of the common ingredients found in sushi restaurants in Minneapolis and tasted four wines throughout the night: Grüner Veltliner, Viognier, Carmenere, Shiraz.  Keeping in mind that the impression my internet searching left me with was that people shied away from reds when eating sushi, it was a fun surprise to discover that with the tools I had given the group, the overall favorite pairing was the Shiraz.

The key, as with just about everything, is balance.  More importantly, it’s knowing what you are balancing.  Three questions need to be asked when you sit down to sushi and you’re deciding what wine you want.

  1. How much wasabi kick do I want?
  2. How much tannin do I want to be noticeable?
  3. Do I want flavor enhancement or flavor complexity?

Charts!

Add acid to manage excessive wasabi kick

Alcohol will increase the wasabi kick moderately

Finally, here is the chart that was given to the willing subjects.  The wines listed are all of those available at the various sushi restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Notice how it guides you toward achieving balance through trade offs.  Happy pairing!

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