Posts Tagged ‘pairing’


Every year as the holidays start to roll in, it seems that every wine and/or food related outlet is ready to let you know which wines you should buy in order to have the perfect experience.  I always am particularly amused by the interviews with wine “experts” bemoaning how difficult it is to pair wines with a traditional Thanksgiving meal (Revelation: It’s not).  It is also interesting to note how the “perfect” wine pairings for various holiday meals changes from year to year.  Apparently perfection is now something that can be outdone, which makes me want to start a hyperbolic series listing the More-Perfect wine and food pairings so I won’t be outdone by the likes of everyone else!  However, the idea of the perfect wine pairing extends beyond the holidays and into general food and wine snob culture.  The question I have for these people purporting perfect pairings is this: Can you define what a perfect pairing is?

Take this infographic for instance by someone at Vinepair.com.  I won’t show the image here, because it’s ridiculous, but I could probably switch every single wine/beer/liquor pairing around on their chart and no one would complain.  It’s clearly not based on anything except someone’s [unique] preferences.  Fortunately, they posted another article shortly thereafter, giving some good advice even though it was supposedly only for “Geeks”.  So, sorry casual wine drinkers, you’re going to have to stick to imperfection again this year.  (However, here’s another good article that doesn’t appear to be for geeks that may help.)

Whenever someone (expert status or not) claims a match is a perfect pairing and you really press them on why they think it’s perfect, the answer always boils down to: “Well, I liked it.”  There isn’t a metric being used that will be universally true for everyone and that’s really the crux of the issue here.  Not only do people have their own individual preferences, but the variety of what is being served at various holiday meals should negate the relevenace of any broad holiday wine and food pairing advice.  Yes, even Thanksgiving.  But I do understand the point of giving this advice; it’s to make it easier for the casual drinker to pick out some wines at the store that they can bring to dinner.  However, this is why I find it puzzling that many of these articles list specific wines down to the producer and vintage.

There are a stunning amount of wine producers in the world; so stunning that there is not a single person in the world who has tasted the offerings from them all.  If you were to pop in to a different wine store in each state and make a Venn Diagram listing all of the wines each store had, the amount of overlap would actually be quite small.  On the severely cheap end is where you find the most commonalities, because the business model of producers like Yellow Tail, Franzia, and Charles Shaw is to mass produce their product.  Region-specific wine producers though, by their very nature, can’t produce enough wine to make it available in the majority of wine shops across America (let alone the rest of the world).  So while it is great advertising for a wine producer when a wine writer from Napa or New York City annoints them as a perfect pairing for whatever holiday meal, it actually provides little to no value to a reader in Fly-Over Country (Where, surprisingly, most Americans still live) that won’t be able to pick up a bottle of that wine because their wine shop doesn’t carry it.

Therefore, if you’re a wine writer, let’s go ahead and stop the “Perfect Pairing” nonsense.  I bet I could find at least 50 other wines that would be just as good to various people.  If you’re the wine drinker though and you’re wondering what to bring to dinner this Thursday though, I will offer this:

Buy some wines you like of varying colors, bubbles, and sweetness.  The more specific they are on the label about where it comes from, generally the safer the bet.  As long as no one shows up halfway through the meal with a selection of wines that everyone unanimously prefers over the ones you brought, yours really will be perfect pairings.

Cheers.  And for those still looking for meal ideas, you can just have what I had last year.





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Being from Minneapolis, I have to be somewhat of a Hipster.  We are the Hipster capitol of whatever, as you know.  I’m not the glasses, flannel, and skinny jeans type; no (that’s so passé), but it is certainly not beneath me to state that something that has now become popular is suddenly uncool.  That something is the wine and cheese pairing party trend.  The mid-2000s called; they want their snobby party idea back.

Like most things I oppose, this one is mostly on principal.  I won’t belittle it because it gathers people together to quaff large quantities of wine while enjoying cheese on the side and a feeling of “fanciness” in the air.  No,  I fully support people who enjoy that sort of thing taking part in that.  It is the fact that the event is a complete sham and people are only maintaining the illusion that they are learning something about wine that I just won’t stand for.  And since I won’t call it out when some guy is talking about how amazing his wine and cheese parties are at a wedding reception and it’s “Just something [he] likes to do”, which apparently makes him a “Wine Guy”; I will do it here.   I’m so passive-aggressive.

So let me lay it out for you: why you should step it up a notch at your next wine-inspired event.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to crack down on the Kraft cheese.  That isn’t the issue.  I’m not even going to crack down on the casual appearance of Two Buck Chuck: still not the problem.  The problem is food science.

Cheese is composed of fat, protein. and salt.  That’s all of it.  The balance of which will cause you to define it as a creamy cheese (i.e. Brie), a salty one (i.e. Aged Cheddar) or something in between (i.e. Gouda).  Plastic-y is something else entirely.  Hopefully, you read the results of my rebelliousness previously and will at least pick up that salt has a certain affect on red wine.  Fats and proteins have long been paired with red wines because they bind with the tannins, thus reducing the cotton-mouth feeling you get from them.  Salt, as previously reported, has a similar effect, and also reduces bitterness.  If you add a couple grains of kosher salt to your coffee, you’ll get a similar smoothing as adding cream.  In fact, milk is still an acceptable additive in numerous parts of the world to ease the bitterness and astringency on overly tannic red wines.

Then there’s acid.  Acid in wine can help lighten up a heavy dish by “cutting through” some of the fat.  A dash of vinegar or citrus in a heavy cream sauce or soup can turn a dish from bland and heavy to focused and structured.  Voilá.  Thus, higher acid in wine cuts through heavy and creamy cheeses.

So here are the two experiences you’ll ever notice at a wine and cheese party. First, when you have a creamy or salty cheese with a red wine, you are masking the tannins or “softening” them in wine lingo and left with the fruit of the wine.  This generally encourages those who aren’t too fond of tannins to drink more red wine.  Then, if you pair an acidic wine with a creamy cheese, you’ll be ok with eating more of that cheese.  At the end of the night, you’re primary experience will be, “Wow, I ate a lot of cheese and drank a lot of wine.”  You will have spent most the evening masking certain items of either cheese or wine.  This is like erasing the horrible lead guitarist in the band and not replacing them with anyone better.

Wine and food pairing, much like a good band is about balance.  Everything has to play a part to create a more complex and enduring experience.  As someone who plays music solo a lot, I can tell you that I crave, crave, crave a full band sometimes to make it more interesting for the listener.  Do you want to listen to a drum solo the rest of your life? I didn’t think so.

When I’m doing a wine and food pairing event, I admit I’ll occasionally have a cheese and chocolate course at the end with a tannic red.  But it’s to show the specific effect the elements of cheese have on tannins in red wine. That’s a drum solo within a song.  Rock on!

Therefore, if you truly want to make the night an interesting experience over and over again, you have to change the mix of interactions between the wine and the food.  There are five different basic tastes you can play around with.  Have something sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (umami) and then see what happens with each of those and the chosen wines.  You will learn something, I guarantee it.  From then on, you can taste a food or wine and ask yourself what you think is missing or what more you are craving to make that sensation balanced.

This self-impression of balance is what is being referred to when someone says,”This pairing did/did not work for me.”  But only by getting beyond wine and cheese events will you be able to answer the most important part to that, which is why.  There’s certainly a time for having a little wine and cheese as a snack, because sometimes simplicity and comfort are what we are craving, but that one note solo is not going to make for an entertaining evening again and again.

As a side note, if you really want to seem cool at these parties, use my music metaphor and tell people you need a little more of the bass line on a certain pairing trial and they’ll be astounded.

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In my Sushi and Wine Part 1 post, I did a survey of the existing help a person may find browsing the internet on pairing wine with sushi.  The results were not good.  It turned out that given the number of conflicting views that existed, people should just give up and drink sake (or a gin martini!) instead of attempting to drink wine with their sushi.  While disheartening for wine lovers who also eat sushi, I would not be deterred.  Sushi, after all is just food and there is a science behind how wine interacts with food.  Let’s break it down!

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Basic food components of (Americanized) sushi: raw fish (tuna, salmon, snapper, etc.), rice prepared with rice vinegar and sugar, soy sauce, pickled ginger and wasabi (although a lot of times it’s just a colored horseradish and mustard mixture).

Additional food components in rolls: carrots, cucumbers, mango, sprouts, mayonnaise (sometimes “spicy”), cream cheese, crab (fake or not), nori (the seaweed wrap) and tempura (batter of mostly wheat flour that things can be fried in).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is pretty comprehensive if you consider the vast majority of sushi consumed here in America.  One thing to notice here is that even though sushi and wine pairing is kind of an unsettled thing, the taste components of sushi don’t differ from any other foods.  You still perceive the primary tastes* sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami from sushi, just as you would any other meal.  Theoretically then, sushi shouldn’t be treated any differently than if you were considering a wine for another type of meal.  So where is the disconnect?  Does the dunking of the sushi into a vat of soy sauce (umami and saltiness) really “kill” a wine.

In researching how sushi and wine can interact with each other, I decided I needed to know a little bit more about the science of taste.  The journey ended up leading me to the one and only, Tim Hanni, MW.  Tim is known, amongst other things, for two firsts: Being one of the first two resident Americans to receive a Master of Wine title and for being the first to introduce the flavor component, umami into the wine and food community lexicon.  The latter has given him the tongue-in-cheek (almost literally) title as The Swami of Umami.  Visit his website through the link for a whole host of interesting materials.

“There are actual differences in how people experience some sensations. It’s not that one person has a better or worse palate than another.”  Tim stated, referring to the idea in the wine world that one has to “mature” their palate to truly appreciate the best wine and food pairings.  In his teachings, we all fall somewhere on a scale of how sensitive a taster we are.  The highly sensitive tasters can notice interactions to a high degree while a more tolerant taster might not even notice it at all.  An example he gives is experiencing a wine with a high alcohol level.  A more sensitive taster will experience almost a burning sensation which can be heightened if paired with a sweet or umami-laden food.  The tolerant taster, on the other hand could find the sensation to be almost sweet instead of a burn and not mind the food/wine combination at all.

More specifically, about sushi, I asked him about the claim that soy sauce “kills” wine.  “I hate that. Most people don’t actually pay attention to what is happening in their mouth and the ones who should (writers, bloggers, “experts”) often pay the least attention – they write about wine and food interactions that they have never taken the time to isolate and experience. Do you have a bottle of red open yet today?”  I didn’t.  I’d just gotten done with a 3-hour bike ride and was still in full gear, sans helmet.  “Ok, well I have this bottle of red here that I’ve been working on today and…it’s ok, it’s not that good.”  Tim is very much a hands-on kind of educator. “And I have a little bit of this soy sauce…then the wine…and this wine actually tastes better with the soy sauce.”  So no, wine isn’t “killed” by soy sauce.  What does happen, is that the perception of tannin in the red wine noticeably diminishes due to the salt in the soy sauce.  Therefore, someone expecting the astringency (and also considering the presence of those tannins the mark of what the wine should taste like in the case of many wine professionals) might consider it a bad pairing while someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy that sort of cottony-feeling in their mouth might consider it a good pairing.  Tim, had just answered the question as to why there was no consensus in the on-line world as to what wines were good with sushi and what wines were not.  It’s all about perception.

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Therefore, pairing wine and sushi (or to any dish really) is not so much about finding the perfect wine that everyone agrees on, but discussing the sensations that are possible and letting someone figure out which ones they like. The experience of flavor matching, on the other hand; the concept of hooking up a similar aroma or flavor from a wine to one that is found in the food, will probably be consistent across the board, but one would need to decide if they want to up-play or down-play that flavor.

Now for the theoretical part.  Through my research so far, I’ve come up with 4 interactions that generally make up and affect the wine and sushi experience.  Just 4, you say? Yes! Just 4!  These 4 guidelines will assist people in choosing the wine and sushi pairings that work for them.  If you’d like, you can play around with these interactions as you eagerly await the exciting conclusion of my sushi and wine research.  Part 3 will involve experiments, charts, more science and as promised, a guide to show you what to order at your favorite sushi restaurant based on what kind of experience you want to have.

The 4:

  • 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).

*More and more research is showing that taste takes on a hierarchical form with the primary tastes on top and their variations underneath.  At least 5 different types of bitterness have already been sussed out and there is little doubt that more will be found including sub-types to those sub-types and perhaps more tastes than the 5 general tastes already labeled!

Read on to the exciting finale: Sushi and Wine Part 3!

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I was recently at a sushi restaurant in Chicago satisfying a seafood craving and I struck up a conversation with the owner who was tending the bar about her wine list.  It was a standard wine list, that is to say it had an equal number of reds and whites all reasonably priced and nothing too interesting.  As I sipped my dry, gin martini I inquired what wines were her big sellers.  She rattled off some of the whites which was no surprise, but then also listed some of the reds which given the reds that they were made me more disappointed than surprised.  Finally, after I reaffirmed my conclusion that people generally have no idea what wine to pair with sushi, she thew in her words of wisdom: “Drink Saké!”  Since this was followed by a free saké tasting, I wasn’t one to object.  But that conversation got the gears turning again about pairing wine with sushi.

Pairing wine and sushi can be a difficult thing.  Not because it is impossible, but because there is a lack of information.  When searching for a good wine pairing to go with just about any other type of meal, the internet is our friend.  What wine would go with this pasta dish I’m having? Google it and gather a consensus.  What meal would go with this wine I just picked up.  Google it and gather a consensus.  Yet, when it comes to pairing wine with raw fish, rice, soy sauce and wasabi, the internet, whom we thought our friend, leaves us hanging in our time of need.

Since there is a lack of information, I will be adding some data into the ether-sphere through this captivating mini-series.  This first part will summarize all of the existing knowledge on pairing wine and sushi that exists on the internet today.  The next part will get into how the food components should match or should not match the wine components and I’ll probably round the whole thing off with a good trial of pairings to verify what works and what does not.

To narrow my focus, which no one else has appeared to do, I’ll be sticking to the items and terminology that are common in a sushi restaurant found in the USA: Sashimi (Just the fish), Nigiri (Fish, rice, dab of wasabi) and those gigantic rolls that you might choke on when you put the whole thing in your mouth in one bite.  I’ll also include the condiments: wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger.  This is to say, I’ll be focusing on Americanized “sushi”, because let’s face it, that’s what most of us have access to and are likely to eat.

The Summary

If you were to Google “sushi wine pairings”, it might as well just return two words: Good luck. Of the little information that exists, it is mostly contradictory, based entirely on preference or not applicable to the kind of sushi restaurant you’d be eating in or that restaurant’s wine list. I won’t link to any of the articles, because all of them were vague, confusing and rarely did they actually have a conclusion.  But the general consensus is this:

  • Stick with white wines
  • Grüner Veltliner is the new kid on the block that people are raving about
  • Soy sauce destroys wine
  • Bubbly is kind of fun
  • Drink beer or saké instead
Mostly people just rehashed some form of the above “advice”, but there were a few trailblazers out there on the fringe:
  • Certain reds are great pairings if you have a tasting set up where the chef and the guy putting the tasting on specifically try to match the pairing up and come up with something that can’t be found in a standard Americanized sushi restaurant
  • Old Bordeaux is the best pairing (because all of us have some of that laying around!) per a sushi chef
  • The wine should have a touch of sweetness to it
  • Oaky Chardonnay should not be considered
  • Oaky Chardonnay should definitely be considered
My favorites [sic] were the ones that threw caution to the wind and just decided to pair the sushi with whatever wine they liked and call it a day.  The standard wine rags were non-commital at best and what was really surprising was that not even the experts would state why things did or did not work (and don’t you want to know why?).  There was debate about judiciously dabbing your soy sauce or giving your sushi a good dunking in it, a certain amount of ruckus over umami and a curiously awed stance over what kind of spiciness wasabi really is. Most of all, what floored me was that there was rarely any mention of the wine enhancing the meal as it should.  Reviews were neutral at best if any final conclusion was reached at all.

Generally with wine and food pairings you can always look to what is traditionally served together: “What grows together, goes together.”  But mid-Pacfic coast Asia doesn’t have a long tradition of grapevine growing and winemaking…so that’s out.  I’d contend that pairing wine with sushi is a new thing in the sense that it doesn’t have a long history of trial and error.  Therefore, the current lack of information on the subject is certainly forgivable.  One thing to note here is that concerning sushi, we are not pairing food with wines that are crafted to be a part of this meal.  This isn’t an impossible task as it has been done numerous times before, but it is difficult when introducing food components that don’t exist in other wine-friendly cuisines.  The intent from here on out is to analyze what makes up the sushi meal and what wine components work best (if any) in a way that will enhance the sushi experience.

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