Posts Tagged ‘wine education’


“What’s the best wine to pair with this dish?” is a question every wine expert gets asked a little too often.  I have some issues with this question (Of course Aaron has issues with something), but it’s not the fault of the curious wine drinker; the issue lies with how wine experts, so-called wine experts, and wine publications insist that this is an important question to ask.  The problem I have with the question is that it relies on a couple of false assumptions:

1.) That there is a “best/perfect/ideal” pairing for every plate of food and it will be nearly universally agreed upon despite people having that interesting human trait called Preference.  I have debunked this myth before.  In this respect, the curious wine drinker may be better served by asking a wine expert what an interesting or unexpected wine pairing to a dish may be as the result may be much more rewarding.

2.) That wine and food pairing can only go a single direction; as in a wine can only be paired to a food and a food cannot be paired to a wine.  If you are sitting at a table in a restaurant with a discreet list of food items and set wine list, it makes sense to ask the Sommelier or waiter (if you trust they’ve actually tried all the wines) which wine might be enjoyable with the dish you’ve ordered as you are somewhat limited in your options.  But what if you’re cooking at home and you can make whatever you want, how you want it?  Well, that’s when things get interesting.

In previous posts I have explored what wine and food pairing really is about instead of the romantic notions of “classic” pairings that aren’t really based on anything except tradition (Cab Sauv w/ Steak, Syrah w/ Lamb).  When people give recommendations outside of these traditional pairings they usually focus on flavor matching, meaning if you have a dish with red fruits in it, they’ll pick a wine that has red fruit flavors.  Most of these recommendations don’t get down to the molecular level where things really get interesting, but at least the wine drinker starts to connect why they are enjoying something and developing the skill to be able to find new pairings themselves.

The other aspect of wine and food pairing which is so very slowly being utilized by experts is flavor balancing, but an aspect of it has been the sole focus of wine and cheese pairing for decades.  If the wine is a bit bitter or astringent, balance it in the food with acid and/or salt.  And cheese pairings! If it’s a creamy, fatty cheese, pair it with a wine that has higher acidity.  But again, a person’s preference plays into this as well so it’s better to explain what happens when you mix and match as a pairing that tackles the harsh tannins of a particular wine may be thoroughly enjoyed by someone not fond of the cotton-mouth feel, but frowned upon by someone who does.  In this respect, “Balance” is somewhat subjective, but helping someone discover how salt and sour tastes fit on one side of the metaphorical scale and sweet, bitter, and umami are on the other will assist them in figuring out what sort of balance they are looking for.

Taking these things to account, it’s important to remember that wine and food pairing needn’t be a unidirectional exercise.  If you have a wine that has notes of lime in it, why not add some lime zest to the dish you are preparing?  If the wine is a bit flat and lacking some acid, why not add a bit more acid to the dish you are preparing to give the wine some life? Wine and food pairing is, to use a math/programming term, recursive which creates an infinite loop of enjoyability.  This is why gastronomes don’t necessarily care whether they take a bite or sip first, they just know that it needs to be followed by the other to find true satisfaction.

So if you are a curious wine drinker, the next time you feel compelled to ask a wine expert which wine you should pair with a dish, instead ask one of the following questions:

  1. What would be an interesting or unexpected wine pairing with this dish?
  2. I really like the [your favorite part of the dish] in this.  What wine would highlight that aspect of it?
  3. I have this wine [indicate in a grand gesture ala a magician revealing a trick] and this dish [twirl a fake mustachio or real one if you have it].  What could I do to the dish to really tie the wine to it?

And if you are a wine expert, do your best to keep your preferences in check and turn the “best wine pairing” question into one of the above.


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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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Exciting News For Twin Cities Folk!!

The Aaron Berdofe Wine and Food Experience is coming to the Kitchen Window in Uptown.  I will be leading two classes this fall in their super fantastic kitchen they have on the upper level in Calhoun Square.  It sounds like space for these fills up quickly so click the links below and get registered!

September 9, 6pm-9:30pm:   Big 6 Wine Basics Dinner

Thursday, October 13, 6pm-9:30pm: Syrah/Shiraz Wine Dinner

Can’t make it? Contact me about private events for you and your friends.

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