Food should enhance the flavor of wine. Too often it does not.
When Chef Jeffrey Starr, culinary director and executive chef at Trinchero Family Estates in Napa Valley, Calif., pairs wine with food, he considers the "taste balance" between them by looking at the components in each.
The dominant taste of anything you eat or drink will affect what you consume later. "For example, follow a sweet toothpaste in the morning with orange juice, which becomes sour and bitter," he said at a food and wine seminar last month at Heidelberg Distributing Co. in Perrysburg. "Food changes the taste of wine. All wines."
In America, "we borrow food and flavors from all over the world, from spicy Thai red curry to ceviche," he said while visiting the Toledo area during a multistate tour. One concept is to serve wine that shows up the food.
Taste changes can affect people in different ways.
"My goal as a winery chef is to minimize change. I don't want my food to change the taste of wine," he said. "The good qualities are the fruit in a wine; you want to heighten it." If there's grapefruit flavor in a wine, you want to taste it, not just taste citrus.
A good food-and-wine pairing involves minimizing the change in taste of the wine. "We want the wine to taste the way the winemaker intended it to taste," he said.
Five tastes are: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory).
White zinfandel is a slightly sweet wine; when paired with sweet foods, it can taste sour. Sauvignon blanc is drier, more acidic. Sweetness in foods makes wines taste stronger, less sweet, more acidic, and more tannic. "Dessert is sweet. Make sure the dessert wine is sweeter than the dessert," Chef Starr advised.
However, you can pair cabernet sauvignon with chocolate. "Chocolate radically changes taste," he said, adding that merlot and chocolate work even better. "Use a bittersweet chocolate, not milk chocolate."
Salty and sour tastes in food make wines taste milder (sweeter, fruitier, less acidic, and less tannic.) Sweet and savory (umami) tastes in food make wines taste stronger (drier, less fruity, more acidic, and more tannic and bitter).
Foods high in umami are meat (especially aged and braised), chicken stock, shellfish (lobster, scallops, oysters), mushrooms (especially shiitake), ripe fruits and vegetables, fish sauce and soy sauce, and many snack foods.
Keep the acidity level of wine similar to that of the food. Many Asian foods made with rice vinegar can be served with white zinfandel, which is slightly sweet.
If a food makes wine too strong, to achieve balance, add sources of saltiness and acidity. "These are minor adjustments, a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon," he said.
For a wine-and-cheese party, it is especially important to pick the right cheeses. He said there are two kinds: fresh young and dry aged. For fresh young cheeses such as Monterey, which is high in lactose, sweet, high in umami, high in glutamic acid, and makes wines taste stronger, avoid strong wines. Dry aged cheese has salty and sour components that make wines taste milder. "Reggiano Parmigano may be the most wine-friendly cheese," he said. It complements many wines.
Spicy foods with chilies makes wines taste stronger. It irritates the nerve endings of the taste buds. The sweetness of a wine helps tame the fire of chilies. Avoid strong wines with spicy foods.