Food is meant to sustain us – “what we eat today walks and talks tomorrow”, and, as a bonus, can be a pleasurable sensory experience. Our body evolved so that the need to eat was hardwired into the senses, and in particular, the sense of smell, that specialist function of mammals. The front portion of the brain that computes smell also looks after pleasure, emotions and their memories, which is why the scent of, for example, lavender or freshly mown grass, can transport us back to childhood or an event, to relive that moment. Of our various senses, it seems that smell is the only one that does not necessarily deteriorate with age, thus confirming its importance. In contrast, our palate, where we taste, slowly declines. Small children are fussy eaters because they are more sensitive than adults to bitterness and acids. They tend to be more attuned to sweetness to fuel their active lives.
The language of eating and drinking is very confusing – taste; flavour and palate words seem to be interchangeable to food and wine writers. “Tasteless” and “flavourless” have the same definition in the dictionary, as do “tasteful”, “flavourful” and “flavoursome”, whilst “aftertaste” is a word, but “afterflavour” is not. I find it useful to go back to their origin in old French; the word “taste” derives from “touch”, the initial contact on the tongue; and “flavour” from the word “savour”, the idea being the continuing experience in the mouth and nose (the finish).
Food, like wine, is a combination of these elements. Each food can have a range of aromas, with accompanying mouthfeel – the softness, texture, warmth and so on. I regard wine as “liquid food”, which does makes it seem more like a soup! I have been advocating for some time that wine should be eaten (see my article) rather than drunk because of their similar mix of aromas and textures. To eat wine is to do exactly what you do with food – keep your head level, place the wine at the front of the mouth (don’t swallow), chew and wait. People who drink wine as if it is a beverage like water or beer, under experience wine by not receiving the full pleasure that it can offer. This is very common.
So, in response to the question about which wine goes with which food, the answer is that there are four possibilities, the same as for many matches whether they be for clothes or even finding a partner;
Obviously good human partnerships are complex but would expect to have a preponderance of (3) and (4)! ; although occasionally may dip into (1) and (2). The reality of food and wine matching is simpler, like seafood with a heavy red wine, a (1) – it just doesn’t work. Much more common are the experiences (2) and (3). A (2) would be almost any wine with a curry, when you may as well be drinking water. While experiences (3) and (4) are preferred, it is the latter that is truly memorable. Favourite number (4) experiences of mine are smoked salmon with an oaked Chardonnay, or Syrah with a roast lamb.
The guiding principle is “like goes with like”, meaning that the food and wine have something in common, or an overlap, in a dominant aspect of their respective mixtures. In this way, something sweet will match with a sweet wine, white wine with white meats, red wine with red meats, delicate soups with a delicate wine, spicy with spicy and so on. That will take you so far, but again realities and experience indicate that there are many caveats to this principle.
Here are my variations and suggestions:
Nevertheless there are still some popular combinations:
Ultimately it is your experience and you are an expert on yourself. Just enjoy!
Winemaker & Viticulturist
Nicholson River Winery
August 2011 (updated March 2013)
On the occasion of Toby Puttock’s cooking demonstration in Bairnsdale, East Gippsland