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;
- Mutual dislike/irreconcilable differences (i.e. incompatible); or,
- One dominates, the other diminishes or vanishes (i.e. unbalanced); or,
- Both shine independently; or,
- Each enhances the other so that the overall effect is amplified (i.e. synergy).
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:
- There has been a huge change in Australian eating habits in recent years; more choices and the proliferation of Asian and Mediterranean cuisines have made choosing an accompanying wine seem a daunting task. Also, many Australian wine styles and varieties are stuck in the “steak and vegie” past, or are better without food. New foods require new wines.
- Flavoursome wines handle food better than thin or heavy wines. So much for cheap whites and traditional (high alcohol, high tannin) Australian reds!! They assault the tongue rather than massage it.
- Sweet, vinegar or chilli ingredients pose difficulties for dry wines (Chefs please note!)
- A sensible eating convention is to start with appetisers (small & distinctively flavoured), then a delicate dish for entrée (often seafood or pasta), then a main course, cheese and finally dessert and tea or coffee (note here the progression from delicate and tasty towards richness). It is possible to have a different wine for each of these courses. However, I find that several courses can be suitably accommodated by food-friendly wines such as Sparkling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or cool climate Shiraz (Syrah).
- When making a decision about a food/wine match, run the match through your imagination – your memory of aromas will help you decide if the combination is likely to work. Don’t underestimate the mouth cleansing effect of dry wines, particularly sparkling wines, for rich foods or when oils are used in their preparation.
- Be aware that there is an element trial and error – but it is fun making a discovery! Not long ago, some colleagues and I lined up various cheeses and tasted them with different wines. To my surprise the best combinations were Chardonnay with Brie, Pinot Noir with Goat’s cheese, Botrytis sweet wine with blue cheese and traditional Australian reds were finally matched with cheddar.
- Eating and drinking are enjoyable sensory pleasures and enhance our social experience, too. Of course, our sensory capacity is reduced if we are tired or anxious, which is why most social occasions are on weekends. On the other hand, it is often forgotten how easy it is to overload the brain; too much richness could mean the subtleties may go unnoticed. Using water and bread at the table helps cleanse and refresh the palate.
- The value of context (where you are, who you are with) should be taken into account; a picnic occasion suits a chilled dry Rosé or White, rather than a complex, expensive wine. An anniversary or special event requires a Sparkling or an aged wine with character. For a family meal at home, perhaps an unpretentious dry table wine, although if there is an honoured guest, an upgrade is appropriate. Personally, I have never understood why so many restaurants are noisy. Surely this detracts from the food/wine experience and ability to converse.
Nevertheless there are still some popular combinations:
|Unoaked Chardonnay– seafood, chicken||Pinot Noir– duck, rabbit, kangaroo, pork|
|Oaked Chardonnay– smoked salmon, rich seafood, spicy chicken, pork||Cool Climate Shiraz (Syrah)– lamb, beef, pasta|
|Riesling– seafood, chicken||Cabernet Merlot– lamb, beef, pasta|
|Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc– shellfish||Traditional Australian Sweet (e.g. Muscat)– desserts|
|Sparkling– wide use, esp. as a palate cleanser and with entrees.||Botrytis Sweet Whites– foie gras, blue cheese|
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