Slow Food Columbus

Slow Wine: Pairing Food and Wine

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Our monthly Slow Wine meet-and-greets were originally intended to be social events, and we were surprised (and gratified!) when we heard from members that they’d like to get some more taste education in the mix.  You don’t have to ask us twice—and Jonna Brandon, owner of the Twisted Vine, responded enthusiastically as well.

Jonna led a seminar on pairing food and wine that was based on an industry seminar given not long ago by Master Sommelier Matthew Citriglia, who led our Bordeaux vertical not long ago.  Mark Twain once wrote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” and the truth at the heart of Twain’s humor—the fact that time, and expertise, breed concision—is nowhere more evident than in Matt’s presentations.  This one, happily, was no exception.

Most guides to wine pairing are elaborate dissertations that exhaustively list every sort of food and tell you which grape variety goes best with it.  There are two problems with that approach:  not all foods are the same, and not all grape varieties are the same.

Take fish, for example.  Which wine goes with fish will depend, of course, on the fish: some are mild and some are assertive.  But it will also depend on what you serve with the fish.  Is there a sauce, a rub, a coating?  The possibilities multiply quickly.

Similarly, perhaps a guide recommends a Riesling… but Rieslings can be fairly dry or quite sweet.  Which one do you want?  Then you get to the store and the wine shop owner tells you that what you really want is a Gewürztraminer.  Does that make any sense?  Why?

This presentation really helped to cut through all of the confusion, because it didn’t focus on particular foods or particular grape varieties.  Instead, it broke both of them down to their constituent elements and discussed how each of them complemented—or didn’t complement—the others.

Try an acidic wine sometime.  Then bite into a slice of lemon and try the acidic wine again.  What do you notice?  What we noticed was, it tastes less acidic—even though acids add to each other rather than neutralizing one another’s effects.  That tells you something interesting: the perceived effects of acid in food and wine aren’t cumulative. For that reason, acidic wines and foods tend to pair well, because the acid doesn’t stand out.  It tends to be a bit muted.

On the other hand, the perceived effects of bitterness do cumulate, in a big way. So while walnuts (bitter) and Riesling (in this case, a sweet one) are just fine together, walnuts and a really tannic California Cabernet were awful together.

There’s more, of course… quite a bit more.  I tried to capture the main relationships in the diagram above, though I’m fairly sure my notes are incomplete.  But there’s nothing quite like going through this little six-wine tasting for yourself and experiencing these interactions.

At our meet and greet afterward, Jonna brought out two really interesting wines for us to try:  a 100% Nascetta (?!?), a white wine made from a nearly-extinct variety kept alive at the University of Turin for experimental purposes and recently replanted in the Langhe region by six growers.  From the 2010 vintage, Jonna told us, Nascetta will be a permitted variety in the Langhe D.O.C.  The other wine was a Sicilian Frappato, a red made from another little-known Italian variety.  Both were quite good, the Nascetta good enough to bring a bottle home.

Until the next Slow Wine… salute!



  • Lori

    You made a chart! I love it. I feel like I need that in a business-size card format, laminated, to keep in my wallet. Such great information!

  • Drew

    What do the dotted versus solid lines indicate? Goes with versus not?

    The complication of saying ‘goes well with’ is that it can be subjective, or at least not descriptive enough. For example, when having spicy food, some might want to enhance the heat while others might want to mute it. I note that you phrase things by saying whether flavors are cumulative or not. Maybe a graph showing that type of relationship would be possible?

    • Bear

      That’s actually more or less what this does. Most of the relationships were of the “acidic wine makes acidic food less intense” or “alcoholic wine makes spicy food more intense” variety, which means they either moderate or exaggerate a trait that’s already exaggerated. But there were some that just went well together, and some that had more to do with texture than with taste. So the dotted lines are meant more as warnings, and the solid ones as reminders of positive associations… I designed them (for myself, really!) to prompt me to remember what I learned at the tasting, not to work as a standalone guide.

  • Jonna

    This is a great chart. Do you mind if I copy and use it? The associations also work with food pairings as well. Ketchup and french fries – saltiness balanced by acidity and sweetness.

    • Bear

      Please do! (And thanks!) I can also modify the original, if you want to add or subtract anything. I do find that I keep coming back to sneak peeks at it — more and more I like Lori’s idea of printing out a copy to keep in my wallet.

  • http://www.tipsyculinaryqueen.com Jennifer

    Great reference material. Wine and food pairing can be so subjective. You’re right, it depends on what type of meat you’re preparing and how. And the sides. The possibilities are endless and it’s such fun research! As long as we have resources like yours here we can all drink, dine, and delve into new recipes and learn together! Thanks.

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