Food and Wine Pairing – No Longer an Arranged Marriage

By Susan M. Cashin

How times have changed. When I and my fellow sommelier candidates were studying for our exams, we conducted food and wine pairings at the end of each studying session.  As food and wine pairing was an important segment in the grueling two days of exams we were facing, we took turns preparing meals showcasing classic as well as “modern” food and wine pairings. Often the meals would turn into major debates as classmates would have such disparate reactions to the combinations presented for tasting. From time to time, even the “tried and true” classical pairings elicited cries of disapproval and dislike from individuals. We would just chalk it up to a lack of exposure to and experience with the paired offerings.  And that eventually, the dissenters would come to appreciate these “tried and true” perfectly arranged marriages between food and wine.

We would tick through the list of how to determine what wine would complement what food. Wine and food pairing was analogous to an arranged marriage. We were the matchmakers. The wine, as the suitor, must woo the food – the maiden dressed in fine array upon the presented plate.  The weight, richness, flavor intensity and key flavors of the food were compared, contrasted and analyzed with the weight, body, flavor intensity/characteristics, acidity, tannins and sweetness levels of the wine. Regional wines paired best with the regional cuisines. These considerations, as outlined in the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) syllabus in use at the time, took precedence in determining if the “marriage” would succeed. Our focus was riveted on the food and wine and how they should get along!

Hardly a mention was made in the course material about the end user, the diner! Only at the end of the WSET section did this caveat appear in italics. These guidelines and recommendations should avoid disastrous combinations, but individual taste is the final consideration. Experimentation can yield surprising results. Talk about confusion. “Here are the rules, follow them” but no explanation why they worked for some people and not for others. Unfortunately, many of us came to view this as saying tacitly, “Well, not everyone has a refined or educated palate and it’s your job to help them develop one, albeit in a subtle and polite way.”

Thank goodness for Tim Hanni and his questioning the status quo, doing the research and paying attention to the most important equation at the table….the diner, not the dinner. His inquisitiveness and insightful research has led to a new approach to food and wine pairing. Along with his new book, Why You Like The Wines You Like – Changing the way the world thinks about wine , Hanni has written the new section on food and wine pairing offered in the WSET course materials. I, strongly suggest that you go to the following link to read this well laid out approach.

Before we move on to how to utilize these new food and wine pairing concepts at home and while dining out, let’s do a quick recap of Hanni’s tenets and his definition of Vinotypes.

  • Each and everyone one of us has a unique and extremely personal taste preferences. The research of Tim Hanni and Dr. Virginia Utermohlen have discerned and designated four specific phenotypes that Hanni has named collectively as Vinotypes.
  • Your Vinotype is determined by influences both physiological and psychological i.e. genetic makeup combined with cultural and experiential influences along with one’s personal aspirations. Together these aspects frame our taste preferences and thus our predilection for specific styles of wine.
  • Knowledge of your Vinotype will lead you to finding the wines that you love and ones that will enhance your wine experiences. Below you will find Hanni’s general overview of each Vinotype followed by some of my recommendations of Excelsior wines that might please that particular Vinotype.

Sweet tasters are the most physiologically sensitive group. This group wants sweet to mask bitterness and alcohol. They add a lot of cream and sugar to their coffee, if they even drink coffee. They use a lot of salt in food, again to overwhelm bitterness. They love sweet wines that are low in alcohol, even with steak.

Excelsior Viognier

  • Sweet tasters should invariably try the Excelsior Viognier 2012. If they track towards the more Hypersensitive spectrum, this would be a wine for them to try. For that die-hard Sweetie, sometimes one has to think “outside the bottle.” I have found that offering my Sweet Vinotype guests a wine cocktail or sangria is a fantastic and creative option. It’s wonderful to see the smiles on their faces when these guests feel included in the mix and not the wine party wallflower they so often are forced to become.

Hypersensitive tasters are the largest segment of the population. They live in a sensory cacophony, are often artistic, love fragrances and strong flavors, may be prone to attention deficit disorder and are sensitive to bitter flavors and an abundance of alcohol in beverages.

  • The Hypersensitive along with the Sweet taster is a bit trickier to figure out how to please. These two Vinotypes have the most issues with taste sensitivity. High alcohol, high acidity, as well as their propensity to taste bitterness wreak havoc upon their wine enjoyment. The Hypersensitive will drink dry whites, but not ones bitingly so. Excelsior Chardonnay 2012 and especially the lovely floral and fruity Excelsior Viognier 2012 will be on their hit list.

Excelsior Chardonnay

Sensitive tasters go with flow. They like coffee with moderate amounts of cream and sugar, but will take the coffee black if those additives are not available. They are compliant to a wide range of sensations but seek balance among all components. They also appreciate complex wines and consider this an important attribute. This group is the most adventurous of the tasting groups.

  • For the Sensitive taster the world of wine is their oyster so-to-speak. Finesse is an operative word in their wine language. The range of Excelsior wines is a veritable playground for the Sensitive taster. Go for it – try them all! If you are a Sensitive taster with a taste preference leaning towards Tolerant side, then the Excelsior San Luis Shiraz 2009 may be a winner for you. If you fall in the middle range try the high-end offering of Excelsior Gondolier Merlot  2010 as well as the Excelsior Merlot 2012.Exceslior Merlot

And don’t forget that you love white wines as well. The Excelsior Chardonnay 2012 and the Excelsior Sauvignon Blanc 2012 should be on your go-to list! The Excelsior Viognier will also be a great addition to your wine repertoire, especially if you track towards the Hypersensitive side.

Tolerant tasters: This group does not understand what all the fuss is about. They like things bigger, faster, stronger. Bottom-line oriented, tolerant tasters like big red wines, as well as Scotch, cigars and cognac. They are oblivious to high levels of tannin and alcohol.

  • Excelsior has wonderful portfolio of red wines across a range of price points to fit every budget and occasion. The Cabernets from their benchmark Excelsior Evanthius Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 to Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 are sure to tantalize a Tolerant taster.  I’d also suggest that Tolerant tasters try the complete range of reds offered by Excelsior. These are wines fit to please a wide range of Tolerant tasters.

Here are some tips you can use at home and when out on the town to ensure that one and all have a delightful and delicious food and wine experience.

  • When entertaining at home, provide a range of styles of wine that will please each Vinotype.  Don’t forget to have on hand wines from sweet to dry – from delicate to bold.
  • Make sure that you have your arsenal of flavor balancers at hand when cooking and on the table for your dinner guests.  As noted by Chef Sarah Scott in Hanni’ book, “Foods that are highest in sweetness and umami pose the most challenging when it comes to wine.  Acidity and salt are your main flavor balancers. Always have on hand lemons to provide the purest form of acidity – fresh lemon juices  as well as other  sources of acidic taste such as  limes, unseasoned rice and champagne vinegars, verjus, mustard, yogurt, fresh goat cheese and buttermilk. Used in cooking these will help to balance out the rich, savory umami tastes which are the usual suspects in causing a wine to taste harsh with the dish. A dash of salt with a slight addition of acidity is the key to smoothing out the relationship between any wine and food 99% of the time.” When dining out, ask to have some lemon wedges brought to the table along with some salt.

How will you know when you have balanced a dish so that ANY wine you drink will not be changed?

According to Chef Scott, “Taste the wine first so that you know what it tastes on its own. Pay attention to all the elements. Then taste the food, followed again by the wine. If the wine has changed, if it tastes stronger, more bitter or harsh, you know you need to add more acidity and/or salt to the dish. If the wine tastes milder and has lost flavor, you know you have added too much acid and salt and the dish needs to be adjusted in the other direction. Remember: THE WINE WILL ALWAYS TELL YOU WHAT THE FOOD NEEDS. Practice and you will learn what “balance” tastes like for you in a dish.  Building on the foundation of balancing the tastes in a dish, will free you to enjoy the wines you prefer with the foods you love.”

A Wine Party Idea to Try

Design a dinner menu. Invite each guest to bring a wine that they love, but believe will a completely wrong pairing for the main course or a course offering. Have flavor balancers such as lemons and salt readily available and have your guests try their favorite wine with the supposed “mismatched” food pairing and utilize if necessary the “balancing” techniques as described by Tim Hanni and Chef Sarah Scott. You will be assured of a lively conversation!

Remember, there are no set rules. Have fun! Try all sorts of wines and discover what you like. And yes, you can and should “play with your food and wine”.  If you like to experiment and experience classic along with modern food and wine pairings, go for it! You will discover what you like and what you don’t. It may lead you to try wines you never thought of before and you just might discover hidden gems that send your senses into degustatory delight. But in the end, you now have the knowledge, the tools and the confidence to enjoy the wines you like with any dish. And in the end – for you – wine and food will never again be an arranged marriage but love at first bite!!!

Once again, I highly recommend Tim Hanni’s book, Why You Like The Wines You Like – Changing the way the world thinks about wine. Available from kalahari.com, amazon.com and amazon.uk

Susan M Cashin

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