The Secret to Being a Sommelier: The building blocks of pairing good food and wine

Written by Josh Perilo on . Posted in Arts Our Town Downtown, Dining Our Town, Dining West Side Spirit, Eat & Drink, Lifestyle, On Topic OTDT, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, The Penniless Epicure.


It was my friend Brian’s housewarming get-together, and I knew I could always count on a meticulously planned event from him. This time, he had hired caterers to pass around finger foods and corresponding glasses of with each food choice. The first two were tremendous: a sparkling with a fried oyster and aioli appetizer and a sauvignon blanc with a goat cheese and onion tartlet.
Then came the third pairing. It was a spicy chili-rubbed chicken skewer with a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. I looked around the room and watched as the guests ate and drank; one by one, every single guest registered the exact same look.
My wife, always the most polite person in the room, said it best when she whispered to me, “I don’t think he meant to do this.”
But why not? What difference does it really make if you have spicy food with a heavy red wine? Drink and eat what you like, right?
Absolutely. That is my motto 100 percent of the time. But I guarantee that if you eat a truly spicy food and drink a highly tannic red wine right afterwards, you will not like what you taste. These are the basics of wine and food pairing. Sommeliers and chefs are not an elitist class of jerks (most of us aren’t, anyway) who are trying to puzzle their diners with strange combinations; the pairings are there because they just work, in the most fundamental way possible.
The secret to these basics are pretty…well, basic. I’m going to share the building blocks with you so you can understand them as well.
The first principle is the idea of like tastes working together. This is best exemplified by the goat cheese and onion tartlet and sauvignon blanc pairing. Both fresh goat’s-milk cheese and sauvignon blanc have a high level of acidity, so they both have a somewhat tart taste. On their own, people tend to either love or hate these two menu items.
It would seem that if you put the two together, you would have an unappetizing, mouth-puckering experience. Your taste buds don’t work that way, however. What happens when both flavors combine in your mouth is almost an overload of the acidity sensors; instead of magnifying, they cancel each other out. Once the tartness falls away, you will taste other, more subtle flavors in both the wine and the cheese that you would have missed if you had eaten or drunk them independent of each other.
The second principle is the idea of opposite tastes working together. I know, I know. You’re saying “like tastes and opposite tastes—doesn’t that cover everything?” Not really. I’m not talking about dissimilar tastes, like tannic and spicy. I’m talking polar opposites, like salty and sweet. Ring any bells?
In the wine world, the most classic example of this is pairing a salty cheese with a sweet wine. Port and blue cheese is a common one, but a lighter, salty French cheese and a Sauternes is just as classic. The idea is that the two flavors come together to form a third flavor in your mouth that would not otherwise exist. It is this simple alchemy that explains why salted caramel is the go-to high-end flavor of the moment.
The third principle has less to do with taste and more with texture: the idea that opposite textures work together. Does wine have texture? You bet it does! A silky merlot, a light pinot grigio and a dense cabernet sauvignon each have a distinct textures—as does sparkling wine. Pairing sparkling wine with a fatty or creamy-textured food is one of my favorite food and wine experiences, hands down.
In the example from the party, the creaminess from the oyster and the fat content of the fried breading coat your tongue, then the sparkling wine swoops in and cleans it all away for a perfectly balanced taste experience.
So the next time you’re planning a get-together with friends, remember the three basics of wine and food pairing. You’ll make it a memorable evening and your guests probably won’t even realize why!

Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.

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