Share this article:
Wine and Food: Two Negatives Make a Positive
Wine has traditionally been viewed as a food beverage. Supposedly, this should imply some inherent compatibility. When one attempts to explain this view in rational terms, one largely comes up empty-handed, other than that it was (and remains) a traditional view. There is essentially no flavor in wine that is found in any component of a normal meal. Wines are typically characterized by fruity/jammy/floral fragrances. In contrast, meals are typically distinguished by cooked (Maillard), vegetal (side dishes), baked (bread) and herbal (spice) flavors. None of these are characteristic wine flavors. The only possible exception might be well-aged red wines, but their fragrance is mild and ill-designed to complete with the dominant flavors of most meals. The acidic, bitter, and astringent attributes of most table wines also are absent in most food constituents. This realization begs the question as to what rationale could explain the standard association between food and wine, other than a cultural fluke.
The answer seems to lie in their differences. Wine acts as a savory mouthwash, cleansing the palate of food flavors, minimizing adaptation, and favoring their appreciation anew. Equally, food cleanses the palate of the wine’s flavors, so that they too can be savored afresh. In addition, the contrast between food and wine flavors limits developing sensory boredom with either. Another factor relates to wine’s acidic and phenolic (tannic) constituents reacting with proteins in saliva and food. By so doing, the potentially unpleasant acidic and astringent nature of the wine is reduced, by limiting their ability to react with sensory receptors in the mouth, precipitate proteins onto tooth surfaces, or denature epithelial membrane proteins. Other reactions between wine acids and phenolics and food constituents (e.g., fatty acids) can diminish unpleasant food flavors (notably cheeses). It is not without reason that the old maxim goes something like: “buy wine over water, sell over cheese.” There is clear experimental evidence that wine suppresses unpleasant cheese attributes, while cheeses diminish the less enjoyable aspects of many table wines. Thus, their individual negatives tend to cancel each other out, and ipso facto both appear better by the combination. This feature is probably unsuspected in cheese and wine parties, but is an integral aspect of enhancing their appreciation (assuming that participants think about what they are sampling–often a dubious assumption where conversation is the predominant rationale for gathering).
Other aspects, helping to explain the evolution of the food/wine connection in southern Europe, were the ease with which grapevines grew, could be planted on poorer sites (leaving the best agricultural lands for food crop production), and the microbial safety of the fermented byproduct (versus the contaminated nature of most water supplies). The potential for wine to inebriate didn’t take long to be noticed either. However, consumption with food did have the salubrious effect of reducing the tipsying effect, when as usual, hard physical labor was the order of the day. Fine wines, which we consider a sine qua non of drinkable wine today, was a rarity in the past, and the preserve of the wealthy and powerful. In much of northern Europe, beer occupied the role as a potable beverage as wine did further south. Where grapevines did not grow well, grain could, and when dried, was available year round, to be fermented into beer as needed. It also avoided spoilage problems associated with wine storage from vintage to vintage. In northern climes, wine was affordable by, and thereby available to, only society’s upper crust. Wine became the elite drink, hopefully favored as much for its flavor as for its higher alcohol content.
In addition, wine (notably dry sherries) activates the release of gastric juices. Thus, prior consumption forewarns the stomach of the imminent arrival of food. However, fortified or sparkling wines, those typically taken before dining, are comparatively recent inventions. Thus, this influence has unlikely played a significant role in wine’s association with food. The pairing of particular wines with specific food was slow to develop. It required both technical developments in wine production (e.g., improved transport and storage vessels for wine to arrive in a drinkable state), and a change in the eating habits. Consuming meals, in what we now consider a logical fashion (a sequence of dishes rather than everything served together), began to evolve in Renaissance Italy, subsequently dispersing to France and elsewhere. With access to an increased range of wines (not just those produced locally), pairing specific wines with particular food items became both an option and a sign of refinement. Slowly the concept of matching wine with food filtered down to the masses, although without the intrigue or ostentation of elaborate seven-course meals. Only recently has wine taken on a new role, a hand occupier at social events. Why table wines have assumed the function of an aperitif, I leave to sociologists to explain. Wine’s acidic and tannic attributes are best counterpoised with food, not the occasional hors d’oeuvre.
Where does this leave the person desirous of rationally associating wine with a meal? One could be facetious and say: “If it chases you, consume with red, if you chase it, consume with white.” Expressed views can vary from serving any wine with whatever you like, to suggesting a particular producer’s varietal wine, of a specific vintage, with a precise recipe. Since individual preferences are often highly distinctive, if not idiosyncratic, it is difficult to reject any view out-of-hand. Nonetheless, one would hope that there might be some guiding principle. For those of a western culinary leaning, a balancing of flavor intensities (from our view point) probably is it. This principle (depending on how one defines balanced) should avoid either the food or the wine overpowering (masking) the respective subtleties of the wine or the food, allowing both to shine and be savored independently. Sweet wines are best reserved for sipping, or served as a dessert replacement, after a meal. One’s finest (oldest) wines should also be reserved for detailed assessment (they deserve it), either before or after the meal.
It is not possible to do full justice to the complete range of a superb wine’s attributes while dining. However, the goal is always the same, to maximize the sensory enjoyment of the components of a meal. Epicurean dining is the art of raising a nutritional necessity to an experience fit for the gods.
About the Author
Ronald S. Jackson received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Queen’s University and the doctorate from the University of Toronto. His time in Vineland, Ontario, and subsequently at Cornell University, redirected his interest in plant disease toward viticulture and enology. As part of his regular teaching duties at Brandon University, he developed the first wine technology course in Canada. For many years, Dr. Jackson was a technical advisor to the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission, developed sensory tests to assess the tasting skills of members of its Sensory Panel, and was a member of its External Tasting Panel.
Dr. Jackson has left his position as a professor and the chair of the Botany Department at Brandon University to concentrate on writing. He is allied with the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, Brock University.
He is also the author of Elsevier books Wine Science: Principles and Applications, Fourth Edition, which won the prestigious OIV Award in 2015, and the forthcoming Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, Third Edition, due in February 2017.
Visit the Elsevier Store to access content on food and beverage science and more! Use discount code STC215 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!
Food Science & Nutrition
The field of food science is highly interdisciplinary, spanning areas of chemistry, engineering, biology, and many more. Researchers in these areas achieve fundamental advances in our understanding of agriculture, nutrition, and food-borne illness, and develop new technologies, like food processing methods and packaging material. Against a backdrop of global issues of food supply and regulation, this important work is supported by Elsevier’s catalog of books, eBooks, and journals in food science, considered essential resources for students, instructors, and health professionals worldwide. Learn more about our Food Science and Nutrition books here.