Liberated Pairing: Wine + Food

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

It’s long been accepted wisdom that you pair white wine with fish and red wine with beef. And more recently, chefs have paired foods with certain attributes with wines with foods that have the same attributes — such as light seafood dishes with delicate white wines.

But Mark de Vere of Robert Mondavi, one of only a few Masters of Wine in the U.S., has a theory deemed heresy by some. Indeed, I thought his theory a little odd until I tried it out at To Kalon winery in California’s Napa Valley last month.

It involves umami, defined as a taste sensation that is meaty or savoury and is produced by several amino acids and nucleotides. It is also viewed by some as a fifth taste sensation, along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The origin of the word is from the Japanese, meaning “savoury quality, delicious taste.”

It’s found in meats, fish, shellfish, ripe fruit, ripe vegetables and aged cheeses.

The idea is that if you bring sweet and sour to balance umami, the wine will taste the way it is supposed to. 

De Vere started his tasting by lining up plain steak, chicken and fish, a small bowl of salt and several lemons in front of glasses of high-end Napa wine. 

We drank a Fumé Blanc along with the plain fish, and found that it made the wine taste harsh. We tasted a Chardonnay that was oaky, and found that the plain chicken flattened the taste. We tried plain steak with Cabernet Sauvignon, and found that it lost some of its fruit, and the tannins became bitter. Indeed, some in the crowd screwed up their faces with the unpleasantness.

The moral of the story is that high umami foods flatten taste, de Vere said. 

Then we tried adding lemon and salt to the fish, and found that it worked well with both the Fumé Blanc and the Cabernet. If we added only salt, it didn’t work as well.  But the conclusion is that it’s okay to drink red wine with fish, de Vere said. In the same way, the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir tasted much better once salt and lemon were added to the meat — any meat.

“This puts the chef in complete control,” de Vere said. “[The chef’s job] is to help people who walk through the door. You don’t change the artistry of a dish by adding acid and salt. Typically, it optimizes the food.”

During one of Robert Mondavi’s chef programs, well-known French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten finished his dishes with lemon and a pinch of salt, instinctively brightening the cuisine, de Vere said. Classically trained chefs often sprinkle a little acid and salt into the dish before it goes out the door.

“If you don’t have balance, no wine is going to taste good with food,” de Vere said.

— Colleen Isherwood, Editor