Pairing food and wine is as much about feel as it is about flavor. We’re not talking about your feelings, we’re talking about the effect that tannins have on your palate as you sip a glass of wine. If you consider the mouthfeel, or texture, of your wine, you’ll have an even better dining experience. Of course, your feelings matter too.
Here’s a way to think about it: If you practice yoga, you use a mat with little grooves on the surface, right? Those grooves give you grip. ‘Grip’ is the also the term that wine experts use to describe a red wine’s tannins. Tannins are polyphenols, natural compounds in wine that quickly bind to proteins; your saliva contains proteins, so tannins give your palate the feeling of drying out. Have you ever let a cup of tea steep for too long, taken a sip, and found that it tasted really dry and bitter? That’s the effect of tannin. In addition to grapes, as they’re found in most plants.
Tannins grip your saliva and prime your palate for that next bite of food, just as your feet grip the yoga mat. The more difficult the pose, the more grip you want the mat to have. And the more tannic a wine, the more likely it is to pair with richer, more flavorful food. Tannins can make complex flavors pop after each sip of wine. Below are a few pairings we suggest.
Just how important a factor are tannins in pairing? Forgetting flavors for a moment, each and every wine, red or white, can be thought of in these four aspects in terms of their food-pairing options: Tannins, sweetness, body and acidity. One of the wines below is red, one is white. Can you guess which is which and, therefore, would pair better with a rich, juicy steak?
In terms of sweetness, body and acidity, the wines are very similar. Tannins are the key differentiator. Tannins are found in the skins of grapes. Red wines are made by soaking the grape juice along with the skins to extract the red color and tannins. White wines are made by pressing the grapes so there’s no contact with the skins and, therefore, no tannin extraction into the wine. Most white wines don’t contain tannins.
If you guessed that the wine on the left is the red wine, you’re right! That is the wine that we’d pair with a steak. The wine’s tannins will not only help cut the richness of the meat, they’ll dry out and cleanse your palate. Take another sip, and now you’ll enjoy the wine’s flavors and textures on their own—and you’ll especially enjoy the next bite of meat!
When you’re considering pairings, definitely think about complementary flavors in the food and the wine. But remember that the effect of the wine’s core components on your palate, particularly the amount of tannins, is just as important a factor—sometimes, the most important one.