Taste Components

Taste, also known as The Gustatory System, is sensitive to Five different Factors: Sweetness, Saltiness, Acidity, Bitterness and Umami (Savouriness). The palate of course reacts to other factors as well, like Effervescence and Spiciness (Capsaicin), but these factors will be featured under Texture Components, even if some side effects related to Spiciness will be mentioned in relation to taste.

Wine

When it comes to wine there are only Three taste Factors that has to be
taken into consideration, since neither Saltiness nor Umami tends to be
commonly occurring tastes in wine
(the exceptions are so few that they are not worth mentioning here)

Sweetness

High Sweetness levels in the wine makes the food:
  • More Acidic
  • More Bitter
  • Less Salty
  • Less Sweet
  • Less Spicy
Conclusion

Some sweetness in wine might add an interesting dimension to a pairing and work especially well if there is some natural sweetness in the food (like caramelised onions or other semi-sweet components). If the food is spicy a bit of sweetness in the wine can also be a simple way of balancing it and making the pairing possible. Dessert wines on the other hand should be treated with care, they can be matched perfectly with a sweet dessert or sometimes (more rarely) work as an amazing contrast against something rich and savoury (Like Sauternes and Roquefort cheese). Sweetness should preferably be balanced, and the wine should always be sweeter than the food.

Acidity

High Acidity levels in the wine makes the food:
  • More Sweet
  • Less Acidic
  • Less Bitter
  • Less Spicy
Conclusion

High acidity levels in wine is something good overall. Wines with low acidity often taste bland, and might be drinkable on their own, but often struggle when paired with food. If the acidity is low in the wine, special care has to be taken when choosing the food to ensure that the food has a lower acidity level than the wine.

Bitterness

High Bitterness levels in the wine makes the food:
  • More Bitter
  • More Sweet
  • More Spicy
  • Less Acidic
  • Less Salty
Conclusion

Bitterness is something that adds on. So, if the wine has traces of bitterness, it will make the food taste even more bitter than it was before. Be very careful when pairing bitter wines. Bitterness in particular is an acquired taste, and furthermore not to be confused with tannins (tannins can taste slightly bitter, but generally when we talk about tannins we talk about astringency, which is a texture, not a taste).

Food

When it comes to food, we have to look at all Five Factors
to get a comprehensive overview of its Taste Components.

Sweetness

High Sweetness levels in the food makes the wine:
  • More Acidic
  • More Bitter
  • More Astringent
  • Higher in perceived Alcohol
  • Less Sweet
Conclusion

Sweet wine for sweet food. The wine always has to be the sweeter of the two, this is one of the most fundamental rules of wine pairings.

Experiment: Try Crème brûlée (or something similar) with a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and you will see why

Acidity

High Acidity levels in the food makes the wine:
  • More Sweet
  • Less Acidic
  • Less Astringent
  • Less Bitter
Conclusion

If the food has a high acidity, the wine has to have an even higher acidity. Otherwise the wine will taste flat in comparison and add little to the pairing.

Experiment: Try biting into a lemon before having a sip of wine, any wine and see what happens

Bitterness

High Bitterness levels in the food makes the wine:
  • More Bitter
  • More Sweet
  • More Astringent
  • Higher in perceived Alcohol
  • Less Acidic
Conclusion

If the food is high in bitterness (like brussels sprouts), you need a wine high in acidity, but otherwise well balanced, to keep the negative side effects of the bitterness in check.

Experiment: Try an Italian Nebbiolo with brussels sprouts and you will see why this is a terrible combination

Saltiness

A balanced Saltiness in the food makes the wine:
  • Less Acidic
  • Less Sweet
  • Less Astringent
  • Less Bitter
  • Higher in perceived Alcohol
  • More Flavoursome overall
Conclusion

Moderate salt levels are an amazing Wine-Friend and can be used as an easy last minute save for bad pairings. By simply adding some salt, many pairings have been improved. And since red wine is naturally rich is potassium salts, which helps to counter high sodium intake, it is not quite so bad.
If the saltiness is too high on the other hand, it tends to enhance inherent negative aspects of the wine (more astringency and more bitterness). A high salt content in food can also create a metallic taste in high acidity wines, so stay careful with the salt grinder and only add a little.

Experiment: Try some green asparagus with an Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Start by cooking the asparagus without any salt (salted butter included), and try that with the wine… Before adding salt to taste. The difference is significant

Umami

High Umami levels in the food makes the wine:
  • More Bitter
  • More Astringent
  • More Acidic
  • Higher in perceived Alcohol
  • Less Sweet
Conclusion

Umami is a funny thing. It is still disputed and complicated to understand, and also one of the worst Wine-Killers out there. Umami rich food needs to be accompanied by other components to make it wine friendly. Parmigiano-Reggiano is high in umami, but also an amazing thing to pair to almost any wine, since it is also high in salt and has a high fat content, which helps to neutralise the umami.

Experiment: Try raw mushrooms with an astringent, high alcohol red wine, and cringe