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10.22.2009

Drink the Wine You Like, No Matter What Scientists Say

I am often approached (in person and online) by budding wine lovers looking for guidance navigating what they see as the treacherous waters of wine and food pairing. That these folks feel the need to seek out expert guidance at all makes me a little sad. The fear, uncertainty and doubt that exists in the minds of the public when it comes to wine and food pairing remains for me one of the greatest travesties in the world of wine. Wine, in all its varieties and flavors, is sadly intimidating enough for most people. The fact that matching it with food introduces a whole other level of stress to the equation seriously bums me out.

So that's why I was a little depressed yesterday to read that Japanese scientists claim to have found the chemical basis for why red wine doesn't go with fish. Studies like this just add to the anxiety that people have about following the "rules of wine."

These scientists suggest that red wine's iron content interacts with the fish (oils?) in a way to produce a "fishy" aftertaste. The higher the iron content of the wine, the worse the aftertaste.

I'm prepared to accept this as true, but the problem with this notion, and all the other so called "rules" of food and wine pairing is that there are so many mitigating factors (dish ingredients, species of fish/plant/meat, cooking method, etc.) that affect someone's enjoyment of a particular wine and food pairing that most rules are quite senseless. Add in the idea that different people like different things and as I've said before, the rules of food and wine pairing are a big fat lie.

Continuing to talk about such conventions like "red wine doesn't go with fish" even when, as these scientists suggest, caveats are appropriate, just perpetuates the myths that drive anxiety in the average wine drinker.

So that's why I say screw the scientific results, drink whatever the hell you want with your fish, even if it is a big, oaky Cabernet out of an iron goblet.

Here's the abstract to the research.

Via Science Daily.

Comments (33)

Bob wrote:
10.23.09 at 5:10 AM

Excellent point. While I would never have a red with simple white fish dishes or those with cream sauces, I find that certain reds (Cab Franc, Pinot Noir) are far better than whites with tuna and salmon. And I've recently been making a dish with haddock covered with tomatoes and pesto, and red wine is definitely better than white with it.

Alfonso wrote:
10.23.09 at 6:07 AM

they probably just wrote that article to get a rise out of folks like Tim Hanni, who, if your blog was in their reader, would most likely have something to say on the matter.

10.23.09 at 6:10 AM

Reminds of an incident.

At the start of a red wine and chocolate tasting I headed, I was told by one woman that she hated the idea of red wine with chocolate. I asked why she was at the tasting and she said to see if I could change her mind. I told her that was not my intention. In fact, I said, I wanted to see if red wine really does go with some chocolate.

One particular pairing really did work well and even this woman admitted it, saying that she never would have dreamed such a pairing existed. But when I asked if her mind had been changed she said, "No. Just because that pairing worked beautifully it doesn't change the fact that I hate red wine with chocolate."

Arthur wrote:
10.23.09 at 7:30 AM

Alder
I just had dinner with a winemaker and his wife a few days ago. We had a Pinot Noir and Mourvedre - back-to-back. He had short ribs, Irene and I had lamb and his wife had mussels.
She ate and drank what she liked and I had no issue with it.

HOWEVER

There are real reasons why certain pairings work. To understand why they work you need to look at studies like this one where the sciences of chemistry and sensation come together to explain why certain pairings work one way or another.

To dismiss them as you do is counterproductive. For MOST people these 'rules' of why pairings work hold true. I think it's a disservice to a budding wine lover to tell them to ignore the basis for why one pairing is more pleasing than another.

This kind of work actually gives people some real information that goes beyond the white-with-fish, red-with-beef conventions. It gives them tools with which to navigate their own pairings.

I would hope that the series I am putting together - which addresses the chemical and physiological basis of the interactions of food and wine in the mouth will be one such set of tools.

I hope you will read it and use them - and maybe be less inclined to discourage people from thinking about WHY and HOW certain parings work.

Phil wrote:
10.23.09 at 9:29 AM

Very much in agreement with Arthur, I'd suggest doing an experiment along the lines that Marnie Old proposes in our last issue, which I know you have Alder, and instead of working with complete dishes, break down into the component elements and see if it does make a difference for you. So salt, sugar, fat, acid, spice, browned/cooked foods each tried with a wine that is "supposed" to work with that element and one that is "not supposed" to.

Clark wrote:
10.23.09 at 10:27 AM

Alder,

Every day on the retail floor of KLWM I am approached with wine pairing questions. For me it comes down to logic. Logic as we all know is a very personal endeavor. What makes sense to me might not make sense to anyone else. My wine pairing logic is as follows: Does the food that I'm trying to pair a wine with have roots in a particular region in France or Italy (the only wines we carry)? If not, what's my gut instinct? The logical connection of matching wine with food that for ostensibly many centuries it has been drunk seems like the best way to go to me. And if the food is experimental, then get experimental with your wine, or just get experimental regardles. I had rosé Champagne with steak frites the other day and it was great.

Wine pairing isn't rocket science...just keep it simple!

Clark

PS - Salmon and Beaujolais is a great pairing.

Daniel wrote:
10.23.09 at 10:52 AM

I'm not saying that these scientific studies are worthless but I completely agree with Alder that they should not be taken as guidelines for people. Trust your own preferences and palate. It is sad enough that a lot of people need Parker points to distinguish a good from a bad wine. And, for instance, if you tell people in Spain that red wine doesn't go with fish, they will not take you serious.
In our Cheese and Wine store we have a popular event where a local chef matches food and wine. One of them paired Salmon with a Pinotage and people loved it. Shall we go now and tell them that according to scientists their taste buds are screwed?

Allan wrote:
10.23.09 at 12:09 PM

"So that's why I say screw the scientific results, drink whatever the hell you want with your fish, even if it is a big, oaky Cabernet out of an iron goblet."

words to live by. :)

Joe Gargiulo wrote:
10.23.09 at 1:47 PM

With apologies to the authors of the many food-wine pairing books, the required precision of the process has been exaggerated for too long. Notwithstanding, there are absolute "no-no's" that one should avoid. I dare anyone to swallow more than one sip of a big red with heavy-cream dishes such as fettuccini alfredo. Also, I have been surprised by the disharmony of some pairings that I would have expected to be "naturals". For example, many pinots don't pair well with some brands of Brie.

10.23.09 at 3:16 PM

The bottom line for wine and food pairing is all about if one really wants to pay attention to the complexities that can happen when combining flavors and textures. If one doesn't care about that so much, then absolutely drink whatever you like with whatever you like. However, unless one is careful to precisely flavor balance (see Tim Hanni)matching food and wine can not only be a cerebral experience, but also a hedonistic one as well. And isn't that what keeps us all coming back for more?

Tim wrote:
10.23.09 at 5:10 PM

Alfonso - you talkin' 'bout me?

The variables of individual sensory sensitivity combined with our unique neurological programming render wine and food observations and conversations a train wreck. Two individuals are easily capable of having completely opposite sensory experiences from the identical stimulus. Then turn the information over to the brain to process and interpret - fuggedaboudit - total shambles!

If you follow the 'regional' rout wouldn't we be having Peruvian wine with many Italian dishes with tomtoes? That is where tomatoes come from. The foods today and wines today often bear little or no resemblance to

The 'traditional' matchings are no longer valid. Plus wine and food weren’t ‘matched’. You drank what you could afford with whatever you were eating. And the wine was almost always the same day in and day out. Wine has historically been something completely different than what it is today. And it was watered down and frequently sweetened, even if France and Italy. Sweet wine was always more highly valued and in demand. It seems very likely that the ‘great’ vintages of Montrachet were indeed very sweet botrytis infected wines – perfect with lobster, fish or whatever in the day.

It is all a matter of very personal interpretation and experience. Balance the flavor of your Alfredo and a BIG red can be fine. The umami taste in fish, ripe brie, asparagus and other foods render wine more bitter and less fruity - but mostly only for more sensitive tasters and not so much for tolerant tasters.

We made it all up and consumers are so confused because we don't REALLY understand the variables and fundamentals. That goes especially for chocolate and wine!

Umami and sweet tastes in food make wine taste more bitter, astringent, sour and less fruity or rich.

Salt and acidity suppress bitterness and make wine more fruity, sweet, rich and less acidic.

Fat makes wine taste MORE tannic and bitter (seriously).

Etc. Put a little salt and lemon on your fish. Drink red wine. If it sucks don’t do it again. Unless you want.

Arthur wrote:
10.23.09 at 5:50 PM

Tim

Since many here do not wish to take my credentials as supportive of the points I try to make, then I defer to Alder's recent interview with Luca Turin in which Turin himself says that *we are not all that neurophysiologically different*.

A conversation with sensation researchers recently reaffirmed what I had always suspected: sensation (and the ability to look deeper into food and wine pairings as the Cork Head mentions) is all about language - not in the spoken word sense but in the neurological modality sense.

Arthur wrote:
10.23.09 at 5:52 PM

Also, Tim

Fat does not increase polyphenol content or increase a wine's astringency (which what I think you are trying to say). Stay tuned for my series on this matter and you will understand what I mean.

10.23.09 at 6:52 PM

Tim,

If things stayed the way they were, you would be close to on the mark. But things did not stay the way they were. Cultures developed cooking techniques that brought out various hedonistic pleasures and over time cultures also changed the way wine is produced which, too, brought out various hedonistic p0leasures. In the meanwhile, scientists discovered many things about what makes us and our palates tick.

It was only matter of time for people to get a light bulb moment, to understand and exploit the possibilities.

Your argument, while it is based on factual truths, fails to take into consideration human development.

Tim wrote:
10.23.09 at 7:01 PM

Hi Thomas,

No, that is actually the point.

Alder wrote:
10.23.09 at 9:52 PM

Arthur,

Thanks for the comments. I think you're misreading my rant if you think that I'm saying that the combination of a particular wine and a particular food can't be more than the sum of its parts (after all, I make food pairing recommendations with my wine reviews). Furthermore I am not saying that it is impossible to make general statements about what goes with what (though I do think they are problematic for reasons that Tim Hanna has outlined above). But what I AM saying is that categorical, dogmatic, and prescriptive approaches to food and wine pairing (which describes 99% of what's out there in the marketplace and 100% of what the average consumer hears) are ridiculous and counterproductive to getting people to drink more wine and enjoy it more. Any "advice" or "help" that more knowledgeable wine folks perpetuate that causes people to be MORE intimidated and nervous about buying and drinking wine should be abandoned in my opinion, and this is one of the chief culprits.

If every source of wine pairing advice generally told people to experiment a bit and drink what they like, the world would be a better place.

10.24.09 at 5:54 AM

Tim,

You say that following the "regional" route would have us eating Peruvian wine with Italian tomato-based foods and then later you say that with wine and food pairings we made it all up--the latter negates the former point.

In addition, the latter points directly to the hedonistic values that we have assigned to wining and dining. Had we stayed in the past, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.

Still, I agree completely that perception is a problem, as even those pairings that have proven themselves in the lab don't prove themselves on every palate. That phenomenon is indeed complex and I'd love to read Arthur's material for an explanation.

Alfonso wrote:
10.24.09 at 8:14 AM

OK, boys, you all are really getting this thing kicked into high gear. Alder, Thomas, Arthur and Tim, choose partners. Looks like time for a tag-team smackdown. All we need now is a referee. Wonder if Ron Washam is free.

Tim wrote:
10.24.09 at 8:29 AM

Perception isn't a 'problem' it is a human trait. My intention in all of this is to understand, embrace and cultivate ALL consumers (and otherwise come to think of it) and it is the UNDERSTAND part that is mostly missing in this realm.

Y'all come have lunch at my place. Any time. Or I'll come cook for you. Right Alphonso?

Tim wrote:
10.24.09 at 8:33 AM

Sorry - ALFONSO of Alphonso. My bad.

10.24.09 at 8:42 AM

Tim,

Now don't be coy: perception is a problem in the context of this discussion.

Keep this up and we might have to take Alfonso's advice and call on Ron Washam to referee, but if we do he'll likely demand that we wrestle unclothed and in mud--with women...

So, when's lunch?

Tim wrote:
10.24.09 at 9:42 AM

I wrote a brilliant comment and then got the 'captcha' code wrong and lost it all! DANG!

I think our unique perception and points of view as something be aware of and understand.

Our individual perceptions can be SO different - something that tastes horriyingly bitter to one person that another is unable to detect, etc. This happens with all of our senses and we choose often to argue versus simply getting that it may be different for anoth. High alcohol is another - some people perceive almost painful burning while others preceive sweetness. Kinda like the Sufi parable about the 3 blind men trying to describe the elephant.

If anything is a problem, I think more like a challenge, is that communication and understanding present barriers and misunderstandings. As an example simpling reading an e-mail or blog post alone can bring up all sorts of emotional reactions. All depends on interpretation.

I am going to invite my wife to a wrestling match. Then we can argue over the thermostat. Then lunch. Come on over after the arguement and before the lunch. :-)

Alfonso wrote:
10.24.09 at 9:48 AM

Someone hand mine a Flip cam

Alfonso wrote:
10.24.09 at 9:50 AM

Golleee...someone hand me an English teacher...I meant hand me a Flip cam.

Dylan wrote:
10.24.09 at 9:54 AM

Just as long as it's not a lead goblet; we all know the wrong turn that habit can take.

10.24.09 at 11:22 AM

Tim, I'm impressed. You have to invite your wife to wrestle. All I have to do to start a fight is wake up each morning.

Re, problem vs challenge. A long time ago, while being interviewed for a freelance gig, I mentioned that, "the way I would handle that problem..."

The person doing the interviewing cut me off to tell me that they don't have problems, only challenges.

I view a problem as a situation that confronts.

I view a challenge as a call to action.

I didn't get the gig.

Tim wrote:
10.24.09 at 11:37 AM

I play guitar in a Motown/rock band with my wife. I suck but I married the singer. We were auditioning for a gig and I was told I suck. I said 'no, guitar playing is simply a challenge.' They said, 'that is your problem.'

I get your drift. We didn't get the gig. That is soemtimes the challenge with communications!

By the way the above story is all a lie except that I do play in a great band and I do suck on guitar. And I am married to the singer.

10.24.09 at 11:52 AM

You see, with the problem of all the lies that people tell on it, it's a challenge to trust the Internet. ;)

10.25.09 at 8:28 PM

I certainly agree!

Jim Boyce wrote:
10.25.09 at 10:49 PM

i live in beijing and find many of my chinese acquaintances are interested in wine. what bothers me is that they tend to choose wine - predominantly bordeaux - based on what the marketers and "experts" say. yet when i organize blind tastings they rarely pick bordeaux as a favorite. in fact, during a blind tasting we did earlier this year, pinotage came out on top. the point is that too many people here are caught up drinking what they hear is good wine - and i am see this same tendency when it comes to food and wine pairings - rather than discovering what they as individuals prefer.

cheers, jim boyce

Phil wrote:
10.26.09 at 9:55 AM

My concern with the "throw out the rules" concept (and I know that you've said that wasn't the point of your rant Alder, but it was my takeaway) is this: people set themselves up to fail too much when it comes to wine. They don't become friendly with a good local retailer who can learn their preferences and steer them to stuff they'll like, instead they chase points. They don't get their wines served at the right temperature (too frequently by professionals) not giving the wine the best conditions to shine. And if they doing something really off with food and wine, there is another area where the wine may not be given a good chance.

I'll give you a great example, because it just happened last night and this was fresh on my mind. My wife and I were out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. We ordered a 1/2 bottle of Champagne which the server apparently forgot about because we had to ask again to get it delivered. By the time they got it to us, we already had our salads. Now, I know better, so I didn't touch my Champagne while I ate my salad. My wife also knows better, but wanted to have some and immediately regretted it. If we did not know better, we might be inclined to think that this was a bad bottle of wine. I then had scallops, which I thought might go with the Champagne. But as soon as I tried it, I knew it was a bad idea, because it flattened the wine and gave a bad aftertaste to the scallops. If I didn't know, if I subscribed to the "no rules" idea of food and wine, our entire special meal might have been ruined. Bad wine, bad scallops. Of course we ordered the wine we wanted, not the wine that went with our food, but we knew better than to try to match the two together (my wife had steak and did not touch her Champagne while she ate it).

How many people write off a wine that was just consumed with something it was utterly unsuited for? How many people decide they don't like their meal that was just paired with something that wrecked it? I believe that it's much more disheartening for these sorts of avoidable failures to occur than for people to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. Let's say my wife and I were a bit younger and less wine exposed and this was the first time we had "good" Champagne. We might have decided that we just didn't like Champagne at all not realizing that it was the combination of the wine and the salad that was the problem. Or we might have decided that in addition to sub-par service, this restaurant had poor food. Or both. So yeah, sometimes this stuff gets a little complicated and I'm certainly not for trying to create "perfect" pairings, but I think we do both the food and the wine a disservice if we do not acknowledge that sometimes they are not meant to be consumed together.

Alder wrote:
10.26.09 at 11:19 AM

Phil,

Here's the counterpoint to your story: maybe the best pairing with those scallops would have been Alicante Bouschet but no one would have ever given it to you and you would likely have never tried it because that violates the accepted "rules."

Also, as I mentioned in my food and wine rant that I linked to above, if I had $1 for every time I had a recommended wine pairing from a trained, even celebrity, sommelier that ended up like your Champagne and scallops experience, I would be able to buy a nice bottle of Burgundy.

Phil wrote:
10.26.09 at 11:23 AM

As we continue our parallel e-mail and comment conversation :)

Ah Alder, but then the problem is poor service and lack of appropriate knowledge of your own list and foods, not the idea of food-wine pairing itself. Sort of like the temperature thing, wine is constantly served at the wrong temperature in restaurants, which doesn't mean that there isn't a better temperature, just that the "experts" are doing it wrong. Needing to be better shouldn't become a barrier to trying at all.

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