The Taste Triangle 

Good matches are a matter of food, wine and thou.

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There’s you. There’s food. There’s wine. It’s a love triangle, really, spawning an interdependency that happens for good reasons. It is very basic yet spectacular. Beginning with ourselves—or, more specifically, our mouths—our basic taste sensations are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. A fifth taste sensation, umami, should also be mentioned. Umami is a Japanese term referring to a sort of transcendent savoriness found in foods such as parmesan cheese, sea urchin and soy sauce, and a subject meriting its own discussion another time.

Other tactile sensations consist of such things as weight, astringency and spiciness, as well as the spectrum of temperatures cold to hot.

So, there is you and the food. The taste triangle becomes complete, however, when wine enters the picture. It’s amazing that our own basic taste sensations, to a large extent, occur naturally in wine and represent its essential makeup.

Sweetness in wine is referred to as residual sugar—residual, because not all of the grape sugar has been converted to alcohol via fermentation. Wines with varying degrees of sweetness can match nicely with a sweetish dish as long as the wine is slightly sweeter, or can contrast with salty or spicy offerings.

Sourness in wine refers to its acidity, which makes wine refreshing. A fair amount of acidity in wine is great alongside dishes with similar amounts of tartness, and can cut through the oily and rich components of many foods.

Saltiness, usually undetectable in wine, obviously occurs to various degrees in food. The acid component in wine cuts through saltier food preparations, and is refreshing.

Bitterness usually refers to a wine’s level of tannin, which comes from the skins, seeds and stalks of the grapes, as well oak barrels used in production. Tannin is actually detected as a tactile, astringent sensation. A wine’s bitter and astringent tannin stands up against— and at the same time is softened by— dishes with fat and heaviness.

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Last, but not least, the other major component of wine, alcohol, is mostly responsible for wine’s weight—the more alcohol, the heavier it will feel in the mouth. The first rule of food-and-wine pairing is to not let the wine overpower the food, and vice versa. The higher the alcohol level in a wine, the “bigger” it will be and thus, it should be matched with similarly-weighted foods. Higheralcohol wines should be avoided with spicy dishes, as the “heat” of the alcohol can create an unappetizing mouth inferno.

At wine’s very core are components that mirror our basic taste perceptions and, when food is involved, it all comes together. Thus, the triangle: us, our food, and our wine. Yet, it is wine that allows the necessity of sustenance to become one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Here are some interesting food and wine pairings to play with:

Spicy pad thai: Dr. Loosen “Dr. L” Riesling ’08, Mosel, Germany, ($12.23). A touch of sweetness offsets the dish’s spicy heat, which is also not exacerbated by the lower relative alcohol.

Heirloom tomato salad with Kalamata olives and chevre crostini: Tangent Sauvignon Blanc ’07, Edna Valley, Calif., ($12.99). Tart herbal raciness matches the tomatoes and goat cheese, while cutting through the salty olive notes.

Grilled lamb chops topped with Gorgonzola compound butter: Ruffino Modus ’05, Tuscany, Italy, ($24.95). A somewhat tannic backbone cuts through the fat, and the earthy wine flavors are at home with the flavors of the grill.

Braised beef shortribs: Marietta Zinfandel ’07, Sonoma, Calif., ($18.99). Big alcohol matches up with a beefy braise; fall is just around the corner.

Gus Magann is a partner at Vine Lore, Inc.

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