Food Friendly? Just Add Salt

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 11-25-2013

saltEverywhere I go, people are suggesting thoughtful wine and food pairings. But I’m rarely impressed.

Don’t get me wrong, wine is the clear choice to pair with food in general. Sorry, beer geeks — only the wine-food combination is capable of producing that magical, transcendent Gestalt, a new whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Beer, on the other hand, is too often like another meal.

That being said, this elusive transcendence is relatively rare and very difficult to predict or define. And yet, like the Supreme Court said about pornography, “you know it when you see it.”

Ultimately, I’d like to devise a practical technique to help onemake an educated guess about whether a wine has the potential to create a perfect pairing. But first, I want to make a semantic distinction between a technically correct pairing — where the beverage serves as a perfect accompaniment and elevates the dining experience — and a pairing that somehow intensifies both the food and the wine, creating an altogether different, elevated experience.

The former is common; the latter is rare.

While the experience is rare, we can begin to map out this secret world of taste transcendence through trial and error.

For instance, perhaps there is no more reliable source of this experience than oysters and Muscadet (preferably from superior wineries, like my personal favorite Domaine de la Pépière). While a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire will do in a pinch, I guess, nothing does the trick like a sublimely oceanic Muscadet — hands down the world’s most underrated wine.

By comparison, while it may be true that any decent Cabernet Sauvignon elevates a steak, and sometimes produces the more rarefied 1+1=3 experience, it doesn’t reliably produce this experience. As much as I might enjoy the occasional summertime combination of Napa Cab and grilled steak, an aged Bordeaux will more reliably produce this experience.

Of course, this is the same thing as saying Old World wines more reliably create symphonic wine-food pairings. And that’s the first principle. Don’t get me wrong, a Cab and a steak is always at least good — but we’re making a distinction here between good and correct and something more than that.

The fact that Old World wines pair better with food is only a principle and not a law — a broad principle at that, if reliability is the goal. For example, a savvy, technical pairing of a relatively robust Leitz German Riesling with David Chang’s mostly spicy-porky creations during a recent meal at Ssam Bar in New York was a disappointment. The pairing “worked,” of course, just fine. But that kind of yeoman’s wine/food experience wasn’t what I was after.

On the other hand, I was shocked when a cured chorizo sausage I brought back from an Andalusian mountain village dazzled with a totally unplanned sip of leftover, entry-level Trimbach Riesling. In retrospect, perhaps, I shouldn’t have been so shocked. After all, Alsace wines are known to have a certain affinity with pork.

(I don’t think any wine performs as well with food as consistently as does Trimbach. Can we call that the second principle?)

So outside of the fact that we are more likely to find it with Old World wines, what, really, do we know about this elusive perfect pairing? Although the science of taste provides a few clues about the conditions of this experience, I find this science mostly uncompelling; taste is opaque, after all, and any explanation of “it” will have to come from descriptions of the experience of “it.” I think we can better begin to develop knowledge about this experience through phenomenological investigation and first-hand accounts. So given that, here is what I think we know most: We know when we experience “it” because, suddenly, a sip of the wine perfectly recalls the food, even well after we’ve finished eating it. It turns out our palate has a perfect, photographic memory, and wine has the ability to continuously reactivate it. With each new sip, the flavors of the foodreturn to resonate and linger on the palate, sometimes even long after we’ve tasted the food.

Does that sound about right?

The science of taste does have something interesting to offer this discourse. Throughout history, lacking refrigeration, most food was preserved with salt, and wine was made with the expectation of food. Significantly, the science suggests that salt and acid occupy the same palate terrain, the same taste “pathway.”  That is, acid in wine works to, in effect, balance or cancel out the taste of salt, providing a platform to emphasize the other flavors. It’s no wonder that Old World wines are high in acid — they had the difficult task of making these dubious foods taste good.

On the other hand, fruit-forward wines, low in acid, are less likely to create this favorable palate environment where flavors shine. As with beer, the fruit flavors of the wine tend to compete with rather than showcase the flavors of the food.

Of course, the fact that sleek Old World wines excel with food is news to nobody. The point is rather that there is something practical to be extrapolated from the salt/acid dynamic: if you want to know if a wine is likely to offer that magical synergy with food, try a sip with a pinch of salt. You’ll notice that the flavors of the wine are enhanced — or not.

Ed Comstock loves to travel and discover new wines, often at the same time. When he’s not doing that, he teaches classes in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, DC.

Comments (1)

  1. Salt is a great way to calm down tannins in a young wine. In a recent private tasting at Beringer, we were given a highly tannic wine to taste, then a lick of salt, then another taste. The difference was dramatic, and taught me a useful trick. I discuss this in my new book, “Secrets of the Wine Whisperer.”