Many wine lovers put a lot of effort into finding that perfect match—the wine-and-food pairing that makes the sum greater than the parts. Sauternes and foie gras, anyone? But a new study suggests texture matters more than flavor combinations when it comes to pairing.
Naturally, it was a French scientist who discovered why red wine goes so well with steak. When an international team of taste researchers began comparing notes about food-and-beverage pairings common to their native cuisines, flavor scientist Catherine Peyrot des Gachons, who works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, noticed that something other than flavor drove many of the combinations. Whether it was red wine with meat or sushi with tea, many of the traditional meals mixed something oily with something astringent. As she soon learned, the texture that results from the interplay of fats and astringents, not just flavors of the foods themselves, makes the combinations so pleasurable.
Peyrot des Gachons' research, detailed in a new paper published in the journal Current Biology, explains how popular combinations of food and drink produce a desired feeling of optimal oral lubrication. Fatty foods overlubricate the mouth, while astringent food and drink dries it out. When used in combination, though, animal fats and astringent chemicals, like the tannins or acids in wine, react with each other chemically to produce a sensation that's just right. Not only does this explain why certain foods pair well with certain wines, but it may also explain why a wine might seem different when tasted without food than it does during a meal.
“Our mouth is Goldilocks—it doesn’t want to be too dry or too lubricated,” said Paul Breslin, a professor at the Rutgers University Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a co-author of the paper. “If your mouth is feeling dry, you want something creamy to restore lubrication. And if your mouth feels greasy, you want something to clean it out.”
Normally, proteins in saliva lubricate our mouths, preventing wear on the teeth and gums. Chemicals like the tannins in red wine or the acids in white wine pull those proteins out of saliva, reducing their effectiveness as a lubricant and causing dry mouth. Fatty foods counteract this effect by providing more lubricant. By mixing and matching food and drink, diners can use these chemicals to balance each other out.
This effect explains a range of classic pairings from around the world, from the acid in ketchup and pickles cutting down the grease of a burger to the spice of kimchi balancing out the fat of bo ssam pork. The research also implies that rarer matchups might work better than tradition would dictate. Based on this model, Peyrot des Gachons suggested that acidic white wines might work better with red meat than one might expect, or that red wines that lack a lot of tannins could pair well with fish.
However, good pairings require more than compatible texture, and Peyrot des Gachons pointed out that the study did not look at the role played by the flavors of the wine and food. There's a reason why some combinations of astringent and creamy foods, such as ice cream and pickled herring, haven’t become as popular as, say, Pinot Noir and duck.
This is not to imply that this research won’t lead to new, counterintuitive pairings that really work. “I just want to highlight the importance of sensations beyond flavor,” Peyrot des Gachons told Wine Spectator. “Hopefully, this information can be used by chefs to think about how wines might work in different contexts.”