You’ve gotten yourself some edible insects. Now, how do you decide what wine will go best with them? There’s good and bad news. The bad news is: there are very few, if any, hard and fast rules. The good news is: that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to keep in mind. They may seem at first to be a lot to juggle mentally, and more complicated than ‘white wine with fish.’ With practice, they’ll become second nature, and you won’t really have to think much about them. It becomes a semi-automatic process.
Ultimately, wine and food pairing is about balancing aspects of both. You might want to look for things that complement each other, or that contrast. I’ll give examples of what I mean, to illustrate how it all comes together.
The things to keep in mind related to the characteristics of wine (and food). Let me briefly outline these in relation to wine, and food and wine pairing. I’m going to cover five different aspects of wine. Ultimately, they all work together, but it is easier to approach them at first at separate elements. I think of them as sort of a grammar of wine and food pairing. And, like grammar, it’s good to know the rules not only to construct pairings that work, but also to know when and how to break the rules.
- Body. This, simply, is how ‘big’ or ‘light’ or ‘thin’ the wine feels in your mouth. It is linked largely to the amount of alcohol, but there are other factors that come into play. Roughly speaking, the higher the alcohol content, the more full-bodied the wine. The basic principle here is like with like. A big, full-bodied red would swamp a light seafood dish, and a light-bodied white would be lost if asked to go with a big, hearty stew.
- Flavours and their intensity. This one is fairly straightforward – what does the wine taste and smell like, and how intensely so? Some wines a delicate perfumes, others grab you by the throat and demand attention. In terms of flavours and aromas, you may want to either contrast the food ones with the wine ones, or complement them. Just keep in mind that the dominant flavour in food may well not be the main food – it could be a sauce or a side which may be more important.
- Acidity. This is the mouth-watering aspect of wine. Think of something like a sauvignon blanc or Riesling, and zesty freshness. That’s acidity. It’s also present in red wines to varying degrees, just usually less immediately noticeable. Acidity can help give the wine freshness, but also some backbone (particularly in whites), and can balance out the alcohol. I like to think about acidity for cutting through rich foods, or ensuring it doesn’t overwhelm more delicate ones.
- Tannins. Think astringency and drying. Think black tea that’s been steeped forever. That’s tannin. Of course, in wine, tannins aren’t usually that obvious, but they can be. Tannins are (basically) only need to be thought about in red wines, as the main source of tannins is the wine-making process, and how long the must (grape juice) is in contact with the skins, and possibly the stalks of the grape bunches. Tannins are a backbone for reds, and help provide structure. They aren’t the same as body, but there are parallels, and so the same basic points about not overwhelming the food or the wine apply here.
- Sweetness. The vast majority of wines you’ll pair with food will be dry (not sweet). Some may have a bit of sweetness, and if you add dessert wines and sparkling wines into the mix, then there’s a much fuller range of sweetness levels to play with. The rule is usually presented as the wine should be sweeter than the food, but I ignore that one.
The order I’ve covered these in isn’t necessarily the order I’d think about them in matching food and wine. For that, it depends on what strikes me as the key characteristic of food. There are also other things that some people will tell you to think about, such as how salty is the food. But I find the points outlined above enough. In my next post, I’ll give some sample pairings to show how this comes together.
Some useful links:
Fiona Beckett’s Matching Food & Wine is very extensive. It claims to be ‘the most comprehensive food and drink pairing resource on the web,’ and it could very well be. My only quibble: She never seems to discuss the ideas behind pairing as a distinct topic. Having said that, there’s tons of information and tips, and the ideas and justifications behind pairings are well-explained.
The Food and Wine Matching Guide from Berry Brothers & Rudd, a venerable London wine merchants, is well worth a visit. There’s a section on the basics, laid out a bit differently than I do above, but nothing I’d disagree with. There are also sections on different foods (and seasons). Here it tends to give more specific matches, but also a brief explanation of why, and what works as a substitute.
Jamie Goode is a well-known and respected wine writer. His Wine Anorak site has a Food and Wine Matching section. It has a number of different sub-sections, with reviews of pairings as well as more general themes. And, of course, my personal favourite, Wine and TV Matching.