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The basics of food and wine pairing

Often the prospect of trying to pair the perfect wine with a meal can feel like a daunting task.  But making delicious choices can become second nature with a little food and wine education, and some fun trial and error!

What many people do not realize is that the basic structural elements of your food and wine will either make or break your choice. It is important to understand how the elements of acidity, sweetness, bitterness, umami and chili heat interact with wine in order to make great pairing choices.

Acidity in food increases the perception of body and sweetness in wines. On the flip side, acidity in wine can act as a refreshing way to ‘cut through’ a food’s richness. Foods that are high in acid should be paired with wines that are also high in acid, or risk a sweet wine tasting cloyingly sweet.

Sweetness in food increases the perception of bitterness and acidity in wine – but decreases the perception of sweetness and fruitiness.  Therefore the rule of thumb goes that sweet foods need to be matched with wines that are sweeter than the food – or risk your wine tasting sour. Because of this, desserts like chocolate love sweet red wines like Port.

Bitterness in food increases any bitter tastes one may find in wine. With foods that are bitter ‘wine killers’ – like asparagus, or leafy greens, it is important to pick wines that are fruity and light in style.

Umami is the savoury characteristic found in foods. It increases the perception of bitterness in wine, and decreases fruitiness.  Dishes that are high in umami need to be paired with wines that are more fruity than tannic. It is this reason why mushrooms pair so well with light, fruity and earthy Pinot Noir.

Chili heat needs sweet! Sadly chili heat can throw a curve ball into most wine interactions.  Chili heat not only intensifies alcohol burn, increases bitterness, and acidity, but decreases richness, sweetness and fruitiness in wine. Talk about a devastating blow! The best way to combat this effect is to pick a wine that has some sweetness to it, is low in alcohol, and fruity. It is this reason why light fruity wines like Riesling and Gewurztraminer are a great match for spicy Asian cuisine.

The best way to learn how these elements interact with one another is to play with them firsthand, and learn which wines are high in acid, fruitiness, tannin, etc! The road to perfect wine pairings involves a journey – one through grapes, bottles and a vast variety of foods in order to experience interactions – to help you make better-educated decisions on your next bottle.

And the journey is more than half of the fun!

Kathryn Zondag is a certified sommelier, and holds the advanced certificate in wine and spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in London, England.

Behind the Vine

We thought it would be fun to learn more about our Vinelife columnist Kathryn Zondag.

airdrielife: Give a brief description of your career before becoming a sommelier.

Kathryn Zondag: My previous career was in real estate – specifically new home sales and service. I had the pleasure of selling high-end estate housing, where I was often helping my customers design custom wine cellar spaces. (Something I always got really excited about!)  Many conversations in that business revolved around entertaining and wine as I learned how people intended to ‘live’ in their homes, and assisted them through the design process.

AL: When did you decide to become a sommelier?

KZ: I had always been passionate about wine, and at first I pursued the training so that I could have better conversations with customers and colleagues who were very passionate about the subject. Wine is something that everyone feels that socially they should know more about … but don’t.

Then one day a few years ago I was watching the movie Somm on Netflix. In it they document sommeliers preparing for the Master Sommelier exams. At this point and time there are only 236 people in the world who have earned the title. Something about the process of advanced education drew me in … maybe because I am a bookworm with a sensitive palate … but I wanted to start working toward something.

Then I fell in love with it all … the challenge, the fact that wine is so much more than a drink; it is entrenched in history, science, art and at its core – agriculture. I began living and breathing the knowledge obsessively, and when you get to that point – when you find something you love that much – you know it is time for a change.

AL: What was your aha moment about choosing this path?

KZ: As part of my education we have to blind taste extensively. Half of the final exam is based on you being able to correctly identify a blind red and blind white wine and ID the varietal, region, age, quality and price point of the wine. Once I began to correctly ID the blind tastings by putting together all of the puzzle pieces … I no longer felt as lost in it all and felt this was something I had a talent for.

AL: What was the most surprising thing you have learned?

KZ: My diploma instructor, who is a Master of Wine, once said that he would guess he knows 0.01 per cent of all there is to know about wine. That really hit me. If a Master, who is one of only a few hundred in the world, feels they know only 0.01 per cent – you know you are diving down a deep, deep rabbit hole. The more you learn, the more you realize you do not know.  It is a very humbling experience.

AL: Describe your perfect wine day. Do you have a bucket-list wine to taste?

KZ: I have had the pleasure of meeting some incredible winemakers, and I would love nothing more than to sit down with some of them – in their cellars – and explore some of their back vintages. These are the bottles they have personally held on to. The best experience is in watching them blow the dust off of something that was special to them. Where firsthand they can then tell me themselves about the trials and tribulations of the vintage. To me that is more important than the “brand,” review or the perfect year; I want to know all of the nitty gritty that went into it.  One of the first I hope to do this with is Luca Currado of Vietti. In a dream world it would be a back vintage of Barolo Villero Riserva.

AL: How many wines do you think you have tasted since beginning your training?

KZ: I have kept a detailed tasting log in order to remember everything. At this point I am up to having tasting notes on 678 different wines since I started. There have been more, but those are the noteworthy ones.

AL: If you were stranded on a desert island with only one wine, which would it be: red or white?

KZ: I am hoping this is a tropical desert island. In the heat, I would want something refreshing. If I could rig up some type of a buoy system to store/chill the wine in the ocean – I would want to be stuck with whites! But many whites can have shorter shelf lives if not stored correctly, so I would be hoping it was mixed cases upon cases of Riesling – very age-able, and endless variety in style and flavour. The food-friendliness would also give me plenty of safety to enjoy it with whatever I am foraging….

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