Musings on Wine

The Salty Food, Tannin and Alcohol Experiment

It's recently come to my attention that one of the most divisive principles of wine and food matching is that of salt and the effect it has on alcohol and tannins in red wines. In the hopes of finding some clarity, I have devised a little experiment.

Clearly, wine and food matching is more of a subjective pleasure quest than an exact science. There are some tasters who are hyper-sensitivite to particular flavour compounds whilst others are more tolerant. Each of these individuals will react to a single wine and food match in very different ways.

It has been widely held that salty foods can cause one's palate to sense higher levels of tannin and alcohol in wines, however recently, it was suggested to me that the exact opposite may be true. One noted MW suggests that the long held belief that fat in red meat tempers tannins in red wines (e.g. Medoc red and lamb), is not true at all and in fact, it is the salty seasoning of the red meat that causes the tannins to appear rounder and softer.

In order to put the salt, tannin, alcohol theory to the test, I tried a very simple experiment. I opened a bottle of what I knew to be an aggressively tannic, young red wine from the Medoc with 13.5% alcohol. I sampled it alone and with plain green Picholine olives, salty fat-free ham, anchovy filet, lightly salted roasted almonds and old Parmigiano Reggiano. I also tried the food with a small taste of 100 proof white rhum from Martinique.

salty foods with wine

With the olive, the wine seemed less astringent (drying) and a touch more complex, however the bitterness of the wine was somewhat enhanced. Same was true with the ham, the almonds (although the flavour match didn't work here) and in particular the cheese, but once again the bitterness was enhanced, this time quite significantly. As you might have guessed the extremely salty, oily anchovy was quite disgusting with the wine as the standard fish oil meets tannin metallic flavour exploded on my tongue. It was hard to tell whether or not the tannins were affected as the flavour was so revolting.

When paired with the rhum, the tolerable (enjoyable) salt of the olives became elevated to such a level that all was ruined. With the slightly less salty ham, the alcohol did seem less hot and the flavour was actually quite tolerable. With the almonds, the rhum's strength all but disappeared on the palate and I was only reminded of the 50% alcohol from the comforting warmth in my chest. I quite enjoyed the rhum and almond and appreciated why the two ingredients often find themselves side by side in countless baked goodies. I didn't bother trying the cheese or anchovy with the rhum as I decided I'd save the anchovies for my next pizza and the cheese for the top of my spaghetti tonight.

Lessons from this wee experiment are three-fold. Firstly, although the theory that salty foods can temper the astringent nature of some tannins seems true, the bitterness of underripe or green tannins seem elevated by such foods. Alcohol on the other hand, seems to be lessened slightly by certain salty foods, but salt can be enhanced in other cases. Secondly, if one ever truly wants to understand any of the basic rules of wine and food matching, one must try similar experiments at home. Finally, and quite possibly the most important leasson is: NEVER EAT ANCHOVIES WITH TANNIC RED WINE FOR FEAR OF REGURGITATING ONE'S OWN STOMACH CONTENTS!

Bon appetit!

your Comments

WineFoodMood Man said ...

Hi Michel, Excellent question. As a rule umami flavours found in Asian food (in particular soy) increase the bitterness, acidity, astringency and chemesthesis (heat) of wine and decreases body, richness, sweetness and fruit so so best to pair this style of food with beer! Seriously, stick to relatively low alcohol, fruity reds with low tannins such as Beaujolais, new world Pinot Noir and Valpolicella or aromatic, flavourful, lowish alcohol whites like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Alsace Riesling or Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.

Michel Rod said ... for the complete novice who wants to forego the sake and have wine to accompany the meal, what does this mean for pairing East Asian food where you know you're going to want to have a nice mix of soy sauce and wasabi for dipping your sushi or sashimi Wineman?

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