Science of Food and Wine Pairing

See Also Food and Wine Pairing Notes from the Experts

Why pair food with wine?

Synergy is the ultimate objective—the wine and food combine to create a totally new and superior gastronomic effect. On the flip side -- a poor wine pairing can destroy the flavor of the wine and lessen the overall dining experience. Simply remember that wine should always compliment the food and not dominate it.

History of Wine Pairing

Wine been paired with food for centuries. Although wine making may go back as far as 8000 years ago, recent archaeological finds place the origins of wine making (in large scale) to 4100 B.C. In early times wine was paired with food since it was safer to drink than local water supply. 

The main objective to wine pairing with food is to enhance the dining experience. In many cultures winemaking and culinary experiences evolved over many years. Many pairings that are considered "classics" today are the result of a region's cuisine and wine growing up and merging together in. In Italy one rarely dines without wine and a region's wine is known to be "food friendly" to match the areas cuisine. Many old wine adages such as "White wine with fish; Red wine with meat" are no longer observed.

The subjective nature of taste makes it possible to drink most any kind of wine with any kind of food and have an enjoyable experience. 

The first thing to consider in pairing is your own preference, as drinking a type of wine you don’t care for isn’t going to be a pleasure (even if it’s “the perfect pairing” with your broiled grouper). 

Just watch this excellent video where Eric Ripert chef of 3 star Michelin Le Bernardin demonstrates how wine drinking is so subjective see: Bordeaux goes with everything.


The Science of Taste

Scientists describe seven basic tastes: bitter, salty, sour, astringent, sweet, pungent (e.g., chili), and umami. There are however five basic tastes that the tongue is sensitive to: salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. There are also reports of a sixth taste-- fats. The taste buds for these are distributed throughout the tongue. The old notion that a map of the tongue exists with tastes located in different regions was proven wrong many years ago.

Read more about the science of taste:
About the Five or Six Basic Tastes
Molecular Basis of Taste

The Science of Wine Aroma

It is through the aromas of wine that we actually taste the wine. The wide array of fruit, earthy, floral, herbal, mineral and woodsy flavor perceived in wine are derived from aroma notes interpreted by the olfactory bulb. Within wine there are volatile and non-volatile compounds that contribute to the make up of a wine's aroma. Read more about the science of Wine Aroma

Tannins, Sugars, Acids, Oak and Alcohol Play a Major Role in Food and Wine Pairing

About the Acid Taste in Wine

In wine tasting, the term “acidity” refers to the fresh, tart and sour attributes of the wine which is evaluated in relation to how well the acidity balances out the sweetness and bitter components of the wine such as tannins. 

There are three primary acids found in wine grapes: tartaric, malic and citric. The major acids of wine are tartaric and malic. Citric acid is considered a minor acid. 

tartaric --Tartaric acid is, from a winemaking The principal acids of wine are tartaric and malic.perspective, the most important in wine due to the prominent role it plays in maintaining the chemical stability of the wine and its color and finally in influencing the taste of the finished wine.

malic --most often associated with green apples from which flavor it most readily projects in wine

citric. --citric acid is found only in very minute quantities in wine grapes. It often has a concentration about 1/20 that of tartaric acid

lactic acid -- A much milder acid than tartaric and malic, lactic acid is often associated with “milky” flavors in wine and is the primary acid of yogurt and sauerkraut. Chardonnay is often put through malolactic fermentation when it is being oaked. The softer, milky lactic helps contribute to a creamier mouthfeel in the wine.

The malolactic fermentation (MLF) is an important natural process for adjusting acidity. The MLF lowers the acidity by converting malic acid to lactic acid and carbon dioxide. Many white wines are encouraged by the winemaker to undergo MLF and almost all red wines "automatically" undergo MLF. 

A typical premium California Chardonnay has a pH of 3.4. compared a pH of 2.91 found in a late harvest Johannisberg Riesling with 21% residual sugar. Generally speaking, sweet wines require a higher acidity than table wines to balance the high sugar. This is true for Sauternes, Alsatian SGN and German TBA wines.

· Cool climate grapes have high acid and low sugar - Warm climate grapes have low acid and high sugar.


Acidity is a dominant player in any food and wine pairing due to the pronounced and complex ways that it can heighten the perception of flavors. In wine tasting, acidity is perceived by a mouth watering response by the salivary glands. This mouth watering can also serve to stimulate the appetite. In wine there are three main acids that have their own associated flavors-malic (green apples), lactic (milky) and tartaric (bitter). In dishes that are fatty, oily, rich or salty, acidity in wine can "cut" (or standout and contrast) through the heaviness and be a refreshing change of pace on the palate. In cooking, acidity is often used in similar fashions such as a lemon wedges with a briny seafood dish such as oysters. The acidity of the lemon juices can make the oysters seem less briny. A wine that is less tart than the dish it is served with will taste thin and weak. A wine that comes across as "too tart" on its own maybe soften when paired when an acidic and tart dish. The complementing "tartness" of the food and wine cancels each other out and allows the other components (fruit of the wine, other flavors of the food) to be more noticeable. 

Read more about Acids in Wine

About the Taste of Tannins in Wine

The tannins give structure and backbone to the wine. They can be sensed by a puckering sensation in the mouth much like when drinking tea. While tannins can not be smelt or tasted, they can be perceived during wine tasting by the tactile drying sensation and sense of bitterness that they can leave in the mouth. This is due to the tendency of tannins to react with proteins, such as the ones found in saliva. While tannins provide structure to wine and allow for aging of wine (tannins are a natural preservative in wine) , they may overwhelm many food dishes.

The bitterness associated with wine is usually derived from a wine's tannins. Tannins add a gritty texture and chalky, astringent taste. It can enhance the perception of "body" or weight in the wine. Tannins are normally derived from the skins and stems of the grapes themselves (leeched out during the maceration process) or from contact with oak during barrel aging. Tannins react to proteins. When paired with dishes that are high in proteins and fats (such as red meat and hard cheeses), the tannins will bind to the proteins and come across as softer. In the absence of protein from the food, such as some vegetarian dishes, the tannins will react with the proteins on the tongue and sides of the mouth€”accentuating the bitterness and having a drying effect on the palate. Various cooking methods, such as grilling and blackening can add a bitter "char" component to the dish that will allow it to play well with a tannic wine. While fish oils can make tannic wines taste metallic or off. Bitter tannic wines like Barolo and Cabernet Sauvignon can overwhelm a lot of foods but can be soften by fatty foods with a lot of proteins such as hard cheeses or meats. The dry tannins also serve as a cleansing agent on the palate by binding to the grease and oils left over in the mouth. Spicy and sweet foods can accentuate the dry, bitterness of tannins and make the wine seem to have off flavors.

Read more Wine Polyphenols

About the Oak in Wine

The use of oak plays a significant role in winemaking and can have a profound effect on the resulting wine, affecting the color, flavor, tannin profile and texture of wine. The chemical properties of oak itself can have a profound effect on the wine. 

Phenols within the wood interact with the wine to produce vanilla type flavors and can give the impression of tea notes or sweetness. The degree of "toast" on the barrel can also impart different properties affecting the tannin levels of the wine as well as the aggressive wood flavors.[5] The hydrolyzable tannins present in wood, known as ellagitannins, are derived from lignin structures in the wood. They help protect the wine from oxidation and reduction.[6]nin profile and texture of the wine. 

Read more Oak in Wines

About the Sugar in Wine

The sugars in wine grapes are what make winemaking possible. During the process of fermentation, sugars are broken down and converted by yeasts into ethanol alcohol and carbon dioxide

Glucose, along with fructose, is one of the primary sugars found in wine grapes. In wine, glucose taste less sweet than fructose.

In wine tasting, humans are least sensitive to the taste of sweetness (in contrast to sensitivity to bitterness or sourness) with the majority of the population being able to detect sugar or "sweetness" in wines between 1% and 2.5% residual sugar. Additionally, other components of wine such as acidity and tannins can mask the perception of sugar in the wine.

The sweetness of wines is determined by the amount of residual sugar left in the wine after the fermentation process. Wines can be bone dry (with the sugars fully fermented into alcohol), off-dry (with a hint of sweetness), semi-dry (medium-sweet) and dessert level sweetness (such as the high sugar content in Sauternes and Tokays). Sweet wines often need to be sweeter than the dish they are served with. Vintage brut champagne paired with sweet, wedding cake can make the wine taste tart and weak while the cake will have off flavors. In food pairings, sweetness balances spice and heat. It can serve as a contrast to the heat and alleviate some of the burning sensation caused by peppers and spicy Asian cuisine. It can accentuate the mild sweetness in some foods and can also contrast with salt such as the European custom of pairing salty Stilton cheese with a sweet Port. Sweetness in a wine can balance tartness in food, especially if the food has some sweetness (such as dishes with sweet & sour sauces).

Sweet wines will also pair well with rich foods like foie gras. Desserts that pair well with sweet wines come in all flavors and textures.

Read more Sugar in Wines

About the Alcohol in Wine

Alcohol is the primary factor in dictating a wine's weight & body. Typically the higher the alcohol level, the more weight the wine has. An increase in alcohol content will increase the perception of density and texture. In food and wine pairing, salt and spicy heat will accentuate the alcohol and the perception of "heat" or hotness in the mouth.[6]Conversely, the alcohol can also magnify the heat of spicy food making a highly alcoholic wine paired with a very spicy dish one that will generate a lot of heat for the taster.


The most important elements to pay attention to in pairing wine and food are the acidity, tannin, alcohol, and any overt wood flavors in the wine.

PAIR THE WINE TO PERSONAL TASTE-- know your guests personal taste in wine. If your guests only drink red wine consider matching red wine --even to fish.

MATCH THE WEIGHT AND TEXTURE OF THE FOOD TO THE WEIGHT OF THE WINE -- In food and wine pairings, the most basic element considered is "weight"-the balance between the weight of the food (a heavy, red sauce pasta versus a more delicate salad) and the weight or "body" of the wine (a heavy Cabernet Sauvignon versus a more delicate Pinot grigio).

heavy food with heavy wine --light dishes --light wine -- heavy wines will overpower light wines... heavy dishes e.g., will over power light wines --examples e.g., pizza with proscuitto... or poached filet of sole ... 

Lighter whites Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, Chablis, Champagne and sparkling wines, Gruner Veltliner, Vinho Verde 

Medium to heavy whites Oaked Sauvignon blanc, Alsatian wines, Albarino, White Bordeaux (Semillon), White Burgundy, Rhone whites (Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne), Tamaioasa Romaneasca and New World Chardonnay 

Lighter reds Beaujolais, Dolcetto, some Pinot noir 

Medium reds Chianti, Barbera, Burgundy, Chinon, Rioja, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Malbec, Zinfandel, some Pinot noir 

Heavier reds Syrah, Brunello di Montalcino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Port, Barbaresco and Barolo 



-- Cabernet almost never goes with fish... the exeception is monkfish which needs to be prepared with mushrooms and red wine.
--Fatty meat dishes go well with tannic wine
-- well done meats or stews with lower fat content go with red that has low tannins 
A good red wine has everyting to do with the fat content, which involve both cooking style and the nature of the beef itself"
The best match for game birds pinot noir -- pinot noir from france was made to match game birds such as quail pigeon and duck
--Poached fish is best served with white wine
--Fish with skin on and grilled or seared works with white or red wine
--Avoid oaked white wines with raw fish


PAIR ACIDIC DISHES WITH ACIDIC WINES -- Wine should be equal to or more acidic than the dish.



CONSIDER THE LEVEL OF SALT IN THE DISH -- Rember first that salt will magnify flavors, but too much and salt is all you taste. Salty dishes require a crispy wine with high acidity, some sweetness and low tannins. see notes from the experts.



Pair for the overall flavor of the dish --whatever the 'main ingredient' may be. This is often the case for Asian dishes.


After considering weight, pairing the flavors and texture can be dealt with using one of two main strategies complement or contrast.


Wikepedia wine and food pairing

Acids in wines

The acidity of wine -- By Alexander J. Pandell, Ph.D. 

Wine and food pairing from Kendall Jackson Winery

Mastering the art and sicence of food and wine pairing

World’s Best Sommelier vs. World’s Worst Customer 

7 Rules for Perfect Pairing -- Food and Wine 

Food and Wine Pairs from Gayot

Red Wine and Fish -- Star Chefs

Taste Molecules

The Wine Doctor