Ology testing: Matching food and wine

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

01 June 2017

Somms all know that food matching isn’t an exact science. But a little understanding of chemistry, biology and psychology can have a big impact on your pairings and how you present them. Victoria Moore dons her lab coat

The tasting wasn’t going well. Several people had burnt their mouths on a batch of super-hot pimientos de padrón (luckily there was a lot of milk in the fridge). Then they all found polite ways to say they thought I was crazy claiming to be able to smell violets in a glass of Petit Verdot, and also call me a charlatan on the grounds that violets don’t really have a smell at all.

Much later, as a Masters psychology student at Birkbeck University in London, I realised what the problem had been with the violet thing. The key aromatic compound, the one that gives this small woodland flower its characteristic scent, is beta-ionone, which is only received by one olfactory receptor gene (OR5A1). About 40% of the population lacks a fully functioning copy of this gene and has never been able to appreciate the violet’s delicate perfume.

If only I could have gone back to tell that tasting class. The psych course didn’t just enlighten me about violets, it improved my appreciation of fino and jamón no end – Barrica is just round the corner from Birkbeck. Perhaps more saliently, it added an extra dimension to the way I think about wine.

This meant that when I came to write The Wine Dine Dictionary I didn’t just pick the brains of some of the greediest palates in the business, find out what winemakers most like to eat with their own wines, and beg wineries to hand over some of the delicious recipes I’d enjoyed while travelling and tasting. I also pulled in bits and pieces from the many studies I had read along the way.

Deep feelings
The psychology course made me think more deeply about the experience of the drinker. It made me think: how is our perception of flavour working? How does food and drink make us feel? What, in short, is actually going on inside there?

For starters, when it came to putting food with wine (and vice versa) I’d always been adamant that this was better approached as an art. You’ll be pleased to hear that I haven’t changed my mind – but there’s no doubting that science can provide illuminating insights too.

Methoxypyrazines are in sauvignon, tomatoes and capsicum. No wonder the wine is good with salad

Let’s leave aside the interactions between the basic tastes of salt, sweet, sour and so on, which I am positive you all know about, and consider the idea that similar flavours can go well together. This takes on an entirely new aspect when you consider the odour compounds in the wine and food.

It’s well-known, for instance, that methoxypyrazines are found in Sauvignon Blanc, and also responsible for the green, herbaceous scent of tomatoes and green capsicum. No surprise, then, that Sauvignon Blanc is insanely good with tomato salad.

Less well known is the name of the compound behind the classic match of a black-pepper-scented Syrah and steak with a black peppercorn crust.

Rotundone is present in both. Syrah isn’t the only grape whose wine exudes rotundone. The compound has also been identified in Schioppettino, Mourvèdre, Durif, Vespolina and –perhaps unsurprisingly given that a common tasting note for this variety is white pepper – Grüner Veltliner. So there are a few more ideas for matches with black peppercorns.

Herbs and spices
Meanwhile other herbs, plants and spices whose essential oils contain rotundone include the following: white peppercorns, thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary and geranium. I have yet to taste a savoury dish made with geranium but perhaps one day I’ll be offered one, and at least then I might have a few ideas for wine.

In a similar vein, if you have ever wondered why mild curries – mild, of course, because chilli does unspeakable things to our perception of flavour – seem to go well with mature wines like vin jaune and fino sherry, then the answer may be an extremely potent aroma compound known as sotolon.

This lactone is found in older, and also in flor-matured wines, as well as in fenugreek – incidentally, a spice that is banned from my house because it can be smelt at such low concentrations that it takes weeks to flush out its odour once you have cooked with it.

Speaking of chilli, its wild effect on our ability to perceive flavour made me curious to know more about how it operates on our sensory system. I won’t go on about chilli and sugar, or chilli and yoghurt, but my investigations did lead me to discover why it is that curry and lager make such a good combination.

Heat and drink
As with everything we eat and drink, chilli is perceived as a taste (via the tastebuds) and as a smell (via the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity). But it’s the impact on a third sense, the somatosensory system, which concerns itself with touch, movement, temperature, pressure and pain that is of interest here. And pain is the name of the game.

The painful truth
Capsaicin in chilli acts on the nociceptors – the pain receptors – located in the mouth to activate an ion channel known as TRPV1 which sends messages to the brain via the fifth cranial (trigeminal) nerve. TRPV1 is also used to detect dangerous-to-body-tissue temperatures of more than 43°C.

This is why, when we encounter capsaicin – or indeed allicin, in raw garlic, which also stimulates this pain receptor – the brain is tricked into feeling a burn.

The effervescence in lager, or in a G&T, glass of champagne or beaker of Mateus Rosé for that matter, also produces a nippy sort of a bite in the mouth.

Why it pays to create a positive spin with your wine matches

The language used to present a choice can have a huge influence over the decisions people make. An example
of this is the famous experiment in which participants were asked to choose between two treatments for 600 people who had been stricken with a deadly disease.

When told that Treatment A, ‘saves 200 lives’ (a positive frame), 72% of participants backed it. When told that with Treatment A, ‘400 people will die’ (an example of a negative frame) only 22% were prepared to go with it. The outcomes were identical in both cases, and the alternative option was the same, the key is the way they are switched around to emphasise a gain or a loss.

What, you might be thinking, does this have to do with food and wine matching? Well, a menu is an opportunity to exert influence over the diner.

A suggested wine match – ‘Pinot Noir goes well with the earthiness of potatoes and brings out the pink succulence of salmon’ – is an example of a positive frame compared to the neutrality of the wine list.

I had always assumed this bite was the sensation of bubbles bursting against the tongue. But, in actual fact, it’s the sting of an interaction with the TRP receptors – we taste carbonation like we taste mustard or horseradish.

And while fizzy drinks can’t provide the soothing balm of a yoghurt or milk-based drink after chilli, some researchers have suggested that there is a mild cross-desensitisation effect by capsaicin and the carbonation.

Cross-desensitisation? Well guys, if you’ve ever had a crack, back and sack treatment and the therapist has patted your parts after ripping off the wax, you’ll know that makes it sting a bit
less. It’s kinda similar.

The psychology course also reminded me not to assume that everyone is looking for the same effect. A basic principle for me with food and wine is that if the wine eclipses the food or vice versa, or turns it like toothpaste turns orange juice, then something is going wrong. But that’s not true for everyone.

With chilli the aim of some diners isn’t to keep the flavours of the wine and food as intact as possible but to play with fire – they want more tannin for the aggressive hit that is produced when it meets chilli in your mouth.

Framing effect
The way in which wine and food work together in a restaurant setting isn’t just down to flavour. Communication matters too. Psychologists use the term ‘framing effect’ to describe the idea that manipulating the way information is presented – the sell – can influence the decisions people make. The effect can be quite extreme (see box).

You can also lead people towards certain wine and food combinations simply by describing them. For example, here is a chunk from my book on young Cornas with rillettes: ‘Those black Northern Rhône Syrahs taste granitic and gravelley, like having your feet on cold pebbles; then you get the milky white softness of the bread; then the chippy, argumentative wine; then the creamy butter; then the vinegary cornichons; then the proud stony wine again.’

Obviously that’s too long for a menu but the point is that it’s engaging.

If I read that I am already starting to imagine eating. I am very hungry and I am very, very thirsty.
Studies have shown that when hungry people think about a food (or drink) they like, the brain doesn’t just coolly play around with food memories, or what scientists call ‘flavour images’.

The way in which wine and food work together isn’t just down to flavour. Communication matters too

Images of desire
The amygdala, which is involved in emotion, is also activated. We start to experience ‘images of desire’ and can experience a strong urge to acquire the food and drink in question.

The final point I want to make might seem self-defeating. It is this: there is only so much information the brain can process at any one time. For most people attention is like a spotlight, not a floodlight. This is the reason why it’s a bad idea for a winemaker to talk at you while you are tasting their wines – unless they are trying to distract you from doing a good job.

It’s also why wine and food in a dark bar with flashing lights, noisy music and a loud hubbub of chatter and clinky glasses will do best if it is simple and strong-flavoured, the better to cut through all that sensory overload. The comparison between a London Mojito with strong mint and strong rum and a true Cuban one, with gentle mint, is a good example of this.

It’s also why a big giggly table in a restaurant isn’t going to appreciate the wine, or the food, let alone the wine with the food, quite as much as you want them to. But I’m guessing that you knew that already…

The Artichoke Effect
Not a 1970s prog rock band, but the science behind a notoriously tricky vegetable. (Which also sounds like a 1970s prog rock band.)

The artichoke effect received scientific attention in 1935 when Albert Blakeslee reported in the journal Science that at a biologists’ dinner attended by nearly 250 people, 60% of those who had eaten globe artichokes found that water tasted different afterwards and that, ‘to most, this taste was sweet’.

In 1972, the eminent food psychologist Linda Bartoshuk set out to investigate these taste-modifying properties. In her experiments, Bartoshuk replicated the finding that eating artichokes made water taste sweet and noted that this sweet sensation was unusual, in that it didn’t arise from having anything in the mouth that was actually sweet, but was an effect apparently caused by temporarily altering the taste receptors on the tongue.

Bartoshuk has since speculated that the most plausible explanation for this effect is that a substance found in artichokes (probably cynarin) inhibits the sweet receptors in the mouth. When the taste buds are rinsed by water or another liquid, such as wine, the inhibition is removed, and a message is sent to the brain through the pathways that convey sweet taste, giving rise to a phantom sensation of sugar.

The Wine Dine Dictionary by Victoria Moore is published by Granta at £20

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