- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

Have you ever gasped over how horrible orange juice tastes right after you have brushed your teeth?

After sweet toothpaste, the acids in the orange juice taste very strong (sweet makes anything that you eat or drink afterward taste stronger). The predominant taste of a food can have a major influence on the taste of what you eat or drink immediately after.

Food’s influence on wine is a great place to observe this. After going to dozens of food-and-wine pairing classes through the years, I have heard a lot of rules and sayings like, “Buy wine over fruit, sell wine over cheese,” but very little to really make sense of fundamental food and wine relationships.

However, chef Jerry Comfort’s workshop, “Food and Wine Pairing,” at the 2002 annual convention of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, contained the basic knowledge that allows anyone to predict exactly how a certain food will influence the taste of any wine. Mr. Comfort is the culinary director for the Chateau Souverain and Beringer Blass Wine Estates.

His lecture contained much about the world of wine, but my area of interest is how food affects the taste of wine. The first point is: Food changes the way wine tastes. Most people agree with this, but the next step is that the dominant taste in food changes all wines the same way, to a lesser or greater degree.

We have five basic taste receptors: sweet, sour, salty, umami and bitter. A food that is predominantly sweet changes all wines the same way, to a lesser or greater degree. A food that is sour changes all wines the same way, and so on. To test this, take a small plate with a slice of sweet apple (not Granny Smith), a slice of lemon and about teaspoon salt.

To sample a taste change of a lesser degree, take a glass of a mild white wine such as a pinot grigio. To sample a change of a greater degree, take a glass of a strong red wine with tannins like a moderately heavy cabernet sauvignon.

To experience that food changes the way wines taste, first take a sip of the pinot grigio. This is how the vintner meant for this wine to taste.

Next, eat half of the sweet apple wedge (this represents anything sweet). Now, when you take a sip of the pinot grigio, it tastes much stronger. Food has definitely changed the taste of the wine. Sweet foods make wine taste stronger.

Next, take a lick of the lemon slice, and then a sip of pinot grigio. This time, the wine tastes milder. Acidic (sour) foods make wines taste milder (less acidic).

Now, taste a little salt and then take a sip of the pinot grigio. It tastes pleasant. Salt subdues bitterness, allowing other flavors to come out.

Gary Beauchamp at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia does a dramatic demonstration to point out the power of salt to suppress bitterness. He pours everyone a small sample of tonic water and asks you to identify the bitter quinine and the sugar water that makes it palatable.

Then, he pours the remaining tonic water into a pitcher, stirs in a tiny bit of salt and gives everyone another sample. Amazingly, it is almost like sugar water. Salt can even subdue the potent bitterness of quinine.

Foods with an umami taste have a very subtle influence. These are foods containing salts of glutamic acid (an amino acid) or nucleotides (small pieces of proteins) like mushrooms, tomatoes, meats, green tea and aged cheeses, to name a few. Such foods make tannins taste slightly stronger.

This does not affect white wines or the milder reds and, if there is salt present, its great power to suppress bitterness overshadows the slight changes created by umami.

To experience these taste changes to a greater degree, repeat the same steps above with cabernet sauvignon. Alone, this is how the vintner meant for it to taste. Then, after the sweet apple, the wine is horrible, extremely strong, worse than orange juice after toothpaste. Next, after the lemon, the wine tastes a little milder.

The really wonderful change is from the salt — after the salt has suppressed bitterness (the strong tannins), the wine tastes great. Of course, true oenophiles who enjoy the taste of strong tannins may consider this a detriment.

Let’s apply your expertise in handling the influence of food on the taste of wine. Say that you are out to dinner with three friends, two have steaks and two have fish. One of the steak eaters orders a medium cabernet sauvignon — great for the steak people.

But you are one of the fish people with a delicate sole fillet. What can you do? Squeeze a little lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt on a bite of fish then, after that bite, drink some wine. It will be good.

Now, here is my easy lemon sole. By all means, pair it with your own choice of wine or no wine at all. Since the food is slightly acidic, anything from dry whites to mild reds will probably taste OK.

Easy lemon sole

6 to 8 sole fillets

2 shallots, finely minced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 tablespoons butter

teaspoon salt

1 lemon (zest from the whole lemon and juice of half of the lemon)

2 green onions and 2 sprigs of parsley to garnish, chopped together

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees and place a rack in the upper fourth of the oven.

Arrange fillets on a baking sheet with sides. You don’t need to oil the sheet or the fillets.

In a medium skillet, saute shallots in oil and butter over low heat until soft, about 5 minutes.

While shallots are simmering, put the fillets into the oven, uncovered, for 4 to 5 minutes (depending on how small the fillets are) until the fish are opaque white. Remove to a warm serving platter.

Stir salt into the shallot butter. Remove from the heat, stir in lemon juice and lemon zest. Spoon over hot fillets. Garnish with a light sprinkle of green onion-parsley mix. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.


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