What goes into pairing wine and food?

A couple of weeks ago in this column, I offered up a behind-the-scenes peek of what goes into a wine dinner for a sommelier and explained the madness in my method of pairing food and wine.

This became a topic of discussion for my fellow sommeliers at the Give Me Five Dinner that I recently helped organize. (The charity event partnered five of the city’s top chefs with five somms to raise money for hungry school kids.)

I asked two of those somms, Caleb Hopkins of Atlas and Joon Lim of Vine Vault, to expound on their approaches to selecting the perfect wine for any dish. Their answers were surprising and enlightening.

Lim focuses on the textural side of things.

“Textures affect how our palates perceive flavors,” Lim said. “Take, for example, water in solid versus liquid form. In liquid form, it’s simply water as we know it. In solid form, we call it ice. Do they taste different? Yes! They’re the same ingredients, but they taste different because of the change in texture. As long as there is textural harmony in the dish and the wine, I find that primary flavors cooperate better.”

OK, Joon, but what about a real pairing? What are you doing with dishes featuring, say, tomatoes?

“Tomatoes — one of the most challenging ingredients to pair with wine. Why? Is it because it’s not delicious? Certainly not. It is because the acidity is high and comes across as being super sharp on the palate. If the acid component isn’t carefully matched, the tomato can make the wine seem very dull.”

Enough of the “gotcha” pairings, Joon. Perhaps you can explain why we love steaks and red wines. (Until very recently, by the way, Lim was the sommelier at Kevin Rathbun Steak.)

“Matching red wine with beef is a classic example of creating a textural bridge between the wine and food. A red wine showing flavors of cassis, blueberry and blackberry sounds delicious, but I wouldn’t want those fruits, per se, on my steak. The reason why those fruit flavors show better is because there was a textural compatibility to begin with when you softened the tannins in the wine with the protein in the meat.”

Hopkins takes a more analytical and scientific approach to food and wine pairing.

“What am I trying to achieve with the pairing?” is the first question Hopkins considers. “Here at Atlas, we do wine pairing dinners where chef Chris Grossman creates an amazing tasting menu and my job is to pick wines that will enhance the enjoyment of the food. I look for simple flavors and similar weights that will not interfere with chef’s interpretation of the dish.”

Hopkins is not afraid to go to a fairly deep level for his inspired wine selections. “There’s really great book called ‘Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine and Flavor’ by sommelier François Chartier,” Hopkins said. “In it, Chartier analyzes food and wine flavors on a molecular level.”

OK, Caleb, this sounds a little flaky. What’s a somm to make of a molecular examination of food and wine?

“Most wine professionals can spout off major pairings, but if you understand scientifically why these flavors complement each other, you can use those principals on a broader spectrum.

“One great example shows how sauvignon blanc, a varietal that can at times be difficult in wine pairings, shares the same chemical compound that is found in anise. If you have a sip of it after eating a bite of whole grain mustard, which also has strong anise flavors, it creates a cooling effect that is both refreshing and delicious.

“If you are over 21, I do suggest trying this at home.”

On a side note, after nearly 500 columns written over the past 11 years, this will be my last. I’m grateful for all the space The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has given me, and for the boundless patience of the editors and copy editors I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I’d also like to thank the thousands of readers who allowed me a little time in their heads every couple of weeks. And I leave you all with this: Read whoever you want, but always drink what you like.

Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.

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