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An Overview of the ISA Wine Pairing Criteria

StefanoAs promised a while ago to Suzanne, the gracious author of food and cooking blog apuginthekitchen, in this post I will briefly go through the core foundations of food-wine pairing, providing an overview of the main criteria conceived and recommended by the Italian Sommelier Association (ISA). This should hopefully offer readers a few guidelines that they may consider trying out the next time they will need to pair a wine with food.

Our discussion about wine pairing will utilize certain of the concepts and terminology that we have gone through in the context of our overview of the ISA wine tasting protocol: if you are not familiar with it, consider reading that post before continuing on with this one.

The first step in the wine pairing process is to assess the food you intend to pair a wine with: in so doing, you should consider (and ideally write down) which of the following characteristics are present to a noticeable extent in your food:

  • Latent sweetness (this is that sweetish feel that you perceive eating such foods as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, carrots, certain seafood such as shrimps or prawns, most ham, bacon, etc. – note, this is NOT the full-blown sweetness of a dessert)
  • Fatness (this refers to the presence of solid greases, such as in most cheeses, salame, hard-boiled egg yolk, etc.)
  • Tastiness (it is given by the presence of salt in a food, such as for instance in most cured meats, salame or cheeses)
  • Latent bitterness (it can be found in such foods as artichokes, raw spinach, radicchio, liver, grilled food, etc.)
  • Latent sourness (it is generally found in tomatoes, seafood marinated in lemon juice, salads with vinegar-based dressings, etc.)
  • Sweetness (typical of a dessert, honey or most fruits)
  • Aftertaste (meaning, whenever the flavor of the food tends to linger in your mouth after swallowing it – for instance, venison meat generally has a longer afterstate than veal meat)
  • Spiciness (this merely indicates the moderate use of spices in the preparation of the food, it does NOT indicate a “hot” food – examples are the use of saffron, curry, pepper, vanilla, etc. in foods like cured meats, risotto, desserts…)
  • Flavor (this indicates a noticeable, distinct flavor that is typical of a certain food or ingredient, such as in the case of blue cheese or goat cheese, salame, foods complemented by herbs, such as pesto sauce or butter and sage ravioli, coffee, cocoa…)
  • Juiciness (there are three types: (i) inherent, which is that of foods that have noticeable quantities of liquids in them, such as a fresh buffalo mozzarella or a meat cut cooked rare; (ii) due to the addition of liquids, such as a beef stew to which some kind of gravy or sauce was added, a brasato, etc.; and (iii) induced, which is that of salty or relatively dry foods, which cause abundant production of saliva in the mouth, such as in the case of a bit of aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese)
  • Greasiness (caused by the presence of oil or other liquefied greases that is still noticeable in the mouth at the end of the preparation of the food, such as in a bruschetta, seafood salad, grilled sausage, etc.)
  • Structure (this depends on the complexity or the extent of elaboration of a food – for instance, a cracker with cheese or a bowl of white rice shall clearly be considered foods with little structure, while a dish of goulash or a Sacher torte shall be considered foods with significant structure)

Now, the core of the wine-food pairing criteria preached by the Italian Sommelier Association is that certain of the aforesaid qualities of a food (to the extent of course they are detectable to a noticeable extent in the food you want to identify a good wine pairing for) shall be paired by contrast with certain qualities of a wine (see below), while certain others of such food qualities shall instead be paired by association with the corresponding qualities in a wine.

Having said that, let’s now move on the second step and see specifically which qualities in a wine relate to the food qualities that we have listed above and how:

Food Quality   Wine Quality
(A) Pairings by Contrast
Latent sweetness ==> Acidity
     
Fatness ==> Effervescence or Minerality
     
Tastiness    
Latent bitterness ==> Smoothness
Latent sourness    
     
Juiciness / Greasiness ==> ABV or Tannicity (by contrast)
(B) Pairings by Association
Sweetness ==> Sweetness
     
Spiciness / Flavor ==> Intensity of nose/mouth flavor
     
Aftertaste ==> Aftertaste or Finish

Wherever per the above guidelines a food quality presents an alternative in the choice of the related wine quality, structure of the food can often dictate which of the alternative wine qualities should be picked. So, for instance, in the case of the greasiness of a delicate seafood salad whose dressing is olive oil-based, the choice in the related wine quality should fall on a white wine with good ABV over a red wine with noticeable tannins, which would have a structure that would overwhelm the much simpler, more delicate structure of the seafood salad dish.

A few side notes on some “special situations“:

  • Very spicy (as in “hot”) food is very difficult to successfully pair: the best thing one can do is to pick a wine with plenty of smoothness and intensity in an effort to compensate, but if the food is too spicy, it will always overwhelm the wine
  • Particularly sour dishes are another challenge, such as in the case of salads with significant vinegar- or lemon-based dressings
  • Ice cream, gelato and sorbet are also tough pairings, because their cold nature makes taste buds even more susceptible to wine acidity, tannins or minerality – sometimes, the best bet is to pair them with a spirit (such as in the case of Granny Smith apple sorbet with Calvados or lemon sorbet with Vodka)

One last comment: the above guidelines are just that, guidelines that should offer you some pointers as to “which way to go” in your choices of which wines to pair with a certain food, but they are certainly not carved in stone, nor are they not meant to be breached now and then if you think there is good reason for it: ultimately, the bottom line is that whatever wine pairing you choose ends up being a pleasant one for your and your guests’ mouths!

Now have fun and experiment!  🙂