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You know when you go to a music concert and there's an opening band before the headliner? Those are usually pretty well matched to please the fans of a certain kind of music. When they are mismatched, the show might suck. When ordering a plate of food, your wine characteristics should match the intensity of those of the food or they will be unpleasant together, even if the wine and food are quite good on their own. Salty, sweet, bitter, spicy...all have properties that match well with certain styles of wine. Another flavor, per WSET, is called umami. Foods that are classified as having umami flavors are things like mushrooms, cured meats, hard cheeses, etc. Not quite salty, but definitely not spicy or sweet either. This word is somewhat new to me as a taste descriptor and I think it's what we used to call "savory", but I guess that was too easy.
Foods described as savory, or umami, tend to accentuate the acidity of wines along with the drying or tannic characteristics while downplaying the sweetness and fruitiness of a wine.
Salty foods tend to bring out the fruit and body/weight of a wine while taming bitter tannins and acid.
Acidic foods, like tomatoes, mask bitter, drying tannins and acid while lifting sweet and fruity flavors in a wine.
Sweet foods, think dessert, make wines seem more drying, acidic and bitter while masking sweetness and fruit flavors. Sweetness in food and wine should be evenly matched most often.
Spicy/hot foods bring out the alcohol in wines. Not ideal. and foods with strong flavors, like some Indian and Asian foods, can overpower most any still (non-bubbly) wine. That's why Prosecco, Cava, Champagne, etc are often your best bet to pair with this food category.
And finally, fatty foods, are best paired with an acidic wine that cuts through the fats and oils and cleanses the palate with every sip.
So, this is the textbook, somewhat scientific, guideline to pairing food and wine. If it works for you, great. But if you prefer a big Cabernet Sauvignon with your banana split, then go with it. There are no penalties for enjoying what you do.
An NYC born and raised Italian-American in love with the world of Italian Wine. Former Buyer. Moving on to learn as much as I can and teach about the confusing and inspiring gifts sent to us by Italian winemakers.