About Bruce Taste Toolbox Great Pairings Fresh Wine & Dine

The Six Basic Elements of Taste

When I'm cooking at home, I often have a dozen or more seasonings and condiments out on the counter - things like salt, ground coffee, sugar, lemon, rice vinegar, mustard and black pepper. They're similar to what you may have at home. Using these ingredients, I fine-tune the taste of a dish so it pairs better with the wine I'm drinking.

The first step is to understand how we taste. In food, there are six basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, hot and umami.

'Umami: the rich, full-bodied taste of aged or fermented foods like soy sauce, fish sauce, prosciutto or aged parmesan. Umami is also present in mushrooms, tomatoes, and some meats, fish and vegetables.'
In wine, there are only three of the basic elements of taste: sweet, sour (acid), and bitter (known as tannins). I add to that list the presence of alcohol, which although not an actual 'taste' is an important factor in the enjoyment and character of a wine.

To help you identify these tastes, consider the following: Sour makes your mouth water (think of lemon juice), and bitter dries it out (as with very strong tea). Alcohol in wine gives the perception of heat, which you taste in the back of your throat.

When food and wine are experienced together, the combination changes how we perceive the individual items’Äîoriginal tastes. If you pair a mildly sweet wine with a very sweet dessert, the wine will taste as if it has lost some of its sweetness. It may even taste sour. I call this taste absorption (the food has 'absorbed' the sweetness of the wine). Spicy foods, for example, will increase the perception of alcohol in wine. That's taste magnification. The possibilities are illustrated in the Balancing Chart.

Developed by Bruce Riezenman in collaboration with Gallo Wine Academy.

With a little practice, you can learn to adjust the taste of the food to complement the wine. In the case of the dessert, I mentioned, adding a little acid, perhaps lemon juice or zest, will absorb some of the acidity and thus bring back your perception of the sweetness in the wine. It's really just a balancing act.

Want to give it a try? Experiment by taking a sip of wine, then a bite of food, then a sip of wine again. Try adding a bit of salt and note the change in how you perceive the wine (try a red wine for this, as the results will be more dramatic and easier to understand). Now try touch of sugar or lemon juice and decide which taste (or combination of tastes) works better with your wine. You can use the Balancing Chart to guide you. As you experiment, the process becomes second nature. Try it the next time you cook. Taste the wine with the food as you are preparing it. Using the Chart and your taste buds to guide you, make small adjustments with ingredients from your cupboard until you're happy with your pairing. When you're ready to eat, add the final touch and enjoy your perfect match!

Use ingredients from your own cupboard...

Dried cherries, Hoisin, Honey,Sugar, Mango Chutney, Ripe fruit

Sea salt, Soy Sauce
Balsamic vinegar, Lemon, Lime, Rice vinegar, Mustard, Verjus, Apple
Walnuts, Tea, Figs, Coffee, Chocolate
Aged cheese, Dried Shitake Mushrooms, Prosciutto
Black Pepper, Chili Peppers, Cayenne, Tabasco