The party season is approaching, and once again chemists have offered the world a gift: the science behind the perfect food and wine pairings. For those who would like to progress beyond “red with steak” and “white with fish,” there is now peer-reviewed research that may help inform a nuanced and elegant choice for every meal.
Whether you are a seasoned connoisseur or an enthusiastic amateur, you are likely well aware that the taste of wine can differ depending on the types of foods you consume with it. Despite an abundance of food pairing hypotheses over the years, there has traditionally been no supporting evidence or studies to examine the rationale, and many remained skeptical that there would be any scientific basis to support individual sensory experiences or preferences.
But just in time for your holiday menu planning, recent research has revealed some of the underlying chemistry behind why some wines and foods (cheese, anyone?) seem to be made for each other—and why some pairings may not work as harmoniously as others.1
The Tannin Tamer: How Lipids Work to Balance Bitterness
Wine, along with many other food products, contains both volatile and non-volatile compounds. Volatile compounds such as thiols contribute to a wine’s aroma, but it is the non-volatile substances that are responsible for taste and mouthfeel. These compounds may be affected by components such as alcohol, sugar, acid, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and—most notably—phenolic compounds such as tannins, which are commonly associated with the bitterness, astringency, and complexity of red wine.2,3
Many flavor precursors can also derive from other ingredients such as yeasts, as well as containers and vessels—for example, traditional oak barrels.4 However, there is one previously overlooked chemical component that could hold the key to understanding more subtle aspects of wine flavor: lipids.
To further understand the interaction between lipids and wine tannins—and potentially uncover why wine and cheese go so well together—researchers from the University of Bordeaux (in the famous wine region of France) conducted a twofold approach using both biophysical methods and sensory analysis.1
First, they observed the behavior of lipids in an oil–water emulsion after mixing in catechin, a primary component of grape tannins. This resulted in the lipid droplets absorbing the catechin at the membrane surface, increasing in size and producing a “creaming” effect in the upper phase of the emulsion.
These molecular findings were reinforced by the sensory analysis which demonstrated that certain dietary oils, such as grapeseed oil, decreased or even eliminated perceived tannin astringency, while others like olive oil made the wine taste fruity instead of bitter.
This study further validates lipids—such as the fats in cheese, meat, and other charcuterie board favorites—as crucial molecular agents that can both soften the bitter taste of wine and enhance its flavor profile by attracting tannins to their surfaces (and away from your bitter taste receptors).
Lipids are also naturally present within wine itself, although in very low concentrations. A team at Oregon State University (also in a prominent wine region of the U.S.) examined how lipids in wine contribute to taste and mouthfeel by adding various food-grade lipids to a model wine solution. Of the lipids tested, phospholipids most noticeably contributed to an increase in perceived viscosity while also masking bitterness.5
Further research in this area is needed to better understand the full range of effects of lipids on taste and mouthfeel—but there is great potential for winemakers to one day successfully alter lipid composition during the processing phase, yielding wines that are naturally less bitter and more appealing to consumers who desire softer, more mellow flavors.
Red vs. White: Ironing Out the Differences
So, is there a scientific basis for the original red/white divide when it comes to seafood? Well, possibly. It turns out red wine has more ferrous (iron(II)-containing) ions compared to white wine, as a function of the materials used in the processing. Controlled experiments showed that wines higher in iron can promote lipid oxidation of the unsaturated fatty acids found in fish and seafood, generating an unpleasant associated retronasal smell.6
Although iron vessels are less often used in modern processes for red wine, there is no easy way to gauge a wine’s iron content without tasting it first. There are numerous factors beyond wine type that can influence iron content—from soil composition to fermentation processes—making it tricky for a consumer to identify any potential unsavory food pairings just by looking at the label alone.6
But iron-heavy red wines aren’t the only culprit when it comes to unpleasant taste perceptions associated with seafood pairings. Researchers in Japan demonstrated that white wines containing sulfur dioxide (SO2), a sulfite commonly used for wine preservation, resulted in an “off-odor” and undesirable taste when paired with seafood containing high amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids.7
After adding DHA—a polyunsaturated fat present in seafoods such as dried squid and mackerel—to various white wine and sake samples, the team observed accelerated rates of DHA oxidation in the SO2-heavy wines, resulting in a malodorous smell and taste.
The scientists speculate that the widely followed “white wine with fish” tradition may be more accurately applied to seafood pairings such as whitefish, shrimp, crab, and other options that contain lower levels of these fatty acids. Even so, it is now easier than ever to find sulfite-free wines—which, in addition to those with sulfite sensitivities, may be a preferred option for consumers who want to ensure a delicious white wine pairing regardless of fish or seafood choice.
A Matter of Taste
Understanding the science behind wine’s interaction with various compounds on a molecular level can help to better inform many components of wine culture, from perfect food pairings at your next holiday gathering to modifications in grape cultivation and processing. But as the sensory analyses in these studies show, everyone has different preferences and perceptions when it comes to flavor, taste, and mouthfeel—and wine is no exception. Ultimately, if it tastes good to you, go with it. Cheers!
Read More Articles About the Chemistry of Wine from ACS Journals
- Gambetta, J. et al. Factors Influencing the Aroma Composition of Chardonnay Wines. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2014, 62, 28, 6512–6534
- Begum, P. et al. Development of an Electrochemical Sensing System for Wine Component Analysis. ACS Food Sci. Technol. 2021, 1, 11, 2030–2040
- Maioli, F. et al. Monitoring of Sangiovese Red Wine Chemical and Sensory Parameters along One-Year Aging in Different Tank Materials and Glass Bottle. ACS Food Sci. Technol. 2022, 2, 2, 221–239
- Hofmann, T. and Hufnagel, J. C. Quantitative Reconstruction of the Nonvolatile Sensometabolome of a Red Wine. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2008, 56, 4
- Li, S. et al. Use of Winemaking Supplements To Modify the Composition and Sensory Properties of Shiraz Wine. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2017, 65, 7, 1353–1364
- Saad, A. et al. New Insights into Wine Taste: Impact of Dietary Lipids on Sensory Perceptions of Grape Tannins. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2021, 69, 10, 3165–3174
- Hufnagel, J. C. and Hofmann, T. Orosensory-Directed Identification of Astringent Mouthfeel and Bitter-Tasting Compounds in Red Wine. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2008, 56, 4, 1376–1386
- Jackson, R. S. Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook. Academic Press 2017.
- Parker, M. et al. Aroma Precursors in Grapes and Wine: Flavor Release during Wine Production and Consumption. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2018, 66, 10, 2281–2286
- Phan, Q. et al. Contribution of Lipids to Taste and Mouthfeel Perception in a Model Wine Solution. ACS Food Sci. Technol. 2021, 1, 9, 1561–1566
- Tamura, T. et al. Iron Is an Essential Cause of Fishy Aftertaste Formation in Wine and Seafood Pairing. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2009, 57, 18, 8550–8556
- Fujita, A. et al. Effects of Sulfur Dioxide on Formation of Fishy Off-Odor and Undesirable Taste in Wine Consumed with Seafood. J. Agric. Food Chem.2010, 58, 7, 4414–4420