The Salt Conundrum In Food & Wine Pairing.
Chapter Nine, Part Eight.
When pairing food with wine, sweet and sour tastes fall neatly into the cancellation category, bitter and piquant are subject to the cumulative effect, and umami is best grouped with neutral pairings, but what about salt? In moderation, salt doesn’t seem to have any conspicuous consequence, but how does excessive saltiness in food affect the taste of wine? To learn how (or if) salt fits into the A. cancellation, B. cumulative or C. neutral categories, I invited some friends over for some organoleptic research. They quickly declined until I told them that meant we were going to eat and drink wine.
Good old fashioned research is difficult and time consuming but in the name of conscientious reporting the WASTED team (Wine Snark Academy for Sensory Testing, Evaluation & Debauchery) created a salty feast and drank five bottles of wine because that’s the kind sacrifice we’re willing to make in the name of, umm … science, yeah that’s it, science.
We sliced some crusty French bread, brushed each slice with olive oil and liberally sprinkled them with kosher salt before broiling to a golden brown. The crostini was served with cured salmon, thinly sliced prosciutto, feta cheese, tapenade brimming with anchovies, capers and olives, and a side order of diuretics.
Our wine line-up consisted of a tart New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Kabinett-level German Riesling, an aged, umami-rich Bordeaux, a tannic Syrah from the northern Rhone, and a mammoth California Zinfandel sporting 16.9% alcohol. To cleanse our palate we debated using a 15 year-old Kentucky bourbon but decided that would be excessive, so we used the 10 year-old.
Our young New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc possessed the kind of searing acidity that gives new meaning to the old expression, “fighting plaque never felt so good!”
When tasted after salty food, the wine appeared less jarring, softer and fuller-bodied. The searing texture was modified and the tart flavors were subdued. I was reminded that many chefs add salt to cut the tartness of lemon and vinegar.
• Summary; salt/sour pairings are a welcome variation of the cancellation effect. Salt modifies wines prickly acidity, reducing tartness while creating a smoother mouth feel.
The Riesling possessed medium sweetness and a plethora of tropical fruit flavors. Our perception of sweetness in the wine was only marginally magnified when paired with excessive salt. Typically wine flavors are altered by elements found in food but with this pairing we found the opposite to be true; sweet wine noticeably reduced the strong salty taste in food. This made our salmon taste richer and less “fishy,” the tapenade less aggressive, and the cheese and prosciutto less biting.
Not only did the combination make the salty food less assertive, it created a little sweet and salty synergy when the smoky-saltiness of the salmon and prosciutto brought out some flowery notes in the wine. I suspect the degree of sweetness in wine may determine when salt perception in food is decreased or sweet perception in wine is increased. That academic debate is better suited to another, more sober investigation.
When sweet and salt tastes collide the results can be electrifying. Think of the appetizing combination of honey glaze on ham, the strong impression created when peanut butter or pretzels are covered in sweetened chocolate, or the classic pairing of Stilton cheese with Vintage Port and you’ll get an inkling of the power of this match-up.
• Summary; salt/sweet pairings are a unique variation of the cancellation effect. Excessive saltiness in food is cancelled by the sweetness in wine. This combination can also slightly increase the perception of sweetness in wine. Sweet/salt pairings may simply create a more balanced and enjoyable combination of flavors, or they can create an explosive flavor synergy.
Our 28 year-old Bordeaux had developed into a savory umamifest of saddle leather, soy sauce, and roasted meat flavors and time had worked its homogenizing magic on the tannins, alcohol and acidity, uniting them into a cohesive whole. This wine was so earthy I threw out the 100-Point Scale and rated it on the Richter scale.
When following salty food, the umami characteristics in the wine faded slightly, and we were reminded of salt’s ability to override umami flavors when the two are combined in food. We suspected that stronger flavors such as bitter or sweet might rush in to fill the void had the wine been younger and the flavors less integrated, but with this well-aged bottle nothing happened. Nada. Zilch. Zip.
Instead, we were left with a comforting, satisfied feeling and concluded that the chemistry between salt and umami is neutral; just not as neutral as the chemistry between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen in Star Wars.
• Summary; salt/umami combinations fall into the neutral pairing category. Salt slightly decreases the umami characteristics in wine but providing there aren’t any stronger tastes to interfere, both the wine and the meal remain mostly unchanged by their interaction. Keep in mind umami is a subtle taste, easily overpowered by brawnier tastes.
Next up we sampled a young, firm, 100% Syrah from Hermitage in the northern Rhone. This old-fashioned bruiser was built to last, with monolithic tannins that should have spent several more years in the bottle to soften. Molten graphite and strong tea flavors dominated the palate and lingered on and on like the director’s cut of Lord of the Rings.
Tannin is actually perceived as the tactile sensation of astringency and it is often confused with dryness or bitterness. The sensation is so similar to bitterness that for these purposes tannin is used as the prototypical stimulus for the bitter taste found in some wines. As salt is known to bring out the flavor in food, we expected it might also enhance the astringent bite of tannin, but in actuality we found the opposite to be true. Salty fare softens tannins mordant presence which creates a more approachable and enjoyable wine.
• Summary; salt/bitter pairings are another example of the cancellation effect. Salt has the pleasant effect of subduing, or cancelling out some of the bitter bite of tannin.
We chose a gargantuan Zinfandel sporting nearly 17% alcohol for our salt/piquance experiment. Through chemesthesis, alcohol in wine is perceived as a “hot” sensation if it is not properly balanced by acidity, tannin and fruit. Chemesthesis is the same mechanism by which we perceive the piquant heat of chili peppers and horseradish which is why alcohol is lumped under the piquant label. By this point in our experiment we were surprised to find that, even at 17% alcohol, the wine had better balance than we did.
When we introduced salt into the equation the equilibrium shifted and the wine was thrown slightly off-kilter. The excessive salt raised our perception of heat in the wine nearly as much as it raised our blood pressure. The alcohol didn’t feel or taste like 16.9%, it felt like 160 over 90.
Just the same, our intrepid troop of investigators wanted to be absolutely certain of our findings so we decided to continue on until every bottle was empty, or my wife kicked everyone out. As I’ve said before, no sacrifice is to too great for this blog.
• Summary; salt/piquance pairings are a variation of the cumulative effect. Salt, much like spicy foods, magnifies the hot sensation of alcohol.
There’s More To Salt Than Meets The Tongue.
So to answer the question, does salt fit into the A. cancellation, B. cumulative or C. neutral categories, the answer is 4. all of the above.
Through the cancellation effect, excessive saltiness counteracts acid’s textural abrasiveness, creating a smoother consistency while reducing its sour taste. Salt also reduces tannin’s amaroidal presence, while sweet wine reverses the cancellation effect by cancelling out some of the salty characteristics in food.
Umami, always the pacifist, has a neutral reaction when combined with excessive salt tastes in food. However, umami is very easily overwhelmed by other tastes, so it is important to avoid salty food with umami-rich wines if there is a chance hot (alcohol) attributes may be exaggerated and negatively transform the wine.
Salt is also subject to the cumulative effect when paired with wines high in alcohol. Much like spicy or piquant foods, salt intensifies the heat of alcohol.
Have you ever tasted a white wine with sharp, abrasive acidity, or a red wine with strong, astringent tannins and the winemaker or sommelier, once he sees your face scrunched up like a constipated teletubby, remarks, “this is definitely a food-wine”. As most food has some level of salt, is it possible that salt is the mysterious ingredient that transforms thin or bitter food-oriented wines into rich, luscious food pairing partners?
Obviously fat has a noticeable effect on “food-wines” and for better or worse, sweet, sour, bitter, and piquant all leave their own unique imprint on wine perception, but salt plays a significant part and should not be overlooked when you’re looking for that perfect combination of tastes.