Pairing Food & Wine: A Sensory Exploration

BC: CS092 / PS392 / FA294

Bill Hendriksen
Class of 2009
Visual Perception in Art & Science
11 Dec 2008


Pairing food and wine is an art that has been around probably since grapes were first fermented in Ancient Egypt, and has caused countless of aficionados and mere spectators endless enjoyment but has also frustrated diners, entertainers, chefs, and sommeliers. Finding a combination that works well together is simple yet complex; it can be approached mathematically, – balancing acidity, sweetness, bitterness, body and specific flavors; or with near blind intuition – a particular wine begs for a specific food, or a haphazard combination provides a sensory experience bordering on euphoria. As a result people often conservatively turn to a few rules that have worked for others in the past. While not arbitrary, these rules are often overly restrictive, and prevent many people from experiencing a world of flavors. The attempt here is not to provide a systematic way to pair wine and food, but rather to provide a better way of organizing the information in order to make the effort more enjoyable, or at least more lucid.

Overview of the Problem

The difficulty arises not in understanding what does and does not work. Few people would argue that oil in some fish can make big tannic red wines seem muted or that a razor sharp crisp Sauvignon Blanc finds a phenomenal match in the clean taste of shellfish. Rather for many the confusion occurs in assembly a holistic picture of the simultaneous flavor profiles of a particular wine and dish. This should come as no surprise when one considers what such a task entails. Take the wine first, one must consider individual flavors, the complexity of the composite flavor, acidity, sweetness, tannins, aroma, and body. All of these properties include gustatory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli, some, such as tannin, combining more than one sensory modality. It can be difficult to discriminate between different attributes as well, such as tannin and acidity, flavors and actual sweetness according to residual sugar, and complexity and body.

The premise on which this exploration is based is that much of this confusion is directly correlated with the sensory nature of the information. People have a problem integrating multimodal sensory stimuli, or at least do not do so with the same ease that they do different facets of the same sense. Think of how long it can sometimes take to notice the audio and video of a movie are slightly out of synch compared to conflicting object size and location, even though the dorsal and ventral streams of the visual pathway are as segregated as the visual and auditory pathway. In tasting, perhaps a more appropriate word would be perceiving, a wine, one must integrate these three sensory modalities. For most people, the gustatory aspect comprises most, if not all of the experience; however to fully experience the wine, the division is nearly in equal thirds. Besides asymmetric division of attention, one more obstacle emerges out of the sensory nature of the information. Our language is most concretely linked to our visual perception – it is relatively easy and comparatively objective to describe an object as close or big or blue, but what to one person is burnt rubber could be described by someone else as a leather saddle.

The present goal then is to integrate all of the sensations that make a particular wine complement a particular dish, and present the gestalt in a unimodal, namely, visual, context that readily reinforces why the pairing works. The secondary goal is by translating to this visual mode, the language, and consequently, the understanding, behind the pairings becomes clearer and the five examples presented can serve as paradigms for constructing future successful combinations.

Traditional Rules

First the traditional rules that people have used to pair food with wine are reviewed. These rules are not obsolete per se, and not unfounded – in fact they still form a good basis from which to create pairings. Rather the novelty is recognition that, while they can function as heuristics, the rules are meant to be broken.

  1. Eat and drink locally. Centuries ago, and perhaps more recently, the custom was to consume local wines with local foods. This made sense, first because often there really was no other option, but also because the wines were crafted to complement the local cuisine. This is illustrated with the classic Burgundian pairing of a popular local beef dish with a Gevrey Chambertin. However the globalization of food and wine lifts this restriction and many new combinations remain to be discovered. Taking this even a step further, what does one drink with a cuisine that epitomizes fusion like Ken Oringer’s Clio?
  2. Build towards fuller, more complex, and sweeter wines. Again, this makes sense because if a later wine is simpler than one that precedes it, it seems even further blunted by the contrast. Fine, but what if you have an appetizer course consisting of foie gras, which demands a complex and often sweet wine, does that mean you can only follow it with vintage Port?
  3. White wine with seafood, red wine with meat. This has its basis in the observation that the oil in many fish made big tannic red wines seem flabby, which is true, but red wines these days are less tannic and many pair quite well with seafood. Similarly there are many white wines that can stand up to meat. And what to do with rosé?
  4. Complex wines with complex dishes, simple wines with simple dishes. This often works, but sometimes the contrast can make a statement of its own – too complex a wine with too complex a dish can provide sensory overload, whereas when both are simple the entire experience can be boring.

The New Rules

The next step is to establish what guidelines remain to be followed. The first of these is, throw out the book, there are no rules. Eat what you like, drink what you like. On the other hand though, there are some guidelines, or at least aspects to consider, which are enumerated

The take home message here though, is that there is no single perfect pairing. A particular combination may work for reasons A, B, and C, but that does not preclude another wine pairing equally well for reasons D, E, and F. The goal of this experiment is for people to understand, using visual representation as a tool, why a particular pair works.


To illustrate this, five pairings were chosen and presented in this visual form:
Mollet Floran Sancerre Roc De L’abbaye 2007Island Creek Oysters
Philippe Faury Condrieu 2001Prosciutto wrapped seared scallops
False Bay Pinotage 2006Pan-fried ostrich
E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Landonne 1995Roast rack of lamb with sweet potato-and-lamb hash
Valter Barbero “Serena” 2006Taza 80% Dark stone ground chocolate


The primary goal of this project was to identify a visual medium to best communicate the multi-sensory information that makes these pairings work. The design of the five slides that feature the pairings reflects this intention. Near equal space is devoted to the wine and the food, and the six flavors, aromas, or textures chosen for the wine are presented as icons emanating from the wine in order to attempt to communicate the experience in the absence of actually drinking it. These are not simple pictures to look at – each pairing requires perceiving eight separate images, some of which, particularly those which represent aromas, may not even be readily identifiable, for instance there are three flowers included – violets, freesias, and acacias, which most people would be hard-pressed to distinguish. However, all of the information is visual, and the emphasis is directed so that after a brief amount of time, the wine and all of its flavors begins to form a composite, which is juxtaposed next to the food dish. Essentially the means towards integrating the information is visual sensory overload, in a deliberate manner that attempts to capture the essence of the pairing. Contrast this with the control slide featuring Caymus Cabernet with a filet mignon au poivre without the iconographic flavor representation.

The original intent was to actually go out to different restaurants and find pairings that worked and take original photographs, this proved too laborious and actually distracted from the ultimate goal of representing the information. I did actually have the Sancerre with the oysters over the course of this project and tried the Pinotage for the first time, and have had all of the wines and dishes with the exception of the fourth, which I borrowed from Wine Spectator (the Guigal is something like $450). Creating the slides from my memories and notes from each of the wines however actually proved to be quite fun and in the design I actually felt the pairing solidify somewhat in my own head – hopefully this translates to the viewer. One deliberate choice I made was to include perhaps not occult, but not mainstream wines – you will notice there is no Chardonnay, Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, in order to minimize familiarity and force more reliance on the iconography.


Dugan, Owen. Côte-Rôtie Comes to the Smokies. Wine Spectator. 30 Nov 2008. 43-50.

Simon, Joanna. Wine: An Introduction. New York. Dorling Kindersley. 2001

Spieler, Marlena. Paris: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World. Williams Sonoma. San Francisco. Oxmoor House. 2004

Stevenson, Tom. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia 4E. New York. Dorling Kindersley. 2007

Wesson, Joshua. Wine & Food: A New Look at Flavor. Williams Sonoma. San Francisco. Weldon Owen. 2007