Thursday, April 23, 2009


I have come to hate the term “food-friendly wine.” For a while, it seemed to convey useful shorthand advice to the wary, promising high acidity, mild tannins, bright fruit, low alcohol and quaffability, all qualities in demand especially from casual consumers.

But the overused term has lost its credibility as exuberant marketers and others have turned it into a backhanded compliment for wines that are mainly tart and one-dimensional. While crisp acids and low tannins go great with a frisée salad, such a wine could taste like lemon-spritzed tap water when paired with, say, the caramelized edges and melted fat of a hanger steak. How food-friendly is that?

Tim Hanni, MW, has long been intrigued about how the brain processes and interprets sensory information, and not just tastes (Check this fascinating spinning lady example.) Hanni's advised restaurants on their wine lists and recently has been working with chefs at China Grill Management on his flavor balancing concept, which he describes as “the art of getting the key taste components in a balance.” When that’s accomplished, he says, the dish and the wine both taste better.

Quite a claim. Hanni says that while sweetness and umami flavors give deliciousness to food, those characteristics also make most wines seem thinner, less fruity and more bitter. Increasing the salt and acidity in the dishes will make them automatically more wine friendly.

“Look at Alsace, Tuscany, Burgundy and Bordeaux and you will see that this is what they intuitively do in all these classic cuisines.”

To that end, he's developed Vignon, a mix of savory and umami ingredients - yeast, soy, cheese, mushrooms - that Hanni claims on the seasoning's website "makes food taste rich and delicious while ensuring that your favorite wine tastes the way it was intended to taste."

Does it? Undeniably. To test, I sauteed some thin slices of otherwise unseasoned chicken breast, being sure not to caramelize them, as that's a key component of everyday deliciousness to me. I took a bite and my mouth watered in a way chicken breast has never been able to manage, and instinctively started grabbing around, even though it was early in the work day, for my wine glass. Surely, my instinctive mind reacted, this flavor goes with some chilled albariño or a light grenache. It was almost completely unwilled, a tapping into the wine-food connections I've built into my sense memory throughout my life. I wasn't exactly skeptical at first, knowing how smart Tim is about these sensory connections, but the full effect on chicken and later on a snapper filet was remarkable. And, by the way, just plain tasty.

In one stroke, Hanni's made at least bland food more wine-friendly. Next, I'll try it with some notoriously difficult dishes, and maybe give some of those oaky Cal chards lying around in the sample pile a chance to benefit from flavor balancing deliciousness.

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