The other day I was drinking some gloriously scented Jasmine tea that accompanied my potent, chili-laced Kung Pao Chicken and steamed rice lunch, and I was vividly reminded of how the tea’s role in that meal was, and is, so similar to wine’s role when it accompanies food. I offer that flash of oenological insight, not only to confirm the boringly obvious—that fluids are necessary to facilitate the intake and digestion of the meat, seafood, vegetables, grains and other food groups that one consumes—but also to alert you to an additional, and largely underappreciated secondary function that both tea and wine fulfill when they are served with food.
That role—and it is really somewhat of an unanticipated bonus—involves how those beverages interact with one’s palate while eating. In addition to the engaging aspects of color, aroma and flavor that we enjoy while dining, both tea and wine also affect our palates in a highly functional way, and that effect is traceable to an element that is integral to their composition: tannins. Tannins in wines, especially reds, originate primarily in the skins, stems and seeds. They are essential to a wine’s vitality and structure. Wines are flabby, lifeless and devoid of character without them, as many very low priced red wines are.
From a dining perspective, tannins provide a gentle cleansing effect between swallows of food, just as teas do, and thereby refresh the mouth for the next tasty mouthful of food. Overly tannic reds, usually very young, large-scaled wines, taste bitter and mouth puckering and are a challenge to drink, with or without food. However, when the tannins are in check—or softened from a few years of bottle ageing—their effect will be gentle and pleasing (think “finish”). And when they are preceded by an attractive color, an arousing aroma and a savory flavor, then that wine promises enjoyable dining, which is far more than the heedless routine of simply eating and drinking.
“So what about white wines?” you ask. As Bacchus and Mother Nature would have it, the role of acidity in whites mirrors that of tannins in reds. From a mealtime viewpoint, acidity performs the same function that tannins do: cleansing and refreshing the palate between bites of food. Acidity—that pleasing, fruity tartness—is crucial to a wine’s composition. Wines with excess acidity can be too high-toned or disagreeably sour and those with too little are flat, lifeless and as interesting as bottled water with a touch of lemon juice. Neither are interesting to drink. But when the acidity level is balanced and pleasantly crisp and combined with the spirited aromas and flavors of, say, Sauvignon Blanc, then you have a white wine—just as with the red wine above—that will deliver an enjoyable dining experience.
Lastly, I hope my apprising you of such oenological trivia does not cause you to wonder if my next proposal is for you to gargle the wine, either during or at the end of your meal. While I cannot completely rule that out—because this blog is an ongoing exploration—I am suggesting that a modest awareness of wine’s inherent characteristics, and the role they play with that flavorful food on your plate, can transform an otherwise routine fuel fix into a more insightful and enjoyable dining experience.