Beyond Conventional Thinking: Abolishing the Rules of Food and Wine Pairing

Meet Tim Hanni, the first of two American residents to achieve the designation of Master of Wine (“MW”). The MW is an exclusive group of 280 distinguished wine gurus across the world who have passed the exam administered in the UK (an exam that produces a failure rate of over 97%).

Hanni has a colorful history: operating as a professional chef; working in retail sales, importing, brokering and production of wines; and, most recently, founding WineQuest, LLC, a company that focuses on increasing the sales of wine through consumer marketing, education, and communication.

One of Hanni’s missions in life? To change conventional thinking and abolish the “ridiculous extremes” which have become traditional within the culture of wine (you know the cliches – heavier red wines with meat; lighter white wines with poultry and fish…).

Hanni began this mission after passing the Master of Wine examination. He has also become known internationally for bringing the concept of umami, known by sensory scientists as “the fifth of taste sensation” into the lexicon of wine and food. Today Hanni is affectionately known to many in the world of wine as the “Swami of Umami”.

The umami taste was first discovered in 1908 by a Japanese scientist who identified natural forms of glutamate, primarily from seaweed, as an indispensable and distinct taste element of Japanese cuisine. According to the scientist, MSG had a different taste that couldn’t be characterized by the existing four taste senses: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami became known as a new savory sense, one of only two senses (along with sweet) that the palate perceived as pleasant. The umami taste is important in virtually all foods and in all cuisines of the world and is provided by tomatoes, cheeses, meats and vegetables. The curing, cooking and preservation of food also can considerably intensify umami taste, such as curing pork to make ham.

So, what is the significance of umami as it relates to wine? This delicious taste in food increases the perception of bitterness in wine and may sometimes cause a bitter or metallic aftertaste. This is a phenomenon known as sensory adaptation; when two different flavors are consumed one after the other, the first flavor may affect the way that the taster perceives the second. A good example is the taste of orange juice after brushing teeth. This is what happens when you consume sweet food, or food with lots of umami taste, followed by strong, dry wine.

The general premise of Hanni’s mission is that “any food and wine combination can work together, provided that you start with a wine you like in the first place and simply serve food that is well balanced”. So, when it comes to pairing wine with a meal, Hanni says that as long as the flavors of food are balanced, “any wine you would enjoy in the first place can provide a good match with whatever you want. Concepts such as pairing heavy wines with heavy foods, complex wines with complex foods, echoing or contrasting flavors of the wine with the food, or vice-versa, are entirely intellectual exercises that have little or no relevance to providing an enjoyable experience with wine and food.”

To assist in understanding this new way of wine thinking, Hanni suggests two exercises:

First, take a sip of strong red wine, like a strong cabernet sauvignon. Then eat a seedless red grape. Now taste the wine again. The wine will taste more acidic and very bitter.

Now, take another sip of the wine. Taste a bit of salt and some lemon. Then taste the wine again. You should notice that the wine tastes milder.

When it comes to wine, sweet foods (and food with lots of umami) make wine taste more acidic. This is because the sweet flavor amplifies the perception of sour and bitter within the wine, making it appear less sweet, less fruity, and more bitter and astringent. Conversely, acidic and salty foods make wine seem sweeter and smoother. This is because the salt suppresses bitterness while the acidity reduces the perception of sourness or acidity in the wine, making it taste more rich and mellow.

Hanni’s concept is certainly changing perceptions within the industry and many experts are taking note. Robert Mondavi notes that “what Tim Hanni is proposing… represents a quantum leap forward for globally expanding the enjoyment of wine and food. (The) message is easy to grasp, empowering and useful to anyone who is the least bit curious about wine, and … stands to revolutionize the wine industry.” And Sarah Scott, Senior Executive Chef at the Robert Mondavi Winery, incorporates the Hanni principles in every dish she prepares at the winery.

So next time you find yourself confused as to which glass of wine will complement your meal, just relax and remember a few of the Swami’s key principles. “Drink the wine you want to drink. Eat food that is flavor balanced and delicious, and the combination will be great. If the wine is a little out of key, put a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of salt on the dish. That is what they would do in Italy or France!”

April 19, 2005
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