Steak, wine and astringency reduction

As a rule, I am pretty laid back about matching wines with food.  I am normally happy to go with the conventional wisdom in the company I am keeping.  Not because I think that always results in the best matches, but because if people think a wine is appropriate it probably will actually be enjoyed more.  Convention also has the advantage of ruling out some horrendous food-wine clashes, like creamy desserts and dry red wine – a taboo combination I learned the hard way as a student. But I would not be prescriptive – eat and drink whatever you wish!

Having said all that, I do find it interesting to match food and wine.  I can easily imagine combinations of flavours and usually have an opinion on what will and will not work for me, usually in terms of wine structure and basic tastes rather than the details of the aromatics.  As such I was intrigued to learn that Tim Hanni, with his unconventional views, has persuaded the WSET to let him rewrite the food-wine matching chapter of Exploring the World of Wines and Spirits.  I am not going to give a blow-by-blow analysis of the chapter, but rather concentrate on this excerpt:

Many myths have originated from well-intentioned, yet inaccurate, explanations for serving a wine with a certain food. An example of this is the perception that the harsh tannins in red wine is softened when the wine is served with red meat such as beef. Conventional wisdom credits interactions between the wine with protein and fat of the meat for the softening of the tannins. It has now been proven that the bitter-suppressive quality of salt that is put on a steak is responsible for this phenomenon and that without salt, the protein and fat actually increase the intensity of bitterness and the astringent feeling of tannin.

The reason tannic wines are astringent is that the tannins react with proteins in the saliva causing solids to precipitate out.  This decreases the viscosity of the saliva causing more friction between the gums and teeth and gums, which contributes to the sensation we call astringency in wine tasting.   Additional factors could include the disruption by tannins of the production of mucus, and the constriction of blood vessels in the gums. (This is, for example, reported in Ronald S Jackson’s Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, where he refers to original research.)

It is indeed often stated that protein-rich foods tend to soften tannins.  I think the rationale is that the tannins react with the food proteins, leaving your saliva to provide lubrication unhindered.  But, as Hanni says, this could well be myth.  I have personally tested it, using Parmesan cheese, and just about convinced myself.  But for me it was far from conclusive, and anyway Parmesan is also salty.  More importantly, even if I was convinced, it would be at best anecdotal evidence.  I have not found a reference to a peer-reviewed scientific paper that demonstrates the importance of protein rich food in reducing astringency, and Hanni says it has now been proven that salt is the cause.

But hang on a sec… where is this proof?  Hanni refers to no research either, and a quick google reveals nothing.  He is very keen on demonstrating his theories, and will refer to the authority of university researchers, but offers no hard evidence.  For what it is worth (still not peer-reviewed research as fas as I know) it seems that Bruce Zoeklin thinks that salt increases astringency.

I aplaud Tim Hanni for tackling wine myths.  There are plenty around that need to be busted.  But I fear he is replacing them with a new mythology.  Do explore for yourself what foods and wines work together, but if you are going to break with convention do it with a truly open mind – don’t let yourself be prompted as to what might work or not by someone selling ideas.

And please, if you are now torn as to whether to have protein or salt with your tannic red wine, ask yourself first whether you think the astringency needs reducing at all!

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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