Published 27 March 2011
Tim Hanni MW is not a popular figure amongst old-school wine boffins: primarily because he debunks the establishment’s theories of food and wine matching. The old guard believes that there are specific rules for which wines should be paired with which foods. I, for one, was taught that red wine should be drunk with beef “so that the protein can soften the tannins and round out the flavours” (Snooth.com), that fish should only ever be accompanied by white wines, and many more. Apparently, these are total rubbish.
Hanni himself acknowledges that many see him as Satan, so his spirits must have been lifted last week when WSET (the very well-respected Wine & Spirit Education Trust) announced that they are adopting his principles into their curriculum. They are apparently not just adding his theories to the course; they are ‘replacing’ the old ones with them.
Although he disproves most established ‘rules’ as wrong, Hanni doesn’t claim to know all the answers; he admits “the more we learn about it, the more we don’t know”. However, below are a few salient points:
- Salt makes a wine seem smoother because it suppresses bitterness.
- Increasing acidity in your food reduces sourness in wine.
- Sweetness in food increases the sense of sourness and bitterness in a wine. This is why much Asian food – which is generally sweeter than European cuisine – makes a lot of wines seem unpleasant. It is also why red wines often taste disgusting when drunk with puddings (and explains why dessert wines work).
- Mirroring a wine’s characteristics in food will not work. For example, using cherries in food, when the wine has a strong taste of cherries, will “suck” [Hanni’s own words].
Want some proof that the above is true? Have a sip of some red wine, then lick some salt and suck on a bit of lemon (tequila-style), then retry the wine: much of the tannin and bitterness will have disappeared. Adding a bit more salt and a bit more acidity (e.g. lemon/lime juice) to your dish will suppress the bitterness and mitigate how it will react to the wine. Hanni warns, you “must balance acidity and salt very carefully”.
So what does this mean to future food and wine matching? There’s good news as Hanni reports that some chefs are now balancing their foods perfectly, so you can drink whatever wine you want. But he also says that, if you want to add more salt to the dish, do it: “You know what you need better than the chef” because everyone’s palate is very different.
Which brings us nicely on to another theory for which Hanni is famous: ‘taste sensitivity’.
He openly acknowledges that theories of taste sensitivity are not new findings. The original research started back in 1931 by Arthur F.Fox (albeit by accident when he spilled some chemicals and noticed that, whilst some people found it intolerable, others barely noticed it). Professor Linda Bartoshuk has since taken great leaps into taste theory, but it is Hanni who has brought it to the wine world.
The basics are that people have differing levels of sensitivity, and Hanni categorises them as follows
- “Sweet” tasters have so many receptors in their mouth that anything but sweet wines taste intolerably bitter. Favourite wines are likely to include white Zinfandel, Riesling, Moscato.
- “Hyper-sensitive” tasters like delicate and low-alcohol wines, and loathe bitterness (so often won’t drink coffee). Because of this disgust of bitterness, they love salt (remember that salt suppresses bitterness). Artificial sweeteners often appear bitter and metallic, and high alcohol wines ‘burn’. Favourite wines will probably include dry rosé, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc, Pinot Noir.
- “Sensitive” tasters will like smooth wines that combine intensity and balance. They will have a wide range of preferences and often be adventurous. They can take or leave salt, but will often find very high alcohol wines irritating. Preferred wines are likely to include Chardonnay, Cab Sauv, Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Merlot.
- “Tolerant” tasters have the lowest level of taste and therefore love intensity, power, and high alcohol (which they experience as sweet). They often like strong, black coffee, Scotch and cigars. They don’t need saltiness or sweetness to suppress bitterness, because they just don’t experience bitterness very much. Tolerant tasters will probably choose Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Red Zinfandel, Merlot.
This means that, when tasting the same wine, a tolerant taster and a hyper-sensitive taster are likely to have two totally different experiences. Furthermore, it probably means that someone else’s views on a particular wine will mean little to you (unless you have similar sensitivity and share a similar palate). However, even then, we all have personal experiences that shape our tastes. And even these change over time.
So, in short, don’t listen to anyone else. Try some different wines and drink what you like. And add more salt (and lemon) to your dinner if you want.
If you want to know more, a great place for more information is Tim Hanni’s website and his Twitter feed.
Tim Hanni is also running some exciting experiments. More about those soon…