‘Wine’s complexity replicates that delivered by cooked foods’
Is there some fundamental difference between the flavours of wine and those of food? this question has long nagged me. If there isn’t, why does wine have such a hold over us? Why do fine wines sell at the prices they do? Why are there wine auctions, wine libraries, wine tastings and wine cellars? Why, indeed, does this magazine exist? there’s no equivalent for fish, meat or vegetables, though these items are no less diverse and are still more widely consumed than wine.
Alcohol is an answer. other alcoholic beverages, though, don’t command equivalent attention, even if whisky comes close. We have to go back to flavour (and remember that this also means aroma: a continuum, perceived in different ways).
Food flavours are often simple: think of celery, cucumber, lettuce or bread. Foods, though, have an overwhelming textural presence which is absent from wine. those textures distract – and gratify in themselves, since ingesting mass and substance is a vital part of sustenance. If you eat a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce after a long walk, as much of your pleasure will derive from chewing and swallowing this familiar and trusted food as it will from the taste of the dish itself. the joy of a buttered crumpet, a freshly baked croissant or a slice of pavlova is in large part textural.
We’re particularly fond of fatty foods and sweet foods – but not because of their flavours as such. rather it’s because our bodies recognise that such foods are calorifically dense. A little of each would, in the prehistoric past, have carried us us a long way across the savannah, and much further than another handful of tough roots.
there are a number of reasons why we cook food. safety is one of them, and digestibility another: the heat involved in cooking both kills bacteria and breaks down the indigestible tissues of many raw food items. Just as important to modern humans, though, is that in assembling and transforming raw ingredients, we can create flavours of greater complexity than those ingredients possess on their own. eating different foods together achieves the same end.
hence the popularity of ‘recipes’. they’re routes to complexity of flavour: that which satisfies as well as gratifies.
Good or fine wine has the hold it does over us, I’d suggest, because it offers one of the most complex single-item flavour packages we can put into our mouths, rivalled only (if at all) by a great chef’s work on a sauce or a composed dish. Wine’s complexity replicates and even exceeds that delivered by cooked foods... and it brings us the mood enhancement of alcohol as it does so. this is why great wine is best partnered by simple food – to avoid a ‘clash of complexities’.
Where do these layers of flavour come from? Grapes in fact seem to be less complex in flavour than other fresh fruits like peaches or nectarines; indeed the sugar-acid balance in grape juice makes it seem almost insipid by comparison with orange juice or grapefruit juice. It’s the transformation of grape juice into wine via fermentation which increases its complexity to an unparalleled degree.
this is partly because it rearranges the balance in grape juice: since sugars are converted to alcohol, acidity suddenly swings into prominence when grape juice becomes wine. But it’s also because of the complexity of flavours which emerge from the action of yeast itself, both as it is active in must and after it dies and sinks to the bottom of a fermentation vessel, together with the extraction of elements hidden in grape skins for red (and orange) wine. the way in which wines are made, and the vessels in which they are calmed and matured after fermentation, adds further layers of complexity, as does bottle-ageing itself.
the result, as all wine lovers know, is that a single sip of wine can speak to us, even sing to us. Wine truly seems to be more complex than almost everything else we eat and drink.