Naturally, it was a French scientist who discovered why red wine goes so well with steak. When an international team of taste researchers began comparing notes about food-and-beverage pairings common to their native cuisines, flavor scientist Catherine Peyrot des Gachons, who works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, noticed that something other than flavor drove many of the combinations. Whether it was red wine with meat or sushi with tea, many of the traditional meals mixed something oily with something astringent. As she soon learned, the texture that results from the interplay of fats and astringents, not just flavors of the foods themselves, makes the combinations so pleasurable.
Peyrot des Gachons' research, detailed in a new paper published in the journal Current Biology, explains how popular combinations of food and drink produce a desired feeling of optimal oral lubrication. Fatty foods overlubricate the mouth, while astringent food and drink dries it out. When used in combination, though, animal fats and astringent chemicals, like the tannins or acids in wine, react with each other chemically to produce a sensation that's just right. Not only does this explain why certain foods pair well with certain wines, but it may also explain why a wine might seem different when tasted without food than it does during a meal.
“Our mouth is Goldilocks—it doesn’t want to be too dry or too lubricated,” said Paul Breslin, a professor at the Rutgers University Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a co-author of the paper. “If your mouth is feeling dry, you want something creamy to restore lubrication. And if your mouth feels greasy, you want something to clean it out.”
Normally, proteins in saliva lubricate our mouths, preventing wear on the teeth and gums. Chemicals like the tannins in red wine or the acids in white wine pull those proteins out of saliva, reducing their effectiveness as a lubricant and causing dry mouth. Fatty foods counteract this effect by providing more lubricant. By mixing and matching food and drink, diners can use these chemicals to balance each other out. [...]