Is acidity in wine necessary for great food pairings?

We have all been trained to espouse the necessity of acidity in wine to pair with food.  But how much is the right amount?  Being an “acid freak”, I have always relished the rieslings, gruners, sauvignons, chenins, pinot noirs and cabernets, et al, with my food, regardless of the dish.  But on recent trips, a couple of wines have changed my perspective, one of them being sherry.  Sherry is the most under-appreciated wine in the world.  For years, wine writers and sommeliers have been saying that sherry is “the next big thing” and yet, it has never really taken off.

Dry sherries such as Fino, Manzanilla, dry Amontillado and Oloroso are more nutty than fruity and have moderate acidity at best.  The lack of fruit stems from the rather neutral and naturally low acid Palomino grape and the nutty, complex character is due to the unique long-ageing of the wines.  They are also higher in alcohol due to fortification, ranging from 15% for Fino to  over 20% for 20- to 30- year old sherries.  On the face of it, these wines would not be likely candidates for food pairing.  And yet, when we were in Seville, Spain, everyone – including ourselves – had a small glass of dry sherry with their meals which were mainly light seafood dishes such as steamed clams or grilled fish.

As I pondered why the pairing worked and fended off long-held beliefs, I realized that sometimes too much fruit and acidity detracts from the dish itself, especially when they are simple but delicious preparations.  The clean taste of Manzanilla, Fino and to some extent Amontillado sherries complement the pure flavors of the seafood not with acidity, but with structure.  Manzanilla and Fino sherries taste dry because of the biological ageing of the wines under a film-forming yeast called “flor”.  This strain of yeast consumes glycerol which is one of the main by-products of fermentation and which normally contributes body and a slight sweet taste in wines.

A first course that we enjoyed as guests of Tio Pepe (Gonzalez-Byass) was a salad topped with anchovies, olive tapenade, caviar and smoked salmon.  Conventional wisdom says to serve such cured, salty flavors with a high acidity wine, but it paired beautifully with Manzanilla sherry.  It re-inforced my views on food & wine pairing that if the dish itself is balanced – in this case with the acidity in the vinaigrette – there is much more flexibility with the wine.

My sherry and food discovery continues…