THE PERFECT MATCH
When you write about food and wine, as I do, you often find yourself with a restaurant wine list in your hands, and your fellow diners looking expectantly at you, waiting for you to pick one wine which will perfectly match each of the (usually very different) dishes which they have just ordered.
Abrogating responsibility for the wine choice is more common than you might imagine; I think people live in fear of choosing a wine which doesn’t work with their food, or, more importantly, being seen to have made the ‘wrong’ choice.
This is a real shame, because if I have learnt anything in the many years since I started taking notice of what was in my glass, it is this: there are very few wrong answers in wine. If it works for you, then it’s correct.
That stance does make writing a column all about food and wine matching rather difficult, though, because I suspect Feast readers will be looking for rather more than simply ‘pick what you happen to like’. So, at the risk of contradicting my ‘no wrong answers’ mantra, here are the ten rules by which I personally set about creating that perfect wine and food combination.
1. It’s all about the ‘volume’ of flavour
You don’t want the wine to overwhelm the food or vice-versa, so think about how strongly flavoured the dish is, and pick a wine with a similar intensity. You wouldn’t accompany a delicate harp soloist with a booming brass band, and neither should the wine you pick drown out the flavours of the dish.
2. Think about the whole dish
Too often we just look at the main ingredient when matching wine with food, but we ought really to consider the whole dish. For instance, a delicate blanquette of chicken will require a very different wine to a garlicky chicken Kiev or a chicken Madras. This is particularly the case with fish dishes.
3. Try matching the sauce
Often the sauce will give you a big clue to what wine to choose, especially if that sauce is itself wine-based. Dishes like trout in Riesling or Coq au Vin cooked in Burgundy give you all the clues you need.
4. Think regionally
There is a reason that wine lists in areas which have both pronounced regional cuisines and are wine producing areas are generally narrow in their scope: the local cuisine and the wine have grown up together, and are often perfectly matched. This is especially true in Italy, but it’s a good rule of thumb for all dishes with a strong regional connection.
5. Match fruit with fruit
If your food has fruit in it – whether savoury or sweet – then pick a wine which will be equally fruity. So duck cooked with cherries will go splendidly with a Pinot Noir or a Tempranillo, both grapes with cherry notes.
6. Salt and fat both need acidity
Salt is a flavour which can overwhelm the fruit in a wine, so a good dose of acidity is vital – think Muscadet with shellfish, Champagne with smoked salmon or Riesling with many Asian dishes. Likewise, acidity is a good foil for fatty foods, cutting through the mouth-filling fattiness and providing a welcome dose of freshness.
7. Dessert wines need to be sweeter than the dessert
Sweet wine can taste bland if the food eaten with it is even sweeter, so make sure you pick a wine which is a degree or two sweeter than the pudding you are eating. This is why rich chocolate desserts are so difficult to pair, needing the intense sweetness of a Maury, for example.
8. Pairing wine with multiple dishes
If you are in a restaurant situation, it’s highly unlikely you are all going to be eating the same dishes anyway, so unless you are going to individually pair everyone’s food, you’ll need a versatile wine which goes with lots of things. Good examples are Albariño from northwest Spain, Provencal rosé or any reasonably light, fruity red.
9. For fine wines, the food comes second
For your very best wines, build your menu around the wine, rather than the other way round. It’s a criminal waste of a wonderful wine to pair it with unsuitable or inferior food.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice
In a decent restaurant, especially an independent one, the serving staff will have tasted all the dishes and will know their wine list inside out. The restaurateur will want you to have the best experience, so don’t hold back from asking for help. It’s a myth that restaurants see this as a chance to upsell or off-load old stock – most have a longer-term view than that.
Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month
Château Lamothe-Bergeron Haut-Médoc 2012
East of England Co-op, £13.99
Unusually for the Médoc, Merlot is the majority grape in this wine, with just 45% Cabernet Sauvignon. The result is a big, complex wine with notes of chocolate and even coffee grounds alongside the expected fruit aromas. That complexity is there on the palate, with bramble fruits.
Dourthe La Grande Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc2017
Waitrose, £9.49, at time of writing on offer at £6.99
Despite coming from Bordeaux, the nose gives pineapple and grapefruit aromas, while on the palate there is good acidity, citrus flavours and some Old World minerality. Fresh and elegant, a good, versatile Sauvignon Blanc.
De Luze Pauillac 2013
The result of a partnership between Maison De Luze and the fifth growth Château Croizet-Bages,this is classic claret, with wonderfully melded aromas of cassis and cedar wood, and a balanced palate with decent tannins (this is a food wine) and a very long finish. Recommended.
This article was first published in Feast Norfolk magazine.