Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner

For a lot of people, wine only gets drunk with food. Even if you’ve done a lot of wine tastings, and bought an nice wine, you can still end up having a bad glass of wine if you put it with the wrong dish. Wine labels aren’t much help either. You get the hugely generic “goes well with red meat, fish, chicken, pasta or cheese” where you can’t go wrong, or the oddly specific “goes well with langoustines and goat’s cheese” which leaves you feeling very sophisticated when you buy the bottle. So how do you pair wine with food?

One of the main rules of thumb, apart from the obvious “red wine with steak” style rules, is to do with acidity and fat: if you have a fatty meal, pair it with an acidic wine, if an non-fatty meal, don’t pair it with an acidic wine. The acidity cuts through the fat, neutralising it. If you allow the wine to be too acidic for the food, you’ll end up with what I call “pinot-grigio face”, as if you’ve just drunk lemon juice. But if you don’t make the wine acidic enough for the food, you lose all the flavours it brings to the table, being overwhelmed by the food. A more acidic pairing might be something like a young chardonnay with moules-frites (the sauce is usually the fatty part in most fish or seafood dishes). A non-acidic pairing might be something like a syrah (shiraz) with steak and ale stew. The Wine Society’s Food and Wine Matcher is a great resource to check out.

Yes, those 8 glasses at the front were mine. And another came out later in the meal.

Recently I attended the Oxford Blind Tasting Society’s black tie dinner, which was held at Christchurch College. I don’t normally report on fancy dinners like this, but this one was unique. Multiple wines would be served with each course, giving an opportunity to really look at the food-wine combination in detail, and to really decide how I liked different flavours together.

Course 1: Tiger Prawn, Mango and Avocado Salad with Sweet Chilli Dressing and Parmesan.

The wines with this course were a Riesling Auslese, a sweeter, lower alcohol, German wine with honey, peachy like flavours, a St. Veran, a chardonnay from Burgundy in France with citrus and buttery flavours, and a Marsanne from Australia, a reasonably acidic wine with some quite ripe fruit.

A great dish to try out a few different wines. I thought the riesling, while it was a lovely wine, was too sweet. Particularly with the mango and sweet chilli dressing, there weren’t enough flavours to balance it, but others disagreed. The chardonnay worked very well, having aged a bit the acidity had tempered a little. This provided the scaffolding for the flavours in the salad to develop.  The marsanne also worked well, but the flavours were slightly too overwhelming for the salad, but a very nice wine also. Winner: St. Veran.

Course 2: Chargrilled Rib Eye Steak with Béarnaise Sauce, Chunky Chips, Slow Roast Tomatoes and French Beans.

This course brought a rustic, medium-bodied Saint-Estèphe from the left bank of Bordeaux, a medium-bodied Italian blend, a high-alcohol big-bodied Vacqueyras from the Rhône in France, and a very fruity Portuguese blend.

Excellently cooked, the béarnaise sauce not as overwhelming (being a very fatty sauce) as I thought. Even still, with the sauce, the beef, the chips, and the bacon wrapping the beans, there was plenty of fat to go around. This dulled the Rhône and Italian wines a little, not allowing them to develop on the palate. The Portuguese wine was far too fruity for the dish. The Saint-Estèphe worked really well, with some acidity to cut through the fat, and the rustic flavours and oak complementing the beef well, which is what I might have expected. Winner: Saint-Estèphe.

Course 3: Tiramisu.

We only had one dessert wine (gasp!), a Muscat from France, but I had saved some of the sweet riesling from the starter for comparison.

Pudding, I find, is really tricky to get right. Dessert wines can be very sweet and cloying, and so with the sweetness and creaminess of a lot of puddings, you just end up with a mouthful of sugar. That’s fine if you just want a mouthful of sugar, and usually the flavours work very well with each other, but texturally it can fall short. The muscat was no exception, bringing great orange and ripe fruit flavours, but just not enough acidity to deal with the huge amount of cream in the tiramisu. The riesling worked better though, with honey and floral notes, but also with the acidity to leave a cleaner mouthfeel. Winner: Riesling.

A magnificent dinner, and a lot of fun to try out some different food wine pairings. Overall, the wines I would have expected to pair best did, but trying to figure out the best wine for the course without knowing what the wine was allowed me to explore my preconceptions. If you’re planning a special dinner, or having a meal at a restaurant, have a think about what you are drinking before just ordering the house wine or buying whatever is on offer. The right pairing will make both the food and wine better, and so a better gastronomic experience.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Food and Wine Pairings III: Creating a meal around sweeter wines « oxfood
  2. Trackback: Food and Wine Pairings III: Creating a meal around sweet wines « oxfood
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