Food and Wine Pairings V: Thoughts from an expert

Recently, the Oxford Blind Tasting Society was very privileged to host Jan Konetzki, Head Sommelier at three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and winner of the Moët UK Sommelier of the Year 2012. As a sommelier, you not only have to put together a restaurant’s wine list, price the wine sensibly, and be able to sell wine to customers, but you need to understand which wine to recommend to people to go with their food. Gone are the days when you can just go with the “classics”, people want new and exciting wines nowadays, and wines which are interesting. Given my interest in food and wine pairing, I was excited to see which wines he brought, and to pick his brain on food-wine matching.

The Whites

The wines he bought did not disappoint. I think it’s fair to say that they were a bit off-the-beaten-track, with the most mainstream probably being an Austrian Blaufrankish. Other wines included a Riesling from Sicily, built on the volcanic soils of Mount Etna, a Sangiovese from Australia (a grape variety that is almost exclusively grown in Italy), and a beautiful sweet wine from Jurançon in France. Needless to say we weren’t guessing many of the wines correctly, but it was really fun to try and figure these out.

What was particularly interesting were some of the common themes of these wines. All of them were reasonably “complex”, in that they had many different things going on, but a few qualities stood out. Firstly, all of the wines had relatively high acidity. Acidity helps a wine cut through the fat in food, and at a top restaurant, for rich sauces and high-quality cuts, acidity will be key. Secondly, most of the wines had seen a small amount of oak, even wines typically not oaked- like the Riesling. Perhaps this makes the wine more robust, and gives it an extra dimension with the food. Lastly, was that all the wines had a herbal quality, or some “greenness”. This might provide a different seasoning to the food. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try any food with the wines, but I will look for some of these qualities in the future.

The Reds

Jan also shared some thoughts on serving wine, something I had not given large amount of though to before. Particularly, he was focused on the temperature of the wine. On the night of our tasting, he was moved wines around the fridge and asked for some warm water just to warm the wines up a couple of degrees before serving. He noted that there is around 4 degrees difference between a fridge door and the back of the fridge, which makes a big difference in changing the wine characteristics. Aromatic wines like Riesling want to be cooler than average, and oakier wines slightly warmer than average. By changing the temperature of the wine, you change how it expresses itself. Jan thought temperature was more important than wine glass shape, and considering he had over 20 different wine glass shapes available at the resaurant, that says a lot.

After the tasting, we had some discussion on food-wine pairing. When asked what part of the dish he looked at first, Jan (perhaps unsurprisingly) was focused on the dish as a whole, but then spent a lot of time discussing seasoning. How prominent each flavour is, and how it develops in the dish, largely factor into the wine choice. Similarly, how cooked the meat would be (even in a good restaurant, people would like the meat well-done), would change slightly how fatty the meat was, with a less-cooked cut having more fat. All little things which changed the character of the dish.

Lastly, the discussion turned to cheese. “Cheese kills everything”, a popular opinion, was confirmed by Jan. However, you are not totally lost. He supported the idea of regionality, so if you are stuck with a pairing, picking a wine from the same region as the cheese is often not a bad call. He wasn’t so keen on red wines with cheese though. Interestingly, fortified wines played a big part here, suggesting a sherry with mimolette, and indeed that a nice glass of Madeira will keep most people happy with cheese. But, as was the underlying theme throughout the evening, the food-wine pairing was about what the customer liked- if the customer wants a wine a certain way, that’s fine. Experiment with what you like, and find out what works for you.

The Wines

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, Wines for a Wedding, Creating a meal around sweet wines, and Regionality. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.


Varsity Wine-Tasting Preview

Tasting Glasses

This week will see the 60th varsity wine tasting match between Oxford and Cambridge universities, sponsored by Pol Roger, at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. For the Oxford Blind Tasting Society, this is far and away the most important event of the year. After a year of training hard to try to learn more about wine identification, a few weeks ago I was thrilled to learn I would be a part of the Oxford team. So I thought I would do a little preview of the match coming up, as it has been such a large focus for me the past few months. As it’s been about a year since I started blind tasting, I also thought I’d give some reflections on a year learning about wine.

The 60th varisty blind tasting match

The match itself is fundamentally very simple. There are twelve wines (six white and six red), and your job is to identify them.

The first job in identifying them is to write your tasting note. The note should include the appearance of the wine (colour, intensity, etc.), the aromas you get from the wine (citrus, minerality, herbaciousness, etc.), and, the wine’s structural elements. Five points are up for grabs for the tasting note, then you’ve got to make your guess. Your guess includes dominant grape variety, country, main viticultural region, sub-region, and vintage. For example, a tasting note I wrote recently looked was

Pale yellow wine. Aromatic wine. Citrus, melon, stone fruit. Some floral/herbally flavours.
Dry, med body, med alcohol, crisp acidity, med finish, no new oak.
Guess: Albariño, Spain, Galacia, Rias Biaxas, 2010

It turned out to be all correct except for the vintage, which was 2011, but I was pretty pleased.

There are fifteen total points available for the guess, but you might get some points for a sensible guess that is wrong. Twenty points total per wine then gives 240 total points available. It’s unlikely, especially for a rookie like me, that you’ll get anywhere close to that total of 240 though. If I have a score over triple digits, I think I’ll have done okay.

So what are the wines like? Well, some are straightforward, known as the “bankers”, as you should be able to bank on getting them right. Of course, some are much more difficult. As a first-timer, my focus is on getting all of the bankers right, and then making sensible guesses for everything else. If I don’t get the Piqpoul de Pinet? Fine. But if I miss the Loire Sauvignon Blanc, I’m going to be annoyed.

The team that wins is then the team with the highest total score among their six main tasters. If it’s a draw, the reserve seventh taster score (this year, that’s me) comes in to play. Then, we all go out to lunch. Last year Oxford won the competition, and many of the tasters that were a part of that team are returning for this year. We know very little about the Cambridge team, so all we can do is go our and do our best. Exciting stuff. I’ll post about the results on Friday.

Tasting Sheet

Reflections on a year blind tasting and learning about wine

Before joining the blind tasting society, I definitely had a keen interest in wine, but I think my efforts were very misguided. I used The Wine Society as my springboard for learning about different wine styles, sampling their own labels to try to get “textbook” wines of given regions. I didn’t really build up a picture of why I liked a wine, but more just whether or not I enjoyed that particular bottle. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a large budget for wine, so for regions like Burgundy or Bordeaux, I couldn’t afford what I might now consider “reasonable” wines from those regions. Even worse, I pretty much only drank French wine. Not a very good (and certainly not complete) picture of the world of wine.

By tasting wines blind, though, the picture you build up has to be objective. You have to figure out what makes a Chardonnay French as opposed to Australian, for example. You can really like wines that cost £5, and really dislike wines that cost £20, without knowing what the price is. With the varsity competition having wines from all over the world, you practice with wines all over the world. I’d like to think I’ve lost a lot of my pre-conceptions about wine, and built up a much better idea about tastes of all sorts of wines.

In particular I’ve noticed a profound change in my attitude towards wine. Instead of knowing what wines I like and what I don’t like, I’ll happily drink anything now. My focus instead is on how well the wine is made, how all the different structural elements are balanced, and the representation of the grape variety. If the wine is “interesting”, it’s likely something I will enjoy drinking. I won’t scoff at the American Chardonnay like I used to, but I don’t have the same passion for French country wines like I once did.

It’s hard to describe here the number of tastings I’ve been to and quite how much I’ve learned. So lastly I’d just like to say a large thanks to those who have been involved in my year of learning about wine. The effort of the Blind Tasting Society committee and everybody else in the society giving up their time to source wines, do administration, set up, and clean up is very much appreciated. The depth of knowledge at the society has pushed me to work harder at my own wine understanding. Similarly, those wine professionals who came to the society to teach and share their passion for wine really made a difference. Lastly, thanks to Pol Roger for their sponsorship of the varsity match and the society, as this not only allows to activity of the society to flourish, but to give it a prestige. The experience I’ve had this year from inexperience to competing as part of the varsity team will be one I will remember for a long time.

My Tasting Notes

New York State Wines and Chateau Musar

I really enjoy going to wine tastings from more obscure wine growing regions. From developing wine regions, you get to sample their latest and best wines, and get a good feel for what is worth buying now, and what to look for in the future. From regions which have a wine-growing tradition, but aren’t usually seen in the UK market, you get a chance to taste some of the culture and history of the region, and perhaps some grape varieties you’ve never seen before. These tastings are always a great learning experience, whatever you think of the wines.

Recently, the Oxford Blind Tasting Society was visited by Sue Chambers, who is the UK’s sole importer of New York State wines. She brought along a mixture of red and white wines, all international grape varieties, and a good deal of literature which was very helpful in picking apart New York State wines. There are a number of key wine regions, but the ones we tasted from (and the ones I had heard of previously) were the Finger Lakes, and Long Island. Because of the hilly geography, I’ve heard the Finger Lakes compared climatically to the Mosel in Germany, and because of the coastal influence, Long Island compared to Bordeaux. Impressive comparisons, if the wines can live up to them.

The white wines we tasted, I have to say, didn’t get me excited. The rieslings from the Finger Lakes were great on the nose, peachy and floral, but disappointing on the palate. The off-dry version in particular was a little sugar syrup-y. I usually have no problem blind tasting sauvignon blanc, but I completely missed the NY state one, as it was missing the greenness, and ended up, I thought, pretty bland. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t bad wines, but, for the price, I wouldn’t choose these over their French or German competitors.

The reds on the other hand, were a complete eye-opener. The first wine was a cabernet franc, which most people thought was a pinot noir, that’s how fruity, soft, and elegant it was- not much like the terse and leafy French counterpart. Next was a pinot noir, generous and fruity, but well structured. Lastly were three merlots, the flagship grape of Long Island, and all three were great. Spicy, plummy, drinking these was almost like drinking a fruitcake. Combined with the natural acidity that comes from the maritime influence, these wines would make great food wines, and apparently have very good ageing potential. Even though they weren’t cheap, I think they were good value for money, and worth looking into.

New York State wines we tasted at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. Photo courtesy of LJ Ruan.

Some of the New York State wines we tasted at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. Photo courtesy of LJ Ruan.

From one of the world’s newer wine regions to one of the world’s oldest: Chateau Musar in Lebanon. At another Oxford University wine society, Bacchus, Ralph Hochar, the third-generation owner of Chateau Musar, came to do a tasting and present some of their wines, and to say he was enthusiastic about wines and wine-making is putting it lightly. He mentioned Musar have recently launched a new range of wines, “Musar Jeune”, meant to be more approachable, easier drinking wines, which I was excited to try. For those who don’t know Chateau Musar, they have a cult following in the wine world, and represent excellent value for money- we had their Hochar on St Catherine’s MCR wine list at one point. You can buy some of their wines from The Wine Society.

Although Chateau Musar has only been producing wines since the seventies, Lebanon has a long wine-growing tradition, witnessed by temples to Bacchus (the god, not the wine society…) built by the Romans, and has several indigenous grapes. Being a warm country, they can produce a large selection of grape varieties, in particular the grape cinsault, which needs hot dry climates to flourish. The wines are incredibly fruity, and with altitude, they can produce wines with good acidity which help the ageing potential. Interestingly, Chateau Musar only release wines around seven years after the vintage, with their latest release being 2005, choosing to store the wines themselves. Lebanese wine-making also has an unusual complication, with wars every now and then, which mean some vintages don’t end up being produced.

Since I’ve tasted a good number of their red wines previously, they were what I expected. Fruit-driven, crisp acidity, soft elegant tannins, lovely to drink. The whites and rosés were very interesting though. Very dark, almost amber, in colour, the whites (from 2004 and 2000) tasted a little like a Bordeaux blend, with a waxy, citrussy quality. The 2004 rosé was my star of the evening, with such a fine delicate strawberry flavour, I’ve been looking to see where I can get hold of some. Their new range, the “Musar Jeune”, I thought were well made wines, but not for me. Easy drinking they were, very fruity, but nothing really complex going on. If you like that style, they are worth a look.

Overall, a couple of interesting tastings and interesting wines. I’ll continue to keep a watch on New York State wine-making, particularly the reds, and tasting some of Musar’s range I hadn’t seen before was very exciting. If you regularly buy from one region or one grape variety, try something different and off-the-beaten-track next time.

Introduction to Wine Structure

Most of us have some idea about which wines they like and which they don’t. But when we’re asked why- why you like Merlot, or why you like Shiraz- often we don’t have a good answer for it. Wine structure is what you get when you strip away the appearance and flavours- the texture, it could be called. It’s really important to the quality of the wine- a bottle of wine might cost a lot more just for a longer finish, for example. I’ve always preached that it’s important to drink wine you like, so you need to know what wine you like. Learning about wine structure can help you identify why you like a wine.

Similarly, for identifying wine blind, structure is very important. A tasting note might say “dry, medium body, medium acidity, long finish, medium alcohol, evidence of new French oak”, and you’ve probably whittled it down to only several grape varieties already. I’ve often blind-tasted a wine and had no idea what it was from the smell, but figured out the structure, and guessed the most likely grape variety from the structure, and what do you know- that’s what it was. Structure doesn’t lie.

Also important to mention is how important wine structure is to food-wine pairing. For example, if you’ve bought a nice delicate fish, and cooked it properly, you’ll want to drink a nice wine with it. But pick a full-bodied, highly acidic, over-oaked white? You’re not going to taste that fish over the wine. Equally, if your delicate pinot noir gets drunk with steak, it’s not going to be delicate anymore. Making the right wine match will make or break a dish, and learning about wine structure will help you to do that.

Here are the seven main structural components that we focus on in blind tasting. Next time you try a wine, try to figure out how much it has of each of these components, and see whether or not that is what you like. Because at the end of the day, it’s figuring out what you like, and why you like it, that is important.

When a wine is really acidic, you’ll know it- like drinking lemon juice. Acidity is important in the wine, it’s a bit like the wine’s backbone. It’s also key for food-wine pairing, as acidity cuts through fat, so if you have a fatty meal, then  you’ll want an acidic wine. It tends to be that cooler climate wines with lower alcohol and lower body have high acidity, with a couple of notable exceptions. If you like acidic wines, you might like riesling, some chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot noir. If you like less acidic wines, you might like sémillon, merlot, or some malbec.

Alcohol is one of the structural components that’s easier to find out- it’s right there on the bottle. But if you don’t have the alcohol, you can detect it by considering how much heat you get on the back of your throat when you drink the wine. High alcohol wines will feel hot, lesser alcohol wines less so. You want to have the alcohol in balance with the wine- too much alcohol relative to, for example, the body will be unpleasant. It’s worth figuring out whether you like higher alcohol wines- just because it has more alcohol in doesn’t mean it is better!

One of the most common questions I get asked when giving wine tastings is what is meant by a “full-bodied” or “light-bodied” wine, and it is actually surprisingly hard to answer. Often I answer in terms of viscocity. Full-bodied wines will be more like honey, whereas light-bodied wines are more like water. But when you taste a light-bodied wine together with a full-bodied wine, it’s pretty obvious which is which. So have a think about whether or not you enjoy big wines or smaller wines. If you like big wines, you might like new world malbec, merlot, or viognier. Similarly, those who like lighter bodied wines might like pinot noir, riesling or French sauvignon blanc.

Finish is how long the flavours and texture of a wine stays in your mouth. A wine’s finish can either be short, medium, or long. Sometimes a long finish is very pleasant, but sometimes strange flavours can come out in the finish, like bitterness, spice, or sweetness. As with the alcohol, you want the finish to be in balance with the rest of the wine. A full-bodied wine with lots of alcohol might feel very strange if all the flavours fell away very quickly. It’s also easy to confuse acidity with finish, as the acidity can often linger. The finish is sometimes a mark of the quality of a wine.

A lot of wines will be fermented in oak barrels. There are two common types of oak used in barrels: French and American. French oak gives a sweet, vanilla, buttery toast note, whereas American oak is more intense and spicy. Oak provides flavour and tannins, which are useful for ageing of wine, but how much you detect the oak will vary considerably. Some wines- particularly new world chardonnay- can have, in my experience, too much oak to be pleasant; when tasting the wines, I have found it hard to taste much more than the oak. Over-oaking can hide other problems with the wine, which is sometimes why wines are made in this style.

Sweetness isn’t whether or not you get sweet flavours like peach or honey, but whether or not there is actual residual sugar in the wine. Most wines don’t have residual sugar, so would be classed as ‘dry’. Common wines which might be ‘off-dry’ or ‘sweet’ are dessert wines like muscat or Sauternes, some riesling from the Mosel in Germany, or some chenin blanc from the Loire in France. Sweet wines are often very pleasant- not alcoholic fruit juice as often thought- but for some reason are out of fashion at the minute. Some new world producers are actually leaving a small amount of residual sugar in wines that are typically left dry, trying to create a style popular with modern tastes. If you haven’t had a proper sweet wine, they are a lot of fun, and worth trying.

It’s also tricky to try and explain tannins. Tannins are chemical that are in grape stalks and wood, and they produce a drying effect in your mouth, sucking out the saliva. They coat the inside of your mouth, and build up as you drink the glass, their drying effect increasing. Tannins soften over time- they are actually what polymerise into sediment in the bottle- so an older wine often won’t have such a harsh feel to it. Tannins can have a lot of character, being long, silky, round, small, grippy, chewy, green, or rustic, for example, and this character can be quite important when identifying a wine blind. Some grape varieties naturally have more tannins, like cabernet sauvignon or the aptly named tannat. Equally, some grape varieties like pinot noir or any white grapes have few tannins.

If you are interested in other posts on wine, I’ve written an Introduction to French Red Wines, an Introduction to French White Wines, and food-wine pairing posts on Fine Dining, Wines for a Wedding, and Food to go with Sweet Wines. I’ve also done reviews on The Wine Society and wine books Essential Winetasting and Judgment of Paris.

Wine Tasting at the Summertown Wine Café

[UPDATE: I have just learned that the wine café has now closed- apparently the owner just packed up and left. Real pity.]

Despite having been in Oxford for nearly six years now, and having had a keen interest in wine for about three of those years, I’d never been to the Summertown Wine Café. The idea of a wine café in Oxford appeals to me a lot, given my fond memories of sitting outside brasseries in Paris: working through the wine lists, eating cheese, and playing cards. So when a friend suggested we check it out and spend an afternoon there recently, I jumped at the opportunity.

With a wine list of 50 wines, there is a lot to choose from. But if you don’t know what to choose- that’s fine as well. You can taste 10 wines for £9, great value in my opinion, as tasting a variety of wines is the quickest way to start to learn more about wine. What’s more, you can actually buy the wines you have tasted to take home with you, so you can make sure you drink wines you know you like. The café runs a few organised tastings with producers from time to time, and summer barbecues are running every Wednesday at the minute. They are open weekdays from Monday to Saturday 8.30am – 11pm and Sunday 10am  – 10pm; it’s a little way outside of the city centre, but worth the trip.

When we arrived at the café, the first thing I noticed when stepping in was how relaxed the atmosphere was: door wide open, lots of open space, and comfy chairs. A sausage and red onion marmalade baguette was being made and served. I remember thinking what a great place this would be to come with a book or some work, and I could only imagine how buzzing it would be in the evenings, and what fun it would be to take a group of friends to do a tasting. Sitting down at the bar, we had a friendly chat with the people running it, and when we mentioned that we hoped to do a blind tasting specifically of French wines, to sharpen our skills for the Oxford Blind Tasting Society, that was no problem at all. In fact, the gentleman behind the counter was the captain of the blind tasting team himself a few years back. We sat at the bar, and three glasses promptly appeared, ready for the flight of French whites.

We had a great time doing the tasting, with a good amount of discussion with the two behind the bar, given it wasn’t particularly busy that afternoon. It was clear they had put a lot of time and effort into picking their bottles, and definitely knew their stuff about wine as well. Of the six wines we had, we both got three of them correct: one bottle we both got correct, four bottles one of us was correct, and one bottle neither of us got- of course, with the appropriate amount of kicking ourselves for silly guesses. The only unfortunate result is that we can’t now do another blind tasting of French wines there, having seen a good few of the French wines they have- at least until they change their menu. But I will certainly be back, though, to see what else they have on their list.

Our flight of French whites: Chablis (left), white Bordeaux (centre), and Loire Sauvignon Blanc (right).

Red Burgundy, Blind French Whites, and Two Oxford Wine Societies

I first encountered red Burgundy through a ‘Guide to tasting’ case from The Wine Society. The case has 5 different wine pairings (so 10 bottles), which illustrate key differences in the characteristics of the wine, like age- for example, tasting a 2009 Rioja, and a 2001 Rioja. A friend had bought this case, and the last pairing was ‘Claret [Bordeaux] or Burgundy’, which we decided would make for a pleasant evening. Before tasting the wines, I came in with view that I should definitely prefer the Claret, as it was the bigger, stronger, wine, and that the Burgundy was a little, well, soft and delicate. Naturally then, I strongly preferred the Burgundy, and I’ve very much enjoyed red Burgundy even since. So when the chance came to go to a red Burgundy tasting this week, with some of the bottles being taken from the cellars of St John’s College, I knew what I would be doing that evening.

The tasting was hosted by Bacchus, one of the university’s wine societies. I’ve been a member of Bacchus previously, when I was beginning to get into wine tasting. You might expect a wine society to be pretentious and snooty, with a dress code, but Bacchus really isn’t that kind of place at all, just people enjoying different wines together and learning a little something at the same time. They’ve hosted some big names in the past, like Chateau Margaux and Pol Roger, but they do tastings of wines all over the world as well. If you are an Oxford University member, and want to start to get into wine, I would think they are a great society to get involved with.

On to the tasting. Red Burgundy is all Pinot Noir- although, I learnt at the tasting, that by law it can contain up to 15% of another grape, without stating so. Burgundian Pinot is meant to be quite complex in flavour and structure, and, combined with the confusing appellation-grower-vineyard labeling and the huge variation in quality year-to-year, it is quite hard to buy nice bottles reliably. Combining those with the cost- it is often said that there is no point spending under £15 on a bottle- it’s great to get a chance to sample some bottles where other, more experienced buyers have put in the time and effort to make sure the wines are great. The tasting was a tour through Burgundy, with flights of wines from the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune, and a single Cote Chalonnais, all regions of Burgundy. They varied in quality from simple regional wines to premier cru vineyards, and the difference in quality was remarkable. I personally preferred the more northern Cote de Nuits wines, having slightly less body and more structure, with less ripe fruit, and the star of the show for me was a Morey Saint-Denis, a very enjoyable glass.

A red and white Burgundy. Unless you know what to expect, the labelling can be difficult to navigate.

The next evening was spent at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. The event here is exactly as it sounds, trying to identify grape variety, location, and year just by looking at, smelling, and tasting the wine, and not looking at the bottle. You have a sheet where you make tasting notes, like what aromas you sense,  how much acidity the wine has, and so on. Then in competitions, you get ‘points’, for having the right notes, and then more if you can correctly identify the location, grape and vintage, so you can still score well if you identify a lot of key features about the wine but don’t guess the wine correctly. We had a bit of a help here, knowing they were all French whites, which I felt was the area I had the relatively best knowledge about. I think French whites also represent great value- particularly the country wines- if you don’t get overexcited by a bottle label. On a modest budget, I particularly like this Gascogne wine, or, spending slightly more, a white Burgundy or Alsace wine.

But it is a different story trying to identify them blind. The first two I did reasonably, guessing a Muscadet where the wine was a Loire sauvignon blanc, and then for the second bottle guessing a Loire sauvignon blanc, when the wine was a Bordeaux sauvignon blanc/semillion/muscadelle blend. After that, though, it went downhill very quickly. I really struggled with the last four: my tasting were notes a little off, and I totally failed to identify the correct wines- Juracon, Piqpoul, Viognier and a Languedoc Marsanne-Roussanne blend. Those might seem like a tough ask to guess blind, but that’s the kind of knowledge and experience the tasters have here.

Despite my lack of success, I had a great time, and the people at the society were very welcoming to a new face. I learnt a ton about wine- much more than I would at any other tasting, I imagine- and really got to examine my approach to wine tasting. I’m looking forward a lot to next week’s tasting of some French reds, and perhaps with some reading up on grape varieties and the like, I’ll have a better chance.