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.

Food and Wine Pairings IV: Regionality

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about regionality when it comes to food-wine pairing. My theory is this: that if you are cooking a dish from a certain region, using ingredients from that region, then a wine grown there will pair well with the food.

I came about this idea not through reasoning, but through experience. Trying to find some charcuterie and cheeses to have with leftover wines at a wine tasting, I’d originally just bought a selection that I’d liked. But the winner was some leftover Sancerre, which is sauvignon blanc from the Loire in France, with my favourite goats’ cheese, a Clochette. Some northern Italy salami went very well with the dregs of a Chianti Classico, also in northern Italy. This got me thinking- it this a particular example of foods and wines that work, or a general trend? Since then I’ve been experimenting with regional pairings, for example duck confit in south-west France, a Valpollicella from northern Italy with spag-bol, or even Normandy cider with a Normandy apple tart.

In some sense, the idea of pairing a food with a local wine might seem obvious, and why wouldn’t it? Firstly, you might expect the regional cuisine to evolve with the regional wines. Until recently, when logistics allow for people to eat and drink whatever wine they want, you would drink the wine that was produced locally, with the food that was grown locally. Winemaking styles and preferred grape varieties would be chosen based on how much people enjoyed them, which would likely include how well they paired with local food. Perhaps history has already figured out this for us.

A selection of Italian Foods and Wines

A selection of Italian food and wines.

Secondly, there are climatic factors which would make you want to pair food and wine regionally. ‘Terroir’ is the French phrase for the expression of the landscape in the climate, soils, altitude, and so on. The idea of ‘terroir’ is usually applied to growing of grapes, but there is no reason that it shouldn’t be applied to other produce of the region. In the same way that southern Italy wines are soft and fruity, we see tomatoes from southern Italy are fruity, ripe, and sweet. This will likely extend to milk and cheeses as well- the grass cows or goats eat will be affected by climate and soils too. Loire goats’ cheeses are austere and subtle, as are their wines. So far, so good.

However, food-wine pairing is never quite that simple. The biggest thing that makes food-wine pairing tricky is considering every part of the meal. Take my porcini and scallops tartlets, for instance. Porcini mushrooms, crispy bacon, chestnuts- the main flavours in the dish- are all things that might make you think of pairing an northern Italian wine, as these ingredients are often found there. But then you’ve got a creamy mushroom sauce and puff pastry, which are fatty, and so need a lighter wine with acidity- back to the drawing board. In the end I went for a pinot noir from Burgundy, falling back on food-wine pairing experience, rather than ploughing ahead with something regional.

Furthermore, for many regions, there is quite a lot of variation just within those regions. I am continually shocked at just how much Argentian Malbec can vary, from restrained, low-alcohol wines, to high-alcohol fruit bombs. But when you think about how much altitude varies- and the temperature changes that go with it- it’s not surprising the wines come out so different. Wine-making styles may have changed as the market has changed, and so the time-evolved food-wine pairings may just not apply anymore, at least unless you know exactly what is coming out of the bottle you’ve bought. Similarly, food styles are evolving very quickly with globalisation. Just looking at the spread of Indian cuisine in the UK, or the hotch-potch of cuisines we see in the USA, I would guess that changes in viticulture can’t keep up. Don’t think that it can be difficult to source proper ingredients too. If you are using local British tomatoes to make your lasagne, you will get a different flavour profile than had you used Italian tomatoes.

A selection of French food and wines.

A selection of French food and wines.

Finally, the idea of regionality is only really helpful, though, for countries that have a wine-growing tradition. If you are looking for something to pair with an Indian curry, or Thai cuisine, the ideas here don’t really take you very far. But is there a way you could take some of the principles here- looking for a wine growing country with a similar climate, for example- to get a good wine pairing? I have to say, I’m not so sure. I’ve recently become a fan of pairing the Argentinian grape ‘Torrontés’ with curries, with it’s acidity, florality, citrus flavours, and lack of sweetness, it makes a great match. Can I somehow justify that Torrontés has a similar ‘regional flavour’ as something that might come from India, or Thailand? Any link would be pretty tenuous. In my experience, for regional cuisines without regional wines, you have to fall back on other food-wine pairing principles.

Overall, I think this idea works well, if you restrict the application to more traditional fare. If you are cooking something very traditional, like the southern French ‘cassoulet‘, in a traditional manner with local ingredients- great, go for a Languedoc bottle, or other southern French wine. But as you move away from this, perhaps using beans sourced from somewhere else, and British vegetables, the wine-pairing may not do as much for you. I suppose, though, that’s all part of the fun. Experiment, have fun with food-wine pairing, and see what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, if you don’t like the food you are eating, or the wine that is going with it, it’s not worth putting the effort in.

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

Fourteen-Course Dinner Parties

Dinner parties are brilliant fun. Great food, great wine, great company. Getting the nice china and wine glasses out for a special occasion. Planning weeks in advance what you will cook. Thinking about food-wine pairings. Spending an entire day beforehand cooking your best stuff to impress guests. Cooking courses you wouldn’t usually cook- starters, soups- when normally all the effort goes into the main and pudding. Really, they are one of my favourite occasions.

But what I have outlined above also constitutes a lot of effort- especially if you want to go for a large number of courses. Similarly, the cost of the cooking ingredients can quickly escalate, and that’s before you even consider the wine. When you have a lot of food to cook and not enough time to cook it in, the process can become very stressful, in addition to the pressures of entertaining you already have. All this adds up to a great time for your guests, but for you? Probably not as much fun as you hoped.

A way I found to reconcile these ideas started in my undergraduate days: collaborative dinner parties. Everybody chips in with one or two courses, bringing wine which pairs well with the food they make. The financial cost and effort is spread around all the guests attending. Everybody can put effort into their course, but benefit from the whole effort the group has put in. There’s still some organising to be done- emailing round beforehand to find enough people, picking courses, and so on- but what you end up with is a brilliant meal that you could never cook on your own.

Here’s the most recent collaborative dinner party I hosted, and if these pictures don’t motivate you to try this idea out, I don’t know what will.

Amuses Bouche: Red Caviar and Russian Black Bread
Wine: Sovetskoye Shampanskoye
What better way to start off a dinner party than Champagne and Caviar? Little red balls of flavour bursting in your mouth, washed down by sparkling wine- definitely woke up my palate. Provided by a friend whose focus is Russian history, I feel we got an authentic Russian experience here, along with some interesting stories about life in Russia. The wine was an eye opener- lots of residual sugar, but went well with the food, the sweetness of the wine complementing the saltiness of the caviar.

Appetiser: Green Thai Curry Macaron
Wine: Faldeos Nevados Torrontés, 2011
Not wanting to overdo the size of this course, the macaron would be little more than a bite of flavour. Sweet almond shells with lime, basil and curry cream filling did just that. The wine pairing was the real success for me, with the Argentinian Torrontés being light and acidic, it balanced everything out.

Starter: Melon with Prosciutto Crudo
Wine: Casa Roscoli Pinot Grigio 2011
From the same friend who brought us Champagne and Caviar, this starter was based on times spent in Italy, living off melon and prosciutto. A classic combination, with the freshness of the lemon, sweetness of the prosciutto, and acidity of the wine all playing their part.

Soup: New England Clam Chowder
Wine: Richter Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, 2009
Made for us by a native of New England, the clam chowder was rich, creamy, sweet and heartening- really capturing that chapter of Moby Dick which always gets me excited about this dish. The wine was one of my favourites bottles of the night, a lovely sweet Riesling from Germany. At only 8.5% alcohol you might think it would not stand up to the dish, but with plenty of acidity and a long finish it worked well. The sweetness of the wine brought out the sweetness of the clams- just a pity there were still ten courses to go, so I couldn’t have seconds.

Shellfish: Prawn Satay Skewers
Wine: Vouvray Grenouilles Demi Sec Careme, 2009
Another sweeter wine complementing the natural sweetness of the shellfish, but balanced out by the strong flavours of the satay sauce. I prefer satay sauce to be really peanutty, and this one hit the spot. Just a mouthful of prawn here, but plenty of taste, and with fourteen courses, that’s just what you want.

Fish: Sakana-san
Wine: Sawanotsuru
Going to a Japanese themed course here. Tempura battered whitebait, a miso ice cream, and a trout and wasabi mousse, all piped into a Japanese character (I think meaning “I caught this in my net”). Paired with a warmed Sake, the wine just let the food speak for itself. Which wasn’t hard- there was a lot to like.

Pasta: Millefeille
Wine: Bricco Rosso Suagna Langhe Rosso 2008
Pasta is always a hard course to assign, because not many people have a pasta maker. But a friend did a great job of this course, with herbs rolled into the pasta dough, and a pepper and chicken filling for the tower. Sprinkled with Parmesan, the course was just the right size for a large meal like this- pasta is course which is easy to over-do and cook too much of. Paired with an Italian red, the ripe fruit and heat of the wine brought out the spicy chicken and peppers, working very nicely.

Poultry: Chicken two ways
Wine: La Clape, Arpège, Château Rouquette-Sur-Mer, 2011
Of course there would be one course I forgot to take a picture of, even worse that it is of Mrs. Oxfood’s course, so here is an old photo instead. There were two varieties of chicken here: lime and coriander, and paprika, all served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Real contrasts, loads going on. The wine was 90% Roussanne, a grape from the south of France, which was full, fruity, and well balanced. Probably my favourite food-wine pairing of the evening, just for the ability of the Roussanne to deal with what was a very complex course.

Game: Venison Bolegnese
Wine: Barolo Villa Peironte 2008
One of the most enjoyed courses of the evening, a beautifully cooked piece of venison loin, slow cooked venison shoulder, and polenta cakes was served for the game course. The dish was rustic- in a good way- with the grainy polenta cakes really adding something to the texture of the course, balancing everything out. The wine really sung here too. When you have a big wine like Barolo, you need something really meaty to work with, exactly as was done here. Firm tannins, high alcohol, big body- a wine which benefited greatly from decanting.

Cheese: Saint Nectaire, Comté, Laguiole
Wine: Bodegas Palacios Remondo Rioja ‘La Montesa’ Crianza, 2009
Lovely cheeses here. When going for a cheese course, I think people often try and put too contrasting cheeses out- a Stilton, Brie, and Cheddar on the same board, for instance. But these cheeses worked together very nicely. The wine was a strange Rioja, as it was made from mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, but it had plenty of personality. We just had a taste, then saved the cheese for later.

Sorbet: Quince and Vanilla Sorbet
As it happened, I couldn’t have picked the sorbet much better. Sandwiched between a cheese course and a chocolately orangey pudding, the sorbet was not so much a palate cleanser as it was an intermediary between main and pudding courses. I love quince, not as a fruit to eat, being very dry and woody, but as a fruit to roast, purée, and then use in a variety of dishes as a complementary flavour. After a few hours in the oven, you get a fruit a bit like a cross between a baked apple and a baked pear, so you can see how it worked well with the surrounding courses. A lovely sorbet, one I will certainly make again.

Heavier Pudding: Chocolate, Orange and Spice
Wine: La Concha Palomino Pedro Ximenez
A plate of a chocolate and cardamon mousse, dark chocolate and ginger cake, chocolate and orange truffle, and candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. Sound nice? It really was. Top marks as well for the food-wine pairing, the not-so-sticky Pedro Ximenez sherry worked wonderfully allowing the pudding to shine. I always like pairing sherry with puddings, and here is a great example where it helps the dish much better than any wine- or pudding wine- would.

Lighter Pudding: Planters’ Punch Special
Punch was once one of the traditional courses of a very large meal like this, so it was fun to see one served as the lighter pudding. At this point in the meal, you don’t want to see loads of cream on your plate, so a liquid course was very welcome. We didn’t need a wine pairing here either, there was plenty of alcohol already present. Loads of great exotic fruit here, pineapple, grapes, melon, passionfruit- all working very well with the rum in the punch. A good fruit salad is one of my favourite puddings, and I will often choose this over richer fare. A well designed, very tasty course.

Petit Fours: Pistachio Baklava, Orange and Passion Fruit Marshmallows, Financiers
Wine: Calvados Pays d’Auge, VSOP
Although most people had eaten their fill at this point, these petit fours still managed to disappear while everyone was sitting at the table chatting after the meal. I had a lot of fun making these, the baklava in particular I had never made before, but they turned out great. The marshmallows were made in a similar fashion to the Pink Fluffy Marshmallows I made previously, just adding a passion fruit and orange syrup to the marshmallow while aerating. Financiers are classic petit fours, rounding the selection out.
For those who haven’t tried Calvados before, it is apple brandy made in the north of France. I think it is brilliant, and a good value for money substitute for brandy like Cognac or Armagnac. The apple flavours in the Calvados added a lot to these petits fours- at least for those who made it this far.

Overall, a brilliant meal. Not surprising, when you consider the amount of effort that went in to it. But with everyone chipping in? I’ll be doing this again.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Macarons are one of the more fashionable patisserie items to make at the minute. Not to be confused with the coconut-chocolate biscuit that is the English macaroon, these biscuits are made from a very light and airy dough made up of almond flour and egg whites. There’s not a lot of flavour from the biscuits themselves, so usually they are filled with a butter cream of some sort. The filling is piped in the night before, which allows the biscuit to absorb a little, creating a softer, smoother texture. Creativity and taste aside, another lure of macarons is that they are quite tricky to make, despite the ingredients being relatively simple. Macarons have their characteristic ‘pieds’, or ‘feet’, a mythical part of the cooking process, caused by a combination of egg white rising, and surface tension of the dough. Particularly important is to get the macarons to have perfectly formed feet- if you don’t get the feet, or the feet aren’t even all the way around, you lose marks for presentation. However, I think macarons can definitely be made well, domestically. You’ll need a bit of kit- piping bag, nozzle, pastry scraper (and an electric mixer helps)- but once you have these, the recipe is that not that complicated (a bit like making a cake or biscuits), it’s just a little fiddly.

So when I was planning the appetiser course for a dinner party recently, I fancied trying to make a savoury macaron. I’ve seen recipes for savoury macarons in fancy cookbooks- beetroot and horseradish, bloody mary, or asparagus- and fancied that something like this would make a fun appetiser. The flavours had to go with almond, as you don’t want to mess with the magic formula for the base biscuits, which led me to curry of some sort. Out of curries I thought could be used here, a green thai curry worked best, and finding a recipe with different coloured top and bottom macarons sealed the deal.

Interesting for me too was the food-wine pairing. What wine do you pair with a savoury curry sweet almondy macaron? A lot of people will say that you want to pair a dry Riesling with a curry, but I’ve never been sold on the pairing, as I think there are too many flavours present. Instead, I wanted something a little more neutral, but still with good acidity, a light body, and light flavours, so that the cacophony of tastes in the macaron could shine through. I went with a Torrontés, a native Argentinian white. It worked wonderfully- plenty of zip, light, and when we picked up notes of lemongrass, I knew that had hit the spot. I think Torrontés would be a great wine for curry in general, so if you are able to source a bottle, give it a try, the strong food-wine pairing added a lot to the meal.

Overall the green thai curry macarons actually worked pretty well- much better than I was expecting. The almondy and sugarry sweetness, spicy lime and basil curry, and acidic and floral wine somehow balanced each other out, all tugging on the taste buds about equally. But I would definitely make the same macarons again. A really fun course to make, but quite challenging and complex at the same time.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Recipe for macarons taken from Mad about Macarons. Measurements should be as exact as possible. Makes around 12 green thai curry macarons. You could make, say, red thai curry macarons, or tikka massala macarons in a very similar manner.

Ingredients:
150g egg whites (aged 4-5 days)
100g caster sugar
180g ground almonds
270g icing sugar
Red and green food colourings
50g butter
2tsbp fresh basil
zest 1 lime
5g cornflour
1/2 beaten egg
50g coconut milk
2tsp green thai curry paste

Recipe:
1. Make the macaron dough.Whisk the egg whites until firm peaks, gradually adding the sugar as you do so. Put in enough food colouring until you get a rich pink (note the almond colour will take some of this away). Sift the almonds into a large bowl, add the icing sugar, then fold in the whipped egg whites. Split the dough into two equal portions, then add the different food colourings to each.
2. Work and pipe the dough.With a pastry scraper (or spatula if you don’t have one), work the dough to press out some of the oxygen from the whites. Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with a plain nozzle (1cm around tip). Line two baking trays with baking sheets, then pipe your macarons onto the sheet.
3. Cook the macarons. Preheat the oven to 160ºC, and bake for around 15 minutes. There is quite a fine point when they are done, so get to know your oven and adjust cooking times slightly if necessary. Leave to cool on the sheet, then slowly (as they are delicate) peel them off.
4. Make the filling. Cream the butter and mix in the fresh basil and lime. In a another bowl, combine the cornflour and beaten egg. Heat the coconut milk over a medium heat in a saucepan until boiling, then add the cornflour and egg mixture. Whisk constantly until the mixture has thickened to coat the back of a spoon. Leave to cool.
5. Make the macarons. When the filling is cool, pipe it onto the macarons. Leave in a fridge for as long as you can (ideally overnight) for the texture to develop.

Food and Wine Pairings III: Creating a meal around sweet wines

Often when I start out cooking a meal for guests, I have no idea what to cook. It’s not that I don’t have enough ideas, although sometimes I am less inspired, but too many, thanks to many good cookbooks and internet sites that are available. I can never consider a dish and say to myself, “yes, that will be really good”, and know that there is not a better choice out there. Similarly, you want the courses to complement each other, it’s no use doing smoked salmon to start, and then salmon for the main. This is all before the practicalities of the dinner are considered- how much time do I have to cook, how much can I spend, when can I get any specialist ingredients, for example.

Lastly, there is the wine. Perhaps not so important to some, I really feel line a good food-wine pairing can make or break a meal. You need the right wine for each course. If I don’t have the bottle I want at home, I don’t want to put a wine order in for just one bottle, so that might change what I want to cook. Little things, like the seasoning of a dish, can make a big difference, too. So recently, I’ve taken a reverse approach to planning meals for guests: start with the wines I want to drink, then figure out what I can cook which will work. I’ve found it remarkably helpful, as you move from “I could cook almost anything” to “I have to cook something very specific”. Also, it’s a fun challenge and learning experience for my food-wine pairing skills.

A friend came around recently who I know has a sweet tooth. So I thought, why not try some sweeter wines throughout, and see if I can’t find the right food to go with them? If I went wrong, the wines would still be good, and the food would still be good, just not as good together. Equally, this would allow me to experiment a little with flavours, particularly the sweet-savoury match. All the wines I had planned came from The Wine Society, which I thoroughly recommend.

Course I: A salad of pan-fried scallops, pancetta, warmed goats’ cheese, roasted fig, and cos lettuce.
Wine pairing: Vouvray Les Coteaux Tufiers Demi-Sec 2010.

The wines we drank. From the right: Vouvray Demi-Sec 2010, Trimbach Gewurztraminer 2010, Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

The wine here is a demi-sec (meaning semi-dry), a chenin-blanc from Vouvray, in the Loire valley in France (on the right of the picture). What the demi-sec translates to is a small amount of residual sugar, not something we noticed in the main body of the wine, but in the finish, there was just a touch of sweetness. Otherwise, a fairly neutral wine, with good acidity to cut through food. At £7 a bottle, this wine was great, and I imagine would be very popular in general.

This, I think, was the best pairing of the night. With so much going on in the salad, particularly with the goats’ cheese and fig, the wine didn’t need to contribute much in terms of flavour. But the acidity, working with the lettuce, calmed everything down and balanced the meal out nicely. The sweetness worked well with all of the components, perhaps not surprisingly as they are often paired with sweet things themselves. (Of course, with the pressures of entertaining, I forgot to take a photo of the salad, so you’ll have to live with a photo of the wines instead.)

Course II: Monkfish and Tiger Prawn Crêpe, Sauce Saffron Suprème, Curried Squash.
Wine pairing: Trimbach Gewürztraminer 2010.

Gewürztraminer is a grape which typically gives you stone fruit flavours, spice, and lychee, in a medium bodied, medium alcohol framework, with no residual sugar. It comes from Alsace in France, a region close to Germany, so no surprise that a lot of grape varieties which are traditionally German, like Riesling, are grown there. The body, alcohol, and acidity here are important- being a bigger wine than the Vouvray, it needs to be given something a little more robust, food-wise.

The robustness here comes in the sauce. The monkfish, prawn, squash, and crepe were all relatively light, really just providing flavours and textures. The sauce is thick and heavily saffron flavoured, in some sense providing the bulk of the dish. Overall I would say that I think I tried to do too much here, the dish was too complex (although sadly not in colour), too many flavours and textures were present. Perhaps something simpler, like a simple sea bass dish, would have provided the backdrop for the wine to do its thing better. Still nice, but not the pairing I was hoping for.

Course III: Giant Macaron with Raspberries and Peach Cream.
Wine pairing: Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

Here I had a dilemma I often have with a meal. My guests have brought a bottle of wine- a nice one at that- but I’ve already planned a wine for a certain course  (or a course for a certain wine). Do you alter the meal and drink the wine they bought, or do you go with what you had planned? In this case, the choice was reasonably easy, as I was planning a white Bordeaux, but it could be easily substituted by the Tokaji. For those who haven’t met Tokaji before, it’s a Hungarian desert wine, made from a grape called Furmint, and is well worth checking out.

The macaron itself doesn’t add a lot of flavours to the dessert, so you can consider this, flavour-wise, as raspberries and orange with peach cream. The fruit flavours complemented the wine well, but I feel like anything reasonable you put with pudding wine is going to be great. The Tokaji was a nice bottle, and was allowed to express itself fully with the fat in the cream, tartness of the raspberries, and juiciness of the orange. I’ll do this one again.

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, and Food and Wine Pairings II: Wines for a Wedding. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.

Food and Wine Pairings II: Wines for a Wedding

Picking wines for a wedding is an interesting problem. Instead of picking what might be the ‘best’ wine; you’re looking to pick the best value-for-money wine, or the wine that works best with the food. What’s more- you want everybody to like the wine- so if the wine isn’t easy to drink, it’s not the wine you want. There are other things to think about as well, like whether or not their are facilities to refrigerate the whites, the glasses you’ll be drinking out of, and, of course, the budget you have. So when I was asked to pick some wines for a wedding I’m going to this summer, it sounded like a fun challenge, but a different challenge than I normally have with wine.

When I got sent the wedding menu, I had a few ideas of what would work, and picked up of a couple of bottles I liked. But when the main people in the wedding tried them, they weren’t particularly keen, for whatever reason. So with the opportunties to meet up and try wines diminishing, I decided that I would cook the meal they would eat on the day, get four whites and four reds that I thought could work, and try them out together with the food. We went for a ‘blind’ tasting- not to try and guess the wines- but to make sure there were no biases of choice towards which wine worked the best. We planned the meal for a Saturday lunchtime, so that those involved could drive here and have enough time to sober up to drive back.

The wines I sourced were from The Wine Society– their wines are great value for money, so this would be where we could get the most for the budget. The whites wines I picked were a German Ruppetsburg, a Chilean Zarcillo Gewürztraminer, a white Bordeaux, and a Cortese from Piedmont in Italy. The reds, a similar variety, were a Beaujolais (France), a Chilean Zarcillo Pinot Noir, a Pays d’Oc from near the Languedoc in France, and a great value Bricco Rosso from Italy. Quite a range, but hopefully they would bring out different characteristics in the food.

First Course: Melon

We only had the white wines with the melon (as the reds would have all been a pairing disaster). The melon, along with the orange and grapefruit slices, provided a nice fresh, juicy, delicate flavour with some acidity. As such, the two more acidic wines- the sauvignon dominated Bordeaux and the Cortese- created a dish with too much acidity to be pleasant. The gewurztraminer, I thought, was a little to cloying for the delicate melon flavour, not allowing it to develop properly. The Ruppetsburg, though, complemented the melon well with floral notes, low alcohol, and only a little acidity.

Winner: Ruppetsburg

Second Course: Chicken with a white wine sauce and asparagus

The chicken with white wine sauce posed a little more challenge with the fat in the sauce and meat. The asparagus, though, would provide an astrigency which can be quite punishing with a too acidic wine- which is what happened to the Bordeaux, the herbaciousness of the sauvignon blanc in it not helping things. Interestingly the Ruppetsburg seemed not to have enough body to hold up to the chicken, and the Piedmont, while it was fine, didn’t really add much to the flavours in the meal. The sweetness and body of the gewurztraminer worked well with the sauce and proved popular, especially among the women.

Winner: Gewurztraminer

Overall, we decided on the Gewurztraminer for the white. It wasn’t my choice- I voted for the Ruppetsburg- but it was a good value, easy drinking, very accessible wine, which I imagine a lot of people will like. What was interesting was the amount of variation in preference of the whites- we almost had all different variations of our first and second favourite whites. I guess you are never going to get wines everybody likes, but just how different the attitudes towards each were was surprising.

Pudding: Blueberry Cheesecake

We ended up having the reds with the pudding, as that would be the best pairing (and as the whites took a while to get through). This time, though, there was a lot of consensus- the Languedoc wine winning out on everyone’s rating- soft, fruity, and well balanced. I liked the Bricco Rosso more than others, but given it’s structure and complexity, it would have worked poorly in the context. Also soft and fruity, the Beaujolais was popular too. The pinot noir, though, was very closed and oaky, quite disappointing.

Winner: Languedoc

Overall, a lot of fun to do, and a nice way for those involved to make sure they’ll have wines they like. It was very interesting to see the variation in people’s wine choices- same wine with the same food- really showing how you won’t always get the right wine for everybody. And of course, it was a lot of fun finishing off the leftovers.

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.