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.