The art of matching food and wine

28th Apr 2012

There appears to be a strange science surrounding matching food and wine together. All sorts of people run courses, offer guidelines in magazines and write books on it, for us all to eagerly absorb and apply as necessary for our next domestic dinner party or restaurant night out.

There appears to be a strange science surrounding matching food and wine together. All sorts of people run courses, offer guidelines in magazines and write books on it, for us all to eagerly absorb and apply as necessary for our next domestic dinner party or restaurant night out. It is considered as much an art as a science, and if you believe the rumours, very hard to get exactly right. But what is “exactly right”. Is there a truly perfect wine for each dish?

For the second year running, we have been shortlisted by the AA for the Wine List of the year Awards. A phenomenal achievement and one that I am so completely proud of. Along with the letter of notification of reaching this stage of the judging, I was presented with a questionnaire about some “wine” matters, and then a menu devised by last year’s winners, to which, I was to match my one of my wines with each course.

So here in lies my dilemea about food and wine matching, the art, the science and the professionals. I have really very little idea of what this food tastes like. I haven’t dined at the restaurant setting the task to even give me an insight as to how the chef interprets his dishes. How a menu reads and how it actually appears are usually two very different things. So using my imagination, I must do my best to think how these dishes will taste, how the chef has interpreted the ingredients that he lists on the dish descriptions and then reach for my bank of knowledge of my own wines and decide which of my lovely little bottles will do justice to each of the dishes. But I really don’t like to choose wines this way. So often you can underestimate the use of salt, garlic, the strength of what appears to be an unassuming ingredient and it will undoubtedly change the dimensions of the dish and the wine that is to go with it.

But so very many people think that this whole “paring lark” is easy, and usually they get it wrong. Occasionally they are not far off, but usually this is more to do with luck than judgement. Sometimes you cringe as you taste the chaos that they have created and handed over for you to consume. So very many times I have been presented with combinations that lack care and any really though for the dish or the wine. You instinctively feel that if only they had actually tasted the combination, they could have reached an altogether more harmonious match. When you bring a dish and a wine together for the purposes of matching, you should be looking to achieve a whole that is more than the sum of the parts.

When looking to pair dishes with wines at the restaurant, I will taste the dish first. Often, this dish is still in its early days of creation, so never looks as beautiful as when you will eat it, but my aim is get a sense of the dish, to understand what the chef is looking to achieve with it. What are the constituent parts, and is there a flavour that stands out. I return (occasionally weeks may have passed as I go out onto the “streets” to source the right wine) armed with suitable suggestions that we all taste and a consensus is reached. Sometimes a marriage of the parts is sought out, to create a satisfying and lifting experience, sometimes there is one element or essence of the dish that needs moulding that can be achieve by bringing the match together. All of this however, is done with the integrity of the dish and the wine in mind. Neither should distract from the other nor diminish each other’s presence.

There are, of course, some simple guidelines when looking at pairing food and wine together. It is often best to think of a wine in its natural surroundings. Why are so many of the lovely Italian Reds so high in acidity and tannin. Then think of Italian food; tomatoes, pasta, and olive oil. The wine has got to do a lot of work to even stand on its own feet when placed next to these monster ingredients. The same for pork, a regular guest on Steve’s menu. It has lovely rich flavours and a decadent fattiness to the meat. You will need wines that predominately offer enough acidity to balance the fat of the pork and enough subtle fruit to work with the meat. My mind often springs to Alsace or Austria for a Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc. Half the fun of this process though is trial and error and getting to know your wines. Practice makes perfect so they say, so the more eating and drinking you all do, the better you will get.

        

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