Food and wine that works

I clearly remember the first time a food and wine match made the earth move just a little. Nearly thirty years ago a workmate invited Marion and I around to dinner. He was a knowledgeable wine enthusiast and a good cook. I’d only just started to take an interest in wine while my cooking prowess was limited to burning things on the barbecue. My bottle of cheap local plonk was received with polite murmurings of thanks and placed next to our host’s very expensive French white burgundy. I’d tasted a few French white wines but none as classy as this. It made me think of daybreak on a clear summer’s day when a cool breeze carries scents of morning dew and awakening wild flowers.

Our host had gone to some trouble to buy fresh scallops that he assured us had been caught in the last 24 hours. He said he was going to poach the scallops in white wine and, to my horror, picked up the one-hundred-dollar-plus burgundy and poured a generous splash into the pan. The effect was fantastic. When we ate the scallops we experienced a wonderful echo of the delicious wine that we were drinking with the meal. His expensive sacrifice turned a good entrée into one of my most memorable meals. Suddenly I understood the power in getting a wine and food match right. That experience taught me to use wine to flavour food when appropriate and to contrive a link between the flavours in both the wine and the dish if possible.

When I think of the earth-shattering matches I’ve experienced it’s clear to me that other factors often play a part in the success. For example, a chilled bottle of Neudorf 1991 Chardonnay made a sublime match with freshly caught snapper cooked with mussels that had been gathered from the rocks only a few minutes before we steamed them open in a mixture of Chardonnay (not Neudorf), onions, garlic and flat-leaf parsley. The fact that we cooked them on a driftwood fire during a clear winter’s day at beautiful O’Neill’s beach on Auckland’s rugged west coast certainly added an extra frisson of pleasure to the occasion. Our American guests were impressed with the fact that it had taken me 15 minutes to catch the snapper and about five minutes to wrench the mussels from the rocks. We lay back on the warm sand afterwards and wondered whether life could get much better than this. I learned that great food and wine matches often depend on getting everything right. That includes glasses, wine temperature and even background music.

It helps when the match delivers far more than you expected. I recall enjoying a sumptuous meal at the home of a wine enthusiast friend whose French wife had the cooking skills of a three-star Michelin chef. She served a brilliant dessert of caramelised pears which he matched with an old Australian Chardonnay. Dry Chardonnay with a moderately sweet dessert? I braced myself for a culinary disaster. The match was fantastic! The ten-year old Chardonnay was a mellow monster close to the end of its life. Time had caramelised the wine’s flavours while high-ish alcohol and masses of American oak added a vanilla-like sweetness. The partnership was a dazzling success and all the more memorable because I had expected it to fail.

Some years ago I was approached by a Navy chef who desperately wanted to win the Corbans Wine and Food Challenge. Restaurants (including the Devonport Naval Base Officers Mess) were invited to select a wine from a list provided by Corbans and to match it with a special dish. Representatives from Corbans would then visit the restaurant and judge the wine and food combination. My advice was to pick the very best wine from the list. I was able to assist with that choice. I told the young chef to cook the very best dish he could. The quality of the dish was the most important thing to focus on. It’s match with the wine was of secondary importance. My point was that if you have great food with great wine you will almost always hear a Celestial choir singing the Hallelujah chorus even if they’re not a perfectly co-ordinated match. I’ll bet you’ll enjoy that combination better than you would enjoy a near perfect match when one of the partners is of average quality. Sadly the Navy didn’t win the Challenge that year despite my good advice.

Rules, like recipes, are made to be broken. Nonetheless rules do serve a useful purpose. Follow a recipe slavishly, for example, and you’ll make good food but seldom great food. Great food is made by cooks who are able to creatively vary the formula. Try cooking several apple tarts using different types of apples at different ripeness levels and you’ll see what I mean. A good cook will vary the recipe to compensate for slightly different raw materials.

“Red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat” is a rule that’s been around for so long it’s regarded by some as the eleventh commandment. It does make a bit of sense. Red wine tastes stronger than white wine; red meat tastes stronger than white meat. Match a strong-flavoured dish with a light wine and you’ll lose the flavour of the wine. The reverse is also true. Some very oily fish can react with tannic red wines to produce a slightly bitter and unpleasantly metallic reaction.

I like to break the rules. By choosing a less oily fish, such as hapuka or kingfish, and serving it with a softer red such as Pinot Noir it’s possible to make a surprisingly good food and wine match. Serve a fish and red wine combination to guests and they’ll brace themselves for the worst. When they taste the two together they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I include a food and wine matching module in my regular wine courses. To demonstrate some of the ways in which different foods can alter the taste of wine I give students a platter with a slice of apple (sweetness), a slice of lemon (acidity) and a slice of cheese (protein). I serve two wines; a slightly sweet white wine (usually a Riesling) and a tannic, drying red wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon.

We first taste the white wine then try it with the apple. The wine becomes noticeably drier with the apple. Why? Because sweetness in food cancels out some of the sweetness in wine making it taste drier. When choosing a wine to match a dish that has sweetness in it try to choose a wine that’s even sweeter than the dish so that when the two react and the wine becomes slightly drier they still complement each other.

Next we try the lemon before re-tasting the white wine. Now the wine has become sweeter. Acidity in food strips out acidity in wine making the wine appear sweeter. High acid foods, such as seafood garnished with lemon juice or a citrus-based sauce, need to be matched with high acid wines like Sauvignon Blanc or dry Riesling. The wine will lose some of its acid affect but still have enough to match the acidity in the dish.

Now we taste a red wine that is so astringent around half the class don’t like it. When we match it with a high cream cheese the wine becomes much less astringent. Many of those who found the wine unpleasantly astringent now like it. The protein in the cheese wraps around the tannin molecules making the wine taste smoother and softer. You can experience the same affect when you taste the same red wine with a piece of well-cooked steak and a piece cooked medium-rare. The wine is softer with the medium-rare steak because the tannins are masked by un-coagulated protein (the protein is coagulated in the well-cooked meat).

Big, astringent reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz/Syrah need high fat meats like lamb or duck to match their strong flavours and mask their firm tannins. Softer reds such as Pinot Noir and Merlot are more food-friendly. They’re able to match a wider range of dishes from roast chicken and veal to the more full-flavoured and fattier red meats.

The objective with food and wine matching is to make the food taste better than it would without wine and the wine taste better than it would without food. That happens ninety percent of the time. The challenge is to find the combinations that make you want to climb a steeple and ring the bell. They’re rare, but the great thing is, they’re repeatable.

Bob’s Food and Wine Matching Guidelines

  1. Match flavour intensities.
  2. Drink dry before sweet, light flavours before strong flavours
  3. Match similar flavours and textures for a safe partnership
  4. Contract flavours and textures for a risky but potentially more exciting partnership
  5. Foods with sweetness require wines with even more sweetness
  6. High acid foods demand wines with even more acidity
  7. Eat what you like with whatever wine you like – but think about the result

Bob’s Favourite Matches

  1. Port and stilton (or any good blue cheese)
  2. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and raw oysters garnished with lemon
  3. Duck confit and a good Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels region of Hawke’s Bay
  4. Crème caramel and an aged Australian botrytised Semillon or French Sauternes
  5. Lamb shanks, garlic mashed potatoes and minted peas with a big Aussie Shiraz
  6. Great Pinot Noir with anything
  7. Whitebait fritters with anything

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Mar 2006.

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