Inverted wine pairing
A drinking game with a difference.
Illustrations: Frances Murphy
Monday 02 May 2022
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Several years ago, a family member let me in on a secret. You suck on a piece of salted liquorice for a couple of minutes, then take a sip of the cheapest red plonk you have in the house, and marvel at how it suddenly tastes like the best Côtes du Rhône you ever had. (Honestly, grab the worst bottle you have in, and try it. I promise it works.)
The first time that I did this, I was astounded. I took a sip of the bland burgundy liquid in my glass – a supermarket-bought bottle from a macro wine brand I won’t name – and it felt like an epiphany. Not just because I was marvelling at how mediocre wine could become delicious, impressive as that was (and frankly, something I wish I had known during my student days). Rather, I was seeing afresh how food can augment wine to create an experience that is truly magical. Usually, I’ve focused on trying to do the reverse: placing the food centre stage and seeking to make the meal more mind-blowing by selecting the right wine to enjoy alongside it.
Many of us are no strangers to thinking about pairings in this food-centric way. Consider the example of a sommelier at a fine dining restaurant. They wait until you choose what to eat, and then they help you to select a bottle of wine that will go with it beautifully. But food can make wine taste better, as well as the other way around, and there’s often not as much focus on how to pick food after having already settled on what to drink. The back of a wine label sometimes gives a hint of what to pair, but rarely goes beyond something vague, like ‘white fish’, or ‘soft cheese’.
Simply following a few simple rules of thumb can certainly get you off to a great start with food and wine pairings. Tannins pair well with fattier food (think bold red wines and red meat). Meals consisting of salad, seafood, or anything else that would benefit from a squeeze of fresh lemon will pair well with a zingy, high acid white. A wine that is not as tart as the food might appear lacklustre and thin alongside the meal. And just as balancing acidity is key, so is balancing sweetness and spice. For a meal with some fieriness, an off-dry wine can provide contrast and temper heat.
Beyond these starting points, some researchers are going even further, delving deep into the science of pairings, and pushing to understand exactly what is going on at a molecular level when two things taste alike, or taste good together. The notes that we detect when we swirl a glass of wine are down to the aroma molecules, and in some cases, they are the same natural chemical compounds found in things like fruit and spice. So, when you think you taste or smell something specific in your wine – like currants, grass, vanilla, or lemon peel – then you’re probably not imagining it. Plus, the esters that are created during fermentation add yet more layers of complexity to the wine’s aromas and flavours. With thousands of compounds per glass of wine, getting to grips with the science behind your sensory experiences can be a daunting task.
But don’t worry, putting together good food and wine pairings doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need to remember the names of any chemical compounds in order to do it well. Paying attention to what your nose and tastebuds are telling you is a good place to start. Centring the wine rather than the food is an interesting change if you’re used to picking the food first when putting pairings together.
So, let’s say you have a special bottle of wine that you want to really show off, and you’d like to pick a great meal to go alongside it. Where should you start? I asked Donald Edwards, Head Sommelier at La Trompette in Chiswick, to share some tips.
“I start by thinking about what sort of flavours and textures the wine is going to provide,” he says. “Is it a full-bodied Chardonnay with creamy rich ripe fruit, is it an older Pinot Noir redolent with the scents of forest floor and spiced dark berries?”
Donald points out that if a dish is supposed to showcase a wine, rather than the other way around, he might look for foods that aren’t too “shouty”. And for white wine, he recommends matching the weight of a sauce to the wine.
“Creamier richer whites with more powerful sauces, think pan reductions or sauces with cream,” he says. “More delicate whites with light weight herbal accompaniments or vinaigrette type dressings.”
He adds that knowing your audience is key, and your approach might differ depending on who you’re planning to share the bottle with. “I certainly pair very different things if I’m talking to a younger couple in East London versus a more conservative looking family group in Chiswick,” says Donald. So, if you’re planning a dinner party at which you will showcase an outstanding wine, taking your guests and their appetite for adventure into account could also be important.
This kind of attention to detail need not mean spending all day in the kitchen and attempting an extra difficult recipe. Gordon Mitchell Smith, a wine professional who works with collectors who have hundreds or even thousands of bottles in their cellars, says that meals don’t have to be extravagant in order to pair well with a special wine.
“For instance, one time a friend and I were both on a budget, but had a bottle of Adrien Renoir Champagne we wanted to enjoy with a meal,” he says. “Well, what pairs especially well with Champagne? Salt and fat.” He explains that they ended up picking up some fried chicken and says that the pairing was incredible. This is a great example of how creating outstanding pairings need not involve culinary prowess.
Gordon offers one more pairing suggestion.
“Killer bottle of goldkapsel Riesling on hand, but not much of a cook? There is zero shame in ordering your favourite spicy Asian food to pair with the wine and Netflix on the couch,” he says, reiterating that there are no firm rules about how and when to drink special bottles with food. “You decide the kind of experience you want it to be, and construct it accordingly.”
There are lots of choices when putting pairings together, so don’t forget to ask for advice. If you have an idea that you want to try out but you’re unsure, the staff in your local independent wine shop can likely offer some great pointers. And remember, it is ok to make mistakes too. Perhaps one day soon, I’ll suck on something other than liquorice before taking a sip of red and find it to be vile. This sort of experimentation is part of the fun, and it is the only way to get better at choosing great food and wine pairings. By taking a few chances, you might just hit on something magical, and find a meal or snack that elevates your drinking experience in ways you never imagined.
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