(Photo: with Celebrity Chef Ken Hom OBE)
-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-
As a matter of fact, food – with –wine is about as simple an issue as boy- meets-girl. Fortunately, what happens between food and wine is not haphazard. Certain elements of food react in predictable ways with certain elements of wine, giving us a winning chance at making a successful match. The major components of wine (alcohol, sweetness, acid and tannins) relate to the basic tastes of food (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). Some of the elements exaggerate each other and some compensate for each other.
“White wine with fish, red wine with meat” That is the commonly accepted “law” for matching wine with food. Based on centuries of experience and tradition, it makes a lot of common sense: the subtle flavour of plainly grilled fish would be over-powered by a strong red wine, whereas it might be difficult to appreciate the finer points of a delicate white wine against the flavours of a rich beef stew. The reason we worry so much about choosing a wine to go with a particular meal is that without doubt the right food and wine combination can double the enjoyment of both.
The problem is that the simple “white-with-fish, red-with-meat” law doesn’t take account of many other factors such as different styles of cooking, flavoursome sauces and accompaniments, or the influence of ethnic cuisine. More importantly, of course, it doesn’t take account of personal tastes and preferences.
The only sensible “rule” is to decide for yourself what suits your tastes – it might not be conventional, but your own, personal taste is far more important than convention. As we gain experience and learn more about wine, we think of it not just in terms of flavour, but also in other terms such as weight, power, aroma and length. One of the keys to choosing a wine to suit a particular dish is to take a moment to consider these qualities in relation to the food and then try to find a style of wine with qualities to match or to contrast.
For example, imagine a fillet of poached salmon with a rich, buttery sauce. The flesh of salmon is firmer, heavier and richer than some other fish and the sauce is rich and creamy. We could choose a full-bodied, big, buttery, oaked chardonnay to match the weight and character of the dish or we could choose a tart, fresh sauvignon blanc to contrast and cut through the heavy sauce. This all comes down to personal preferences, but either combination would probably work well. Alternatively, although it’s hard to imagine the flavours of this dish being helped by the tannins of a firm red wine, would the light body and fresh, fruity flavours of a young, delicate Beaujolais prove quite acceptable?
Many dishes need a full-bodied wine with an oak overlay and would suffer in tandem with a light, fruity wine. Smoked or wood grilled meats perk up with an oaky, California Chardonnay, the big, rich, vanilla-laden wines match perfectly with roasted chicken that drips with naturally buttery, fatty juices and are just wonderful with a holiday turkey that’s been cooked in a charcoal or wood roaster. And they do just fine with a rich lobster; on the other hand they totally lose out in pairing with crisp, acidic oysters, where a Chablis, a non-oaked Chardonnay, a Fume Blanc, or a Muscadet would make a wonderful match.
Are lighter style wines inferior? Hardly. They are light and easy on the palate, and palate fatigue is seldom a factor. They’re not burdened by the oak and high-octane strength linked with so-called serious wines. But obviously, the lighter reds would be lost in pairing with a beef steak that demands the muscle of the wine. Do high acid wines make better food matches? I like Sancerres and Sauvignon Blancs and crisp Chablis with simply cooked fish. Those slightly acidic wines add sparkle to a fish dish, much like a squeeze of lemon and can counterbalance oiliness or fattiness in food. They won’t however do well and will, in fact, taste thin and troubling when you’ve dressed up the fish with a rich buttery sauce. Fatty fish or well-sauced fish demands a creamier Chardonnay.
I’ve always been told to avoid wines with salads. Is that right? Partially. Lettuce and other greens coated with a strong, acidic vinaigrette can destroy a wine. But make your vinaigrette with a softer, rounder vinegar, a fine balsamic or a wine vinegar and you’ve got a different situation where the vinaigrette enhances the taste of the wine Spike the salad with sweet onions or rich tomatoes or Roquefort cheese and match it with a fine, dry Riesling or a chilled Rose’ and you’ve got a match made in food heaven. You’ve just got to think a bit harder when selecting wine for a salad.
Is there a wine for chocolate? You can bet a case of port or a batch fortified red wines on this match. Try a Ruby or Tawny port with rich chocolate and you’d wish you started the meal with the dessert. Try chocolate with other sweet fortified reds, Madeira or new-world ports made from non-traditional wines from Australia and California.
Guidelines – conventional combinations
Fish – (plain grilled or fried) dry or medium whites which shouldn’t overwhelm the fish and should help to cleanse the palate between mouthfuls.
Shellfish – crisp, dry white like Chablis, dry Riesling, sauvignon blanc or Champagne.
Poultry – pinot noir and mature cabernet sauvignon are delicious with roast chicken or turkey. If choosing a white, try something medium bodied chardonnay or medium-dry German wine. The richness of duck needs a rich wine (red or white) with full favour.
Game & red meat– the classic combination is with full, mature, red wines of high quality – Burgundy, Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a new-world equivalent.
Lamb– a fairly firm, robust red with some acidity, like Chianti, Rioja or zinfandel.
Chinese food – spicy whites such as gewürztraminer or off-dry Riesling.
Indian or other spicy food – very cold, semi-sweet whites can be lovely pairings.
Cheese – there are many good cheese and wine matches – mature cheddar and mature red wine, port with stilton, goats’ cheese with sauvignon blanc, sweet wine with creamy cheeses are all classic pairings. Avoid reds that are very tannic and whites that are heavily oaked.
Dessert – the best sweet white wines are perfect partners for most desserts.
Some foods are regarded as “problem” foods for wine matching: eggs, tomatoes, vinegar, salad dressings and lemon are some examples that spring to mind, but again it’s all down to personal taste.
Now that you’ve been exposed to a whole new set of rules, just remember the basic one. It’s your taste that matters. If you like a wine, drink it with the food you enjoy and you ‘re bound to be satisfied.