Posted by: jmbwineblog | May 15, 2011

The Myths of Food and Wine Matching

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Recently, mainly from being in France and having the opportunity to sample so many brilliant wines from all across this nation and to sample the cuisine of not only France but the wider world as well led me to starting thinking about food and wine matching, and what it is really all about! It has come to the point where it can either be very simply, or very very complicated.
WHY? well because I have come to the conclusion that it can verge on the futile to even attempt to match food and wine adequately without either experimenting a lot and failing on many occasions, or simply by not really trying at all, but just drinking something hearty and with plenty of freshness!

THE MYTH

Well, it isn’t really a myth because this is simply my opinion and I am happy to be shot down in my opinions by those who are more informed than I, however I do think there are plenty of examples of traditional food matches that do make sense…

Sauternes and Foie Gras
Bordeaux and Lamb
Australian Shiraz and Steak
to name just a few, but to put food and wine matching so simply, is for me, both an insult and a detriment to the variety and brilliance of BOTH the wines and the cuisine that is served with them.

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Not only are wines so unbelievably complex and varied in both grape varieties and regions, but also in terms of individual producer styles and terroirs within the specific regions in question! For example, the wine that comes from here…

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Is totally different to the wines made here…

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Yes; they are both from Bordeaux and yes they are both a blend of the same grapes…

BUT

both the terroir and winemaking philosophies are so utterly different that served blind you would have to be very knowledgeable to put them in the same region!
OK, maybe it isn’t that hard, but my point is that surely these wines should be shown more respect than to simply be lumped with a piece of lamb, However well they might match, and however nice that lamb may be??

So you think I am being pedantic? Well there is the flip-side that thinking on very simple lines will fit the bill just fine. That Bistro Red, goes very nicely with everything doesn’t it!

To some extent I’m not going to argue with that… I am quite happy to quote that my Gamay de l’Ardeche; Vin de Vrac (Drawn off from a barrel wine) which costs about €2 per litre at the local wineshop is fruity, dry, fresh and lovely with just about anything my wife happens to be cooking… Including foods that are rich and powerful, like this…

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However, perhaps I am either being nice to the wine, or not giving any thought to the matter other than I need to eat and would like a glass of wine, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who are in that situation and fair enough. Here are my thoughts for matching food and wine for you!!

The Laissez-Faire approach

There are two ways to start with this approach…
1. PICK A WINE FROM THE REGION THE CUISINE COMES FROM!
I say this because first of all, wine was not initially produced because it was alcoholic and got you drunk, however much that happened and however much the Greeks and Romans seemed to enjoy their wine, and how enjoyable it is to be in that sort of position today! Wine, much like Beer in Northern Europe, was drunk because by fermenting whatever juice or fruit or grain you had lying around, you killed all the bugs and little nasties that are found in water and were in that day and age likely to kill you. alcohol was a safe substitute for water. so, when do you tend to drink water? When you eat, or when you are thirsty.
In here lies the theory! As wine was to be drunk with food, it had better taste nice with that food! Otherwise what would be the point. It wouldn’t be hard, your food whether it be meat or vegetables would be feeding on the same nutrients and your grapes that made the wine from the soil, or eating vegetation. You may even find that some vineyard workers would have the foodstuffs around them, whilst they were working and maybe this could end up in the soil being soaked up by the wines(Please don’t quote me here, these are simply ramblings and ideas, but I’d like to think that I have a point). As such, when you are going to that lovely little Moroccan restaurant down the road, rather than having that nasty little house red, perhaps a local wine that has some spice and panache, and may even taste a little bit like the food you are eating. This,

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will most likely taste better with this…

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than it will with anything else. There are plenty of other examples. You may remember my comments about Mollard a grape from the Hautes-Alpes in a previous post. Well that is lovely with the local speciality, called Tourtons. Furthermore, that verging on awful but fairly drinkable Indian wine called Sula because it tends to smell of Turmeric and Indian spices, if not a bit of monsoon soak mud road as well, will go better with your Samosas than; I dread to say it; your traditional bottle of UK brewed Cobra Beer!!! At least I hope it will!
The other option

2. IS TO GO WITH SOMETHING SIMPLE AND FRESH AND INOFFENSIVE!
I say this simply because sometimes you will be at a restaurant and they won’t have a local wine. In fact that is what will probably happen if you go somewhere that isn’t hugely conscious about what you drink, but may in fact serve very good food, and is the case in a lot of small but good establishments. Let me put it this way…

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The wine directly above this writing here, is a pretty boring wine that verges on astringent, and green. It isn’t pleasant to drink on its own…
in fact, it just isn’t pleasant. However, it actually tasted palatable if not rather good with a load of Nepalese food concoctions, as it had the acidity to cut through the richness and spices, and leave behind whatever pittance of flavor the wine had. It enhanced my morning eating of this…

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… Considerably! I could go on, and flip this around the other way! I had some expensive stuff last night, simply because I wanted to try it. Upon tasting it, I decided it needed food… I just rustled up something, a few pieces of rump steak to be exact! Not your usual accompaniment to a middle aged Red Burgundy, but it worked, because the acidity cut through any harshness and fat, and left just the flavors of the wine and meat to intermingle! This little-un wasn’t complaining!

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I can hear the criticism arriving already, I haven’t taken enough thought! Sauternes and Foie Gras is an age old match, that works well and I shouldn’t be trying to destroy this great institution. Well, codswallop! Who said that Sauternes goes with Foie Gras with any certainty? Does the fat, really want more fat added to it, or do you just like having heart attacks, but I can see that it is more than just slapping two and two together. There was some logic, so let us throw some thought at it. The variety of everything both vinious and food orientated needs some serious consideration given its complexities!

The Give It Some Thought Approach

Again there are two branches here, but they are not through design but due to the fault of numbers around a table. If there are just two of you, you probably can’t consume a bottle per course or for that matter, a bottle each per course if you order separate dishes at a restaurant. So I will give you two scenarios…

1. DINING FOR TWO CAN BE A CHALLENGE, as I want this, you want that, the waiter/waitress recommends something else. You can only get through one bottle of wine. What to do? Well as an example, my wife and I went to a lovely little restaurant in town (Gap, 05000 France) last week and wanted different starters and the same main course. We also only wanted one bottle between the two of us! Usually because unless we are on the splurge, we can drink better at home than we can out for a lot less money!

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You can probably see from these photos that our starters were different…

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And the main course was different still!

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right there, one has to make a complex thought process and you won’t always get it right! Firstly, one needs a wine with some tannins to make the tartars soft and palatable and to break down the raw meat. One also needs something with high acids and perhaps a touch of richness to go the the Foie Gras. The duck is something that will combine parts of the two, but will inevitably need a wine with some perfume because duck usually comes with something sweet. So what do I go for? 2008 Gevrey-Chambertin; Domaine Georges Lignier. the wine had perfume and sweet youthful fruit for the sauces, high acid levels to cut through any fatty bits in the liver or meats, and being young a touch of tannin to break down any meat.
Guess what?

, it worked.

To be fair, it may have been a disaster, but at least, I would have learnt that that particular wine was not ideal in this situation and been able to adjust my thinking for any future occurrences like this. That is not to say that Burgundy, which isn’t traditional with any of the above shown dishes, wouldn’t be ideal if either the terroir or producer style where slightly different, or even this wine, with slightly different sauces to the food! Food and wine is complex, so why should I be upset if I make the odd mistake. It isn’t as if I am a sommelier telling someone what to drink! Even then, I have been recommended wines in restaurants that were lovely wines, but hideous with the food!!

2. DINNERS WITH ONE OR A FEW WINES PER COURSE.
are to say the least, usually both easier and more complicated all at the same time. Easy, because you can fall back on traditional matches if all goes wrong, more complicated because you have to think about more than just a single wine.

When we attend tastings at Michelin stars restaurants, I think they do a wonderful job of matching food to hit sweet spots with the wines that are being presented, but even then they can get it wrong. It is after all a lot of trial and error and creative thought that leads to those magical food and wine matches. However, when I organize tastings for clients, the most recent of which was in Tokyo, I like to have the menu first, and I like to taste the full menu, without drinking anything! You may ask why, and the reason is, because it allows me to understand the exact tastes of the food, and thus pick wines that both match, and may even surprise. Whilst it would take too long to go into depth with all the courses at this last tasting, I will show you the one which brought the most surprise to those in attendance. BAROLO and SOUP. Now I can here you turning away in disgust, but it worked and worked well, and I’ll tel you why!
. Firstly, the wine I chose was a 1997 Barolo, Pio Cesare which still had a lot of deep tannins, but being middle-aged had already developed some gamey, earthy, mushroom and truffle flavors. The soup, was Turtle Soup. Turtle Meat, is incredibly tough, if you put a small piece that has boiled away in soup for hours, into your mouth, you could be chewing for about as long as the meat was cooked for. Well that is an exaggeration, but you see the point. The meat, really needs powerful tannins to break it down. On top of this, the flavors of the meat, quickly leach into the broth. These flavors are very earthy, forest floor, truffle type flavours and thus are the perfect foil for something Piemontese, and there you go! Barolo and soup! experimenting like this, can also lead to mistakes, but you learn and move on in search of those great matches or marriage as the French call it!

So in conclusion, I say this to you.
If you don’t want to think, drink and eat what you like. Why drink Bordeaux, when you want something from Sicily, just because you are having lamb. The intricate flavours of the wine and it’s natural acidity should do the trick and make the match workable… So why bow to conventional “wisdom”? Life is too short to be boring like that! If you want to search for the perfect match between two things that can never be perfect, but have to complement each other, then why play it safe? Life is too short not to experiment and try something new. why not think about the intricate flavours of the sauces that will accompany the lamb and how they will react and compliment the complexities of your wine’s mid-palate! Perhaps a Alphonse Mellot, Sancerre Rouge will work better and hit greater heights than your bottle of Chateau Palmer. Or maybe it won’t, but at least, you’ll have had fun trying.

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To make a comment about this or any other wine related issues, why not register and comment on them on the Wine Nous Wine Forum.

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