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Wine Appreciation Course

© Tom Cannavan, 1998

Part 5: Wine and food

White wine with fish, red wine with meat

This is the commonly accepted "law" for matching wine with food. Based on centuries of experience and tradition, it embodies 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/wine combination can double the enjoyment of both. There are few wines that don't taste better when drunk with food, and even the most delicious dish can be enhanced by just the right wine.

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.

Matchmaking

Probably more rubbish has been written on the subject of matching with food than on any other aspect of wine enjoyment. 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?

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 and tasty like a vouvray, 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 - tea, or spicy whites such as gewurztraminer or off-dry riesling.

Indian or other spicy food - water, beer, or very cold, semi-sweet whites.

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.

Watch out for sauces and dressings that can make nonsense of these guidelines: if wine has been used to cook the dish, it is often an excellent solution to drink the same, or similar wine along with it.

Another tip is to drink a wine from the same region as the food: red Burgundy with boeuf bourguignon or Italian red with pasta dishes, are examples of very sympathetic local food/wine combinations.

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.

If forced to choose just one wine to match with a variety of different dishes, a rosé might fit the bill nicely. Otherwise, a medium bodied, medium dry white is probably the safest choice.

Restaurants

Being faced with choosing the wine in a restaurant can be a daunting business. With the wine waiter ("sommelier" in French) hovering, pages of unknown wines in front of you, and a variety of dishes ordered, the task can seem impossibly difficult.

Making sense of the wine list
A good wine list needn't be long or expensive, but it should be specific about the wines featured. If the list is vague, don't be afraid to ask to see the bottle. The list below would make me rather suspicious:

Chablis - this is a huge area, with 3 different quality levels, hundreds of producers, and great differences between vintages: there isn't enough information here.

Meursault 1993 - better, but again, who is the producer, what quality level is it?

Stollbronchen 1990 - never heard of it! Some "Europlonk" is given a Germanic sounding name to appeal to the mass market.

Riesling - riesling can be bone-dry or luscious and fully sweet - which is this?

Blue Nun - at least you know what you're getting!

Margaux - Margaux is a large area producing hundreds of different wines, some of them very ordinary. It also happens to be the name of one particular wine, Château Margaux, which is one of the world's greatest and most expensive wines - is this a deliberate attempt to mislead?
  wine list

Château Latour, Pauillac, 1990/91 - we have all the details we need to confirm this is the great Château Latour, but beware, 1990 was one of the best vintages of the century whereas 1991 was virtually rained out and was very poor indeed: the 1991 should be around a tenth the price of the 1990.

A good wine list should always be specific about a wines' quality, producer and vintage. It should also have a decent selection of half bottles and wines by the glass.

The tasting ritual
Most good restaurants will show you the bottle before opening it. Check the label carefully to make sure you are getting the wine, producer and vintage that you order. It is a common mistake to think the waiter lets you taste the wine just to see whether or not you like it. In fact, you are checking to make sure the wine is in good condition and not "corked". This is a very commonly mis-understood term: a wine is corked if the cork has become diseased and has tainted the wine, giving it a mouldy, dirty smell. Small pieces of cork floating in the wine is a sign that it has been opened and poured carelessly, but this shouldn't affect the taste and is not what is meant by the expression "corked". If you have any doubts, ask one of your party for a second opinion and if you are still unhappy, do not be afraid to reject the wine and ask for another bottle, or something totally different.

Mark-ups on wine in Restaurants
It is common for restaurants to add 150 or 200% to the retail cost of a bottle. Most restaurants make a slim profit on food and rely on drink sales, so the big mark-up is common. The good news is that the mark-up often diminishes on the more expensive wines, so these can be relative bargains. The cheapest "house wine" is often a test of a good restaurant - it might be simple, but should be tasty and enjoyable.