“That was an adult wine” said my wife as we cleared the table after a leisurely meal. I knew exactly what she meant – and it was nothing to do with the sort of movies to which the same adjective is often attached! No, it was a wine (and this is going to sound very snobby, but it’s not meant to) for sophisticated palates; not one for easy quaffing with lots of up-front fruit, but one with real depth and intensity – although not at first taste. Decanting helped, of course – I’d say it was essential – but even then, it took some time to open up and really show all it had to offer.
The wine in question was Mascota Vineyards Gran Mascota Malbec (Great Western Wine, £14.50) from the Uco Valley, one of the most exciting parts of Argentina’s Mendoza region. Here, vineyards are planted between 1000 and 1700 metres up in the foothills of the Andes Mountains (3300 to 5600 feet, if you prefer). The altitude gives the wines a wonderful balance between ripeness and acidity and, in good hands, as, clearly, at Mascota – a new name to me – can produce something really special. As the evening wore on, the wine revealed lovely flavours of blackberries and cooked plums with vanilla, cinnamon and smoke from the 18 months in French oak barrels. All this came together beautifully with a long savoury finish. It’s a wine to sit and enjoy, preferably with a tasty meal and some good company.
The Italians have a marvellous name for this sort of wine: they call it a Vino da Meditazione. Literally translated, that’s a wine for meditation but, really, they mean a wine that encourages you to linger, to sit and chat and put the world to rights. Or, as my wife said so succinctly, an adult wine.
Some good friends of ours don’t eat meat so, when we visit them, we are normally treated to some interesting fish dish and, almost always, to an attractive white wine to accompany it. But, not this time! Dinner was a rich and flavoursome mushroom and chestnut casserole – something that even the most assertive white wine would have had trouble in matching. Happily, our hosts came to the same conclusion and served Norton’s Malbec from Mendoza in Argentina, which worked admirably.
As someone who enjoys both meat and fish, I get less practice in pairing wine with vegetarian dishes but the process really is no different: first, consider whether the dish is delicate or robust (or somewhere in-between) and look for wines that are similarly delicate or robust. Then, what are likely to be the dominant flavours on the plate? How can you match those?
Taking our mushroom casserole as an example, there are some quite strong flavours so the wine needs to be able to stand up to them and not be overpowered. It must also cope with the umami (savoury) taste of the mushrooms and the earthiness of the chestnuts. Which is why the Malbec worked so well: weighty enough (14% alcohol) yet with plenty of juicy fruit and not too much in the way of drying tannins.
Yet, you can also find vegetarian dishes at the other end of the spectrum. Risotto Primavera (rice with young vegetables) is much lighter and more delicate and, with the creamy texture of the risotto, a white Maçon-Villages or something similar would be a good choice; not too heavy and with just a touch of richness.
With those ideas – and without the encumbrance of ‘white wine with chicken, red wine with meat’ – food and wine pairing with vegetarian dishes really shouldn’t prove too difficult.
Just one final point for strict vegetarians: some wines are clarified using egg whites; although no residues remain in the bottle, if you want to avoid these, check the back label of any wine you’re buying to see that it is suitable or, failing that, the producer’s website should give you the relevant information.