Category Archives: Wine and Food

Mushrooms and Malbec

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norton malbecSome 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.

 

 

 

 

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Local Food, Local Wine

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It’s amazing how often the food speciality of a region and the local wine go well together – shellfish with Muscadet and the little goats’ cheese crottins with Sancerre are 2 examples that spring immediately to mind, although there are many, many more.  So, when we decided to cook a cassoulet (a delicious rich stew made from mixed meats, haricot beans, tomatoes and fresh herbs originating from the area around Toulouse in the South West of France) for some good friends recently, it seemed only natural to turn to a wine from Madiran, just a short drive to the west of the city.

Madiran is not one of the most widely-known Appellations – probably because much of the relatively small production is enjoyed locally – but the best producers turn out some really lovely intense red wines, based around the astringent, tannic local grape variety, Tannat, sometimes ‘softened’ by a little Cabernet (Sauvignon or Franc) and another native variety, Fer.

Among the names to look out for are Alain Brumont’s Montus (£26.99 from Corks) or Bouscassé, Château Laffitte-Teston or Château d’Aydie and it was this latter estate’s cuvee Odé d’Aydie (Wine Society, remarkable value at £9.99) that we opened and decanted a couple of hours before drinking – always worth doing with Madiran. 

Madiran AydieEven so, the 2013 vintage was still quite tannic at first – it has at least another 5 years good drinking ahead – but, once we started enjoying it with the robust flavours of the cassoulet, it showed as I’d hoped – mellowing admirably with attractive blackberry and spice coming to the fore.

The reason behind local food and local wine working well together remains a mystery to me; does the food come first and wines develop to match it or is it the other way around?  Or is it purely by chance?  Either way, next time you start thinking, ‘what should I drink with this?’, look where the dish comes from and hope they make wine there.

Thoughts from Bordeaux

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2017-09-10 12.54.04Spending a few days in Bordeaux recently, I expected to be drinking some good red wine.  It didn’t work out that way!  Wherever we decided to eat, the most appealing dishes on the menu were fish.  And, while I’m quite happy to pair a nice tuna steak with a low tannin red wine such as Beaujolais, Valpolicella or even some Pinot Noirs, none of these is native to Bordeaux and the local Cabernet- or Merlot-dominated reds just don’t work. 

Fortunately, about 1 bottle in 12 produced in the Bordeaux region is a dry white, so I was still able to pursue my ‘drink local’ policy – and explore a group of wines that, for no particular reason, I often seem to ignore. 

Bordeaux’s dry whites fall into 2 distinct groups: the traditional style, now in decline, are mainly made using the Semillon grape with some Sauvignon Blanc added, with one, or sometimes both, varieties either fermented or aged in (mainly old) oak barrels.   More frequently now, you find wines with 100% or at least a very high proportion of Sauvignon Blanc – fresh, zingy and providing attractive drinking for a very reasonable price.  We found good examples of each style. 

Representing the modern group, Chateau Vermont from Entre Deux Mers had a lovely floral nose with pink grapefruit and peach on the palate and a clean, refreshing finish.  A simple wine, but quite moreish.  In a different league entirely and showing how good traditional white Bordeaux can be was L’Abeille de Fieuzal Blanc from Pessac Leognan, the best part of the Graves District, just south of the city of Bordeaux.  Full, rich and buttery with hints of smokiness but also lovely fruit: citrus and bitter orange and a long, complex finish.

But, good as these were, my wife knows how much I like Bordeaux’s luscious dessert wines and her picture above shows me enjoying one to the full – our accompanying puddings were about to arrive!

 

 

Sugar, Spice and Wine

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Mondavi CSWhen I was growing up, there was a nursery rhyme that said that little girls were made of “sugar and spice and all things nice”.  (Boys, on the other hand, were supposed to be from “snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails”!)  I’ve not heard the rhyme for years (perhaps that’s a good thing!), but a dish we cooked for a close friend recently might have been created with the description of ‘little girls’ in mind.  Sugar in the form of chocolate and raisins,  cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, tabasco and a chilli representing the spices and the remaining ingredients (beef, tomatoes, onions and herbs) as the ‘all things nice’. 

It might have made a good nursery rhyme and it certainly makes a delicious dish (described in the recipe as an ‘authentic’ chilli con carne – I’m sure some readers will dispute that), but how do you find a wine that will work with all those strong and contrasting flavours – and a sour cream dip on the side?

Let’s consider the spices first: spices, especially ‘hot’ spices like chilli and cayenne, tend to exaggerate tannin, bitterness and any alcoholic heat in the wine and, at the same time, make the wine taste drier and less fruity.  To combat this, you could try a low tannin wine with only moderate levels of alcohol (Beaujolais, for example) or something fresh and fruity – perhaps a New World Merlot.  And go easy on the chilli – too much and you won’t taste anything of the wine.

And what about the sweetness of the chocolate and raisins?  Interestingly, sweetness in food often has a similar effect to the spices on the wine – making it taste drier and less fruity.  Of course, with a truly sweet dish, you’d want a dessert wine.  But here, that wouldn’t work at all; the beef and the other ingredients point me back in the direction of the wines I suggested earlier.

I actually opened the delightfully fruity Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (pictured above) brought back from the US by our friend – delicious and a really good match with the flavours.

A Bristol Drunkard!

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It’s amazing where an interest in wine can lead you.  For example, it was just a couple of days ago that I discovered that ‘Le Poivrot’ was French slang for a drunkard – not that I can see myself using that information very often!

But Le Poivrot is also the name of the latest addition to Bristol’s thriving wine and food scene – and just 10 minutes’ walk from our home. 

Le PoivrotWe had to try it – and we were pleased we did as it ticks all the boxes that a good wine bar should: around 50 wines by the bottle starting at just over £20 and almost 20 by the glass or 37.5cl (half-bottle size) carafe, encompassing the familiar (Muscadet, Soave, Beaujolais) as well some more interesting and eclectic examples.   I recognised several of the bottles as coming from Vine Trail, a wonderful locally-based importer specialising in wines from small, artisan French domains.

While most wine bars (including another of our favourites, The Library in Cheltenham Road) offer platters of meat or cheese or tapas-style plates to accompany their wines, Le Poivrot also has a small number of delicious sounding main courses: I had wood pigeon with asparagus and girolles while my wife enjoyed some pan-fried ling with poached pear and spinach – both dishes beautifully presented and full of flavour.  To accompany these – and the lovely plate of cheeses we had to follow, I chose two carafes: a crisp, clean, fruity Alsace Sylvaner from Leon Boesch and an attractive Bergerac, simple, but with rich black fruits, both great value at £17 each. And all served by knowledgeable, friendly and well-trained staff – at least 2 of whom have a background in one of Bristol’s Michelin Starred restaurants, Wilks.

We walked home happy but certainly not poivrot!

The ‘Body’ of a Wine

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‘Can you bring along a nice medium-bodied red?’ some good friends of ours suggested when we were going to dinner with them.  That gave me a good steer as to what was wanted but it is interesting that the word ‘body’ was used as it’s one of those wine words that you hear quite a lot but, in my experience, is not always properly understood.  (Our friends clearly did!)

For me, the easiest way to explain it is to contrast drinking water with taking a spoonful of honey or syrup.  The water doesn’t really have any weight in your mouth – if it was a wine, you’d call it ‘light-bodied’ – whereas the honey or syrup seems much denser and heavier – typical of a ‘full-bodied’ wine.  And, of course, wine isn’t just light- or full-bodied, there’s a whole spectrum in between and, in fact, most wines could be described as medium-bodied.

What determines the body of a wine?  The main factor is alcohol and so wines from hotter regions, where the grapes will become riper (and therefore potentially produce more alcohol), are more likely to be fuller bodied than those from cooler climates.  As an example, many German whites have only 8 or 9% alcohol and are some of the lightest bodied wines of all; most English wines, like the Sharpham, below, are similarly lacking in weight.  But you can have light bodied reds, too: most Beaujolais, Bardolino and Valpolicella fall into this category. 

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At the other end of the scale, there are a few full bodied whites – some Rhones and Australian and Californian Chardonnays – but many more reds: Zinfandels, Italian Amarones and Châteauneuf du Pape all often weigh in around 15% alcohol or even more, and are likely to be decidedly full bodied. 

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Why is all this important?  In trying to pair food with wine, you don’t want the food overpowering the wine nor vice versa.  So, with a delicate, subtly flavoured dish, choose something at the lighter end of the range – it can be white, red or rosé – while for a more robust dish, a fuller bodied example will probably work better.

There’s a lot more to say about food and wine pairing (some other time, perhaps) but thinking about the body of the wine is a first step.

Wine with Lobster and Beef

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“Drink with lobster risotto or rare prime rib”.  Winemakers often put advice on their labels concerning possible food matches but, I must say, this one really surprised me.  Why?  Because, in my mind, I can’t imagine a single wine that might pair successfully with these 2 dishes; indeed, in many ways, I’d be looking at almost diametrically opposite wines. 

The richness of the lobster and the creaminess of a good risotto would point me towards a big rich white – something from Burgundy or the Rhône, perhaps, or a full-bodied Californian or Australian Chardonnay. And, although I’m not someone who subscribes blindly to the ‘white with fish, red with meat’ theory, for me, a rare prime rib is definitely red wine territory with a wide range to choose from.

So, what was this miracle wine that the winemaker thought might pair with either dish? 

Cline SyrahCline Cool Climate Syrah from California’s Sonoma Coast region (Majestic, £13).  Delightfully full and rich with intense red fruit flavours and just a hint of the kind of spicy, peppery flavours that many good Rhône Syrahs display, this is undoubtedly a big wine (14% alcohol), yet everything is so beautifully in balance that you’d never feel overwhelmed – or think that you’d have to stop after a single glass.

We drank it with some orange and molasses sugar marinated venison steaks and it went really well – the fruitiness in the wine matching the sweetness in the marinade and the pepperiness going with the gamey flavours of the meat.

But, personally, I still can’t see the wine going with either lobster or risotto.  But that is the wonder of food and wine pairing – everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them and different from everyone else.  And so it should be; without that, we’d lose the very diversity of food and wines that make this such a fascinating subject.