Red with Fish?

Choosing a wine to drink with a particular dish is a very personal thing – each of us has our own preferences.  So, I always advise drinking something you like rather than the wine that someone tells you is ‘right’ for the food.

But, if you keep an open mind, you can sometimes find a pleasant surprise – a combination that you would never have thought about that works perfectly.  And sometimes, it will be just the opposite!

We’ve been great fans of wines from the Sicilian producer Donnafugata since we were lucky enough to visit them on a wine tour many years ago.  Their ‘Sherazade’ (Corks, £15.99) is a delicious blackberry and herb flavoured red made using the local Nero d’Avola grape.  We usually drink it with lighter red meats like duck leg or, perhaps, a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish would work well with its slightly earthy flavours.

The bottle’s back label has an entirely different idea: “drink as an aperitif or pair with pasta dishes, grilled fish or pizza”.  We actually tasted a glass before our dinner so tested the ‘aperitif’ theory: both my wife and I thought it was OK but would go better with food.   As for pasta, it would rather depend on the accompanying sauce and the same with pizza – you can have all sorts of toppings, some would work others not.  And then there’s the grilled fish suggestion.  For me, this is a definite ‘no’.

Now, I’m not someone who says that only white wine goes with fish – I’m perfectly happy to drink dry rosé and certain reds with seafood, particularly with the more ‘meaty’ and robust fishes, such as tuna or swordfish.  But Sherazade is a red with (at present – we drank the 2019) quite significant tannins – one reason why it made a less than ideal aperitif.  Tannic reds will often taste quite metallic and unpleasant with fish dishes.  We didn’t try this bottle with any fish, but, from experience, I wouldn’t recommend the pairing. 

But, clearly, the winemaker would, so it all comes back to my 1st sentence: that wine and food pairing is a very personal thing.

Fish and Sweet Wine?

As regular readers will know, my wife and I enjoy good food as well as good wine – and we like cooking (just as well in these days when eating out is so restricted).  One of our favourite recipe books (one of many) is “Fruits of the Sea” by TV Chef Rick Stein (BBC Publications).  Despite being a professional chef, most of his recipes are quite straightforward to follow and we particularly like the way he combines ingredients that most of us wouldn’t consider together. For example, a fresh ginger and sweet Monbazillac wine sauce to accompany brill, john dorey (or turbot if you’re celebrating).  Fish and sweet wine are certainly not an obvious pairing but, in this case, they complement each other perfectly.

One advantage of the dish is that the recipe only calls for a small glass of the wine, leaving the rest for the chef (and me, the chef’s mate) to enjoy with our desserts.  We didn’t actually use Monbazillac; Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ Muscat de St John de Minervois (a bargain at £5.25 a half bottle) is an excellent substitute with similar levels of sweetness and richness.

St John de Minervois is a tiny enclave in the far north of the much larger Appellation Contrôlée (AC) area of Minervois, in the south of France’s Languedoc region.  Minervois itself is famous for robust, hearty reds but St John, with vineyards in the foothills of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), has a separate AC for sweet wines made from the delightfully aromatic Muscat grape.  Here, the wines are allowed to start fermenting and then, before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the fermentation is stopped by adding a slug of grape brandy (the same method used for making port).  This kills the yeast (which dies happily, of course!!) and leaves a delicious (15% alcohol) wine with the Muscat variety’s trademark grapey sweetness.

So, that was our dessert wine sorted.  To partner Rick Stein’s delicious fish dish, I’d had a lovely Condrieu – a full bodied white from near Lyons in France – tucked away under the stairs just waiting for the right moment.  The two would have made a lovely combination but sadly, I’d waited too long and the wine was rather past its best – a lesson learnt for the future.

A Proper Winter Wine

It’s October, the days are getting shorter and the temperature dropping. Real signs that the season is changing. For us, that means it’s time to think about some of those more robust, warming winter dishes. Like the delicious shin beef casserole full of chunky root vegetables such as celeriac and carrot we enjoyed last night. Of course, with the food reflecting the time of year, you also need to look to an altogether different style of wine – one that won’t be over-powered by all the strong flavours of the dish.
It would have to be red to go with the beef and the rich, savoury gravy but, more specifically, I was looking at something from one of the warmer parts of the world which would have the weight to balance the food. A number of possibilities came to mind: an Australian Shiraz or Californian Zinfandel would work perfectly or, perhaps, something from southern Europe or around the Mediterranean basin.


I finally settled on a wine from the Côtes du Roussillon, a much under-rated area near Perpignan in the very far south of France – indeed the vineyards for Domaine Gardiés Clos de Vignes (Wine Society, £17) are barely 30 miles from the Spanish border. I decanted the wine a couple of hours before we were going to drink it and found it opened up beautifully to reveal a lovely, savoury, satisfying red (made from a blend of mainly 70 year old Carignan and Grenache vines with small additions of Syrah and Mourvèdre). The wine was perfectly dry with attractive black fruits on the palate and a clear hint of cedar or cigar box flavours from the ageing in older, large wooden barrels. It’s certainly a big wine – it needed to be to complement the dish – but not so overwhelming that one glass was enough and the 14% alcohol is perfectly integrated so you’re not left with a burn on the finish.
All in all, a proper winter wine.

Wine with Veggie Food

Regular readers will know I’m no vegetarian but I’m happy to have meatless and fishless dishes, provided they are tasty and, even better, if they’re wine-friendly.  There are no special guidelines for pairing wine with veggie dishes – just think the same way as you would with any meal: how robust or delicate is the food (the chunkier the food flavours, the more powerful the wine can be) and what is the strongest flavour on the plate (this may not be the main ingredient).

We cooked a dish from an Antony Worrall Thompson cookbook that was a kind of spicy cauliflower cheese although it also contained spinach – a tricky ingredient that can give some red wines an unpleasant metallic taste.  But that wasn’t a problem here as the cauliflower was coated in a lovely creamy cheesy sauce that provided the dominant flavour and that just cried out for a white wine; quite a full, rich white, though, as with the cauliflower and some borlotti beans in the dish, too, this was definitely not on the delicate side.

MarsanneYves Cuilleron’s Marsanne is from the northern part of France’s Rhone Valley and is made from one of the local grape varieties.  It fitted the bill perfectly.  The label suggests some barrel ageing, but there was no overt oak flavouring, just a satisfying, mouth-filling, buttery richness to complement the lovely peach and pear aromas and flavours.  Our bottle was from the 2016 vintage which seems to be sold out now but Bristol independent wine merchant Davis, Bell, McCraith have the 2019 at £14.99.  Based on our experience, I’d recommend keeping the younger wine a couple of years or so – this is a bottle that will definitely improve a little with age.

Finally, as this is a piece talking about vegetarian food, I should remind readers that some producers use egg whites and other animal-based substances to fine (clarify) their wines and, although there is no residue left in the bottle, strict vegetarians may object and, if so, they should check either the label or the website to see if any particular wine is suitable for them.

The Coffee Test

How do you like your coffee? Black? With Milk?

Coffee Test

That may sound a strange question on a Wine Blog but one man doesn’t think so. I was watching an episode of ‘The Wine Show at Home’ on You Tube recently and the presenter, Joe Fattorini, mentioned Master of Wine Tim Hanni’s ‘coffee test’. I’d not heard of it before but Tim believes that, depending on your answers to 5 simple questions, you can find out the type of wines you ought to be buying. I was fascinated, so googled the questions:

  1. Do you prefer your coffee/tea black?
  2. Do you like the taste of scotch?
  3. Do you prefer salty snacks over sweet snacks?
  4. Do you prefer semi-sweet dark chocolate to sweet milk chocolate?
  5. Do you think that cream/sugar in coffee/tea ruins it?

For every ‘yes’, score 2 points, for a ‘sometimes’ or ‘maybe’ score 1 point and for ‘no’ score 0.

Then add up your points. The higher you score (maximum 10), the more tolerant you are likely to be of intensely flavoured or tannic wines (or, similarly, powerfully flavoured foods). So, if you are up around 7 – 10 points, you’ll enjoy strongly flavoured foods but also big, rich, flavoursome wines.  You may find lighter wine styles quite insipid.

Scores between 4 – 6 show some sensitivity to tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine. You’ll probably prefer smooth reds and lighter whites, although may grow to appreciate some fuller flavoured reds or whites. As for foods, you’ll be happy with a range of tastes.

If you scored 3 or fewer, you are hyper-sensitive to tastes (and, as a result, would be a very good wine taster). Tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine will all hit you hard and you’ll prefer more delicate reds, lighter, more subtle whites and will delight in elegant, restrained food flavours.

My wife and I both did the test. I scored 4 which is, perhaps, a bit lower than I might have expected, but Hilary’s score, 7, is almost the opposite of the truth.

So, based on this very limited sample, I have some doubts, but do try the coffee test for yourself and I’d be interested to hear how it works for you.

A Bottle in the Chef?

I’ve mentioned before in my Bristol Wine Blog how often the food and wine of an area pair well together. Perhaps the most famous and obvious example is a dish from France’s Burgundy region, Coq au Vin – chicken cooked in the local red wine. Traditionally it is said that you should put a bottle of Burgundy into the pot to cook the dish and another on the table to drink with it. Given the price of even basic Burgundy these days, many would seek a cheaper alternative to cook with.

I remember when I worked as a wine guide in Harveys Cellars, one chef in the restaurant there had a different view: “Ian, you have got it wrong – it is a bottle of good Burgundy in the dish and another in the chef while he is cooking”! Perhaps that explains why Harveys restaurant closed many years ago!

But the idea of drinking something similar to the wine that the dish is cooked in does make sense, even if the quality of the 2 wines used is rather different.

When we cooked a version of coq au vin recently, we didn’t use a Burgundy in the dish but a simple red wine, which seemed to do the job perfectly well.

NZ P Noir

And we didn’t drink a red Burgundy either but the same grape – a Pinot Noir – but from New Zealand (Zephyr Estate from Marlborough, Wine Society, £13.50): fresh, full of red fruit flavours and not too heavy – in short an ideal match for the chicken. For me, a white wine, perhaps a more obvious choice with chicken normally, is unlikely to work as well with the fuller flavours of a dish cooked in red wine.

So, next time you’re wondering what to drink with your meal, think where the dish comes from and try and find a wine from the same area or, failing that, something that you feel reflects the same sort of place.

 

Mushrooms and Malbec

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.