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.
Even 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.
When 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.
“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 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.
We bought some nice trout recently caught locally in Chew Valley Lake and my wife was poring through some old recipe books looking for a tasty and different way to cook them: “how about baking them and serving them with an anchovy sauce”, she suggested. Just seconds after agreeing that the idea sounded really interesting, I suddenly realised the challenge I’d set myself: what sort of wine could possibly go with it?
The trout wasn’t the problem – unless they are quite old, when they can take on an earthy flavour – trout is quite wine friendly; it was the anchovy sauce that was causing my headache!
Why? Anchovies are both salty and oily and, in addition, have quite an assertive flavour – all characteristics that can have an effect on wine. Saltiness can be an advantage, taming tannin and making wines taste smoother and richer but it also makes wine seem less acidic – and it’s acidity that would be vital to cut through the oiliness of the anchovies. And, with quite a strongly flavoured sauce, the wine would need some character if it wasn’t to be completely overwhelmed.
In all of this, the question of red or white faded into obscurity – until we tasted the almost-finished sauce, when we both agreed that we couldn’t see a red working at all. So, a white; but which one?
The food and wine of a region often work well together and, in this context, Portugal came to mind. Not anchovies, but sardines have many of the same characteristics.
And so we opened the somewhat pretentiously named FP by Filipa Pato (Wine Society, £9.95).
Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato – the man who, virtually single-handedly, put Portugal’s Bairrada wine region on the map – and she is certainly keeping up the family reputation with this delicious appley-fresh white made from 2 high quality grape varieties native to this area of Portugal – Arinto and Bical.
One final thought: the surname ‘Pato’ means ‘duck’ in Portuguese. I wonder how duck and anchovies might work together? And the wine to match? Any suggestions?