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.
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.