Food and wine matching

The art and science of food and wine matching is evolving. This is partly due to a new understanding of the interplay between certain wines and certain foods and an explosion in the variety of wines made from grapes never before seen outside the obscure regions.

The past few years has also seen a broadening in the range of wine styles with orange wines, green wines, yellow wines, black wines and others being added to the traditional styles.

This is matched with a paucity of good writing about the interplay of food and wine in the dining experience. Food writers often describe dishes in a great deal of detail and then have a single throw-away line referring to a ‘cheeky savvy b’ that they drank with the meal. It is common to read a detailed restaurant review where no space at all is devoted to the interplay of food and wine.

And a similar problem exists with wine writers who sometimes give a nod to the food that should be eaten with a particular wine but it is often drawn from the list of traditional wine matchings.

Introduction to wine matching

Thirty years ago the dominant paradigm was to match white wines with white meats and red wines with red meats, and curiously, red wines with cheese.

This was a useful broad brush approach for people dipping their toes into the world of wine matching. It was also at a time when many dishes based on red meat were similarly constructed whether the meat was beef or lamb or pigeon or pheasant.

There was a slab of protein, there was a heavily reduced jus based on red wine or port or Madeira or similar and there were some vegetables on the side. A big red wine was probably required for wine matching such a dish.

However in the nineties people started to experiment more and also started to think more about flavour profiles. Tastes were divided into sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami and wines were chosen to match the taste characteristics of the dish.

Wine matching became more than just colour and weight.

A wine matching was chosen to counter-balance the sweetness or the saltiness or to even further enhance the umami. So a salty dish may be paired to a Vézelay Chardonnay which had derived saltiness from the amazing terroir in that area or a sweet and sour dish might be served with a Riesling because the flavour compounds in both are similar.

This is not something new, in fact taste receptors were mapped by German Dieter Hanig in an article published in Philosophische Studien in 1901 and which was subsequently dumbed down by a Harvard University psychologist Edwin Boring with his ‘bitterness at the back, sweetness on the tip of the tongue’ mantra.

It is all much more complex than that because while there are 10000 taste receptors in the tongue there are also thousands of taste receptors in the roof of the mouth, the epiglottis, the throat and even the lining of the intestine!

François Chartier is a sommelier from Canada and has published a book called Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food with Wine in which he talks about the harmony between certain foods and certain wines that transcends simplistic approaches such as ‘red wine with red meat’ theories.

He questions classic pairings such as Roquefort with Sauternes as he believes that the Sauternes is completely overpowered by the cheese. But he believes that there is a synergy between black olives and shiraz due to the presence in both of the bicyclic terpene Rotundone which is a hydrocarbon molecule. This leads him to suggests a sushi dish of pepper, black olives, wild rice and nori.

Terpene molecules are also responsible for the conifer aromas in rosemary and Riesling leading Chartier to suggest this as a wine matching even though rosemary is not common in Alsace – one of the spiritual homes of Riesling.

Saffron, octopus, lavender, raisins and black tea, tomato and watermelon all share the same compounds with Riesling so a tomato and watermelon salad with Riesling or a carpaccio of beef with sweet and sour dressing based on raisins that we had in Pigna in Corsica teamed beautifully with a local white wine made from Vermentinu which shares similar compounds to Riesling.

Cinnamon is another fascinating spice to pair with wine. Francois Chartier says in this book:

“The fragrance of a given spice or herb is not attributable to a single molecule; rather it is composed of a cocktail of volatile molecules, in variable proportions, which confer an ultimate aromatic signature. It is also important to note that, as in the case of a wine, the terroir, climate, and growing methods significantly influence the relative proportions of aromatic compounds in spices and herbs.

Occasionally, certain aromatic compounds dominate the others in quantity and power, and so define the ingredient’s major tone: this is the case, for example, with cinnamic aldehyde (also called cinnamaldehyde) for cinnamon.

Cinnamon also contains ethyl cinnamate, an ester whose fruity balsamic fragrance helps give cinnamon its signature aroma. Ethyl cinnamate also occurs in strawberries.”

Ethyl cinnamate also develops in red wines that undergo carbonic maceration, such as Beaujolais and is one of four primary esters detected in the Pinot Noir wines of Burgundy[1]. We all know about enhancing the flavour of a strawberry by dipping it in balsamic vinegar, but try dipping it in aged balsamic vinegar and freshly pounded cinnamon and then sipping a Saint Aubin or a Santenay!

Let’s take a look at another flavour compound  – sotolon. It is a fairly simple compound with a molecular formula of C6H8O2. Sotolon is found in natural products such as lovage and fenugreek seed and some mushrooms, but it is also developed in the famous yellow wine of the Jura called Vin Jaune and in flor sherry, although it is present to some extent in all red and white wines. It is also present in dry white wines that have experienced some oxidation during aging[2].

We have found that curries based on fenugreek go very well with oxidative Jura white wines such as the Les Marnes from Philippe Bornard and the Les Crêts and the La Fauquette from Michel Gahier. The common feature is the sotolon.

Bornard-Les-Marnes-2012 wine
Bornard Les Marnes from the Jura, France

We also find that they go very well with a red wine from the Aveyron made by Nicolas Carmarans called Mauvais Temps. This is a favourite wine of a friend of ours who is originally from Sri Lanka. The first time she tried this wine she called it a ‘curry leaf’ wine because she could smell curry leaves in the glass. This wine probably has more than usual sotolon because Nicolas puts his wines out in the sun before bottling to ‘make them stronger’ and this exposure to the sun increases the percentage of sotolon in the wine.

Food and wine matching

This is very much an introduction to some of our thinking about food and wine. It is very much a work in progress as we discover more about good food and wine pairings. Recently we ran a masterclass in food and wine matching in Hobart where we found the following pairings worked very well:

  • An oyster paired with a sparkling Gringet from Domaine Belluard in the Savoie. Some in the group preferred a more traditional pairing of the oyster with the delightful Domaine de la Cadette Melon de Bourgogne.
  • A slice of smoked eel sitting on a mound of braised kale matched to a 2010 d’Meure Chardonnay and a La Stoppa Emilia IGT Ageno 2007, an orange wine made from white grapes that had extended skin contact.
  • Smoked brisket with Agrarian Kitchen’s mustardy tarragon pickles that matched nicely with Joe Holyman’s Project X Pinot Noir and also with a Derain Pommard Les Petits Noizons 2009.
  • Possibly the most perfect match was a Bruny Island C2 unpasteurised cheese and an Elgaar Ruby cheddar with two oxidative Jura wines, the Michel Gahier Les Crêts Chardonnay and the Michel Gahier Vin Jaune 2004.
  • The final food and wine pairing was a complex, layered dessert based on quince paste made by Alistair Wise from Sweet Envy with a sweet rosé from the Loire by René Mosse called Achillée. The rosé is made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grolleau Gris, Grolleau Noir and Gamay and is delicate, perfumed and just slightly sweet.

After sampling twelve wines with the food we allowed the participants to try a wine that could stand alone without food. They finished by sipping on a very light sparkling Ploussard, the Philippe Bornard Vin de France tant-mieux Pétillant Naturel. This light and ethereal beauty is a perfect aperitif or to drink late at night as a ‘full stop’ to an evening of indulgence.

[1] Andrew John Taylor & Donald S. Mottram (eds), Flavour Science: Recent Developments. The Royal Society of Chemistry, Proceedings of the Eighth Weurman Flavour Research Symposium, 1996.

[2] Imre Blank & Peter Schieberle Analysis of the seasoning-like flavour substances of a commercial lovage extract. Flavour and Fragrance Journal, Volume 8, Issue 4, pages 191–195, July/August 1993.