Food and wine matching

This article contains many of the ideas explored at a recent Masterclass we gave on food and wine pairing at the Red Wine Weekend in Hobart, Tasmania.

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 of Europe. 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 pairings.

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.

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 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. Wines were chosen to counter-balance the sweetness or the saltiness or to even further enhance the umami. So a salty dish may be paired with 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 were 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 who 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 to pair with Shiraz.

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

Saffron, octopus, lavender, raisins, 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 his 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 Noirs of Burgundy . 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.

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.

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 quantities of 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.

And, of course, the other magic pairing is the hard cheese of the Jura called Comté matched to an oxidative white wine from the same region such as a Vin Jaune or a Chardonnay that has spent some time ‘under the veil’.

Recently we ran a masterclass in food and wine matching in Hobart where we found the following pairings worked very well:

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.

What to drink with Chinese food?

It has long been gospel in Australia that you need an Alsace Riesling or Gewürztraminer to match to Chinese food.

There are two problems with this idea. The first is that it depends on what type of Chinese food you are eating and the second is that there are many other alternatives.

If you are eating the mild, elegant food from Canton with seafood and vegetarian dumplings or steamed seafood, then a wine from Alsace is a pretty good match. However, once you venture north or west from that region and start to encounter chilli and spices then the game changes. Chilli can destroy a delicate Alsace white wine.

In August we had a meal in a Hunan restaurant called Chairman Mao in a Kensington, a suburb of Sydney, with a group of sommeliers and chefs. The food was fiery and there was lots of chilli and lots of spice.

We brought along some of our oxidative white wines from various regions to see how they would stand up to the food. The results were very interesting – even a mild oxidative touch to the wine was sufficient for the wine to pair nicely with the food.

We started with Hervé Villemade’s delicious Cour-Cheverny which is made from the Romorantin grape. This has become a very popular wine for food matching and it certainly didn’t let us down at Chairman Mao – in fact it was even better than with less challenging food. One of the guests also provided another delicious Cour-Cheverny made by Olivier Lemasson which also was perfect with the food.

But for us the real star was a Michel Gahier Savagnin from Arbois in the Jura. This wine has been ‘under the veil’ for over three years and has taken on many of the characteristics of a Vin Jaune. It has a delicious nutty flavour and sherry-like aromas. It cut through the food and the combined flavours soared. It was a revelation.

The big lesson of our Chairman Mao meal was next time you go to a Hunan or Sichuan or Shanghai or Beijing restaurant take a bottle of oxidative wine with you and you will certainly have a satisfying dining experience.

Search this site

Our book recommendation

This book is mentioned in the accompanying article on matching food and wine

Foodtourist on Twitter

Follow food_tourist on Twitter