Pairing the right wine with the right food can make a good meal even better. Jacques Scott’s Wine Marketing Manager Lee Royle and his associate Jo Austin sat down with The Journal’s Alan Markoff for lunch at Morgan’s Harbour Seafood Restaurant to talk about what makes a good food-wine pairing and why.
Not all that long ago, conventional wisdom called for some basic guidelines when pairing wine with food: white wine went with seafood, red wine went wi0th red meat and most pastas; and either full-bodied whites or medium-bodied reds went with meats like chicken or pork.
Modern cuisine, with its usage of bold ingredients and sauces, and a growing inventory of New World and Old World wines, allow for many non-traditional pairings. Now days it’s not unusual to have red wine with fish or white wine with red meat.
Lee Royle, Jacques Scott’s wine marketing manager, said it’s important to consider all of a food’s components when considering a wine pairing. For instance, people trying to pair a wine with salad should look at all of its ingredients.
“It all depends on the salad and what’s in the dressing,” he said. “If you have a blue cheese dressing, that changes everything.”
He said the same thing could be said of steak. Although most people would think of pairing a bold, tannic red wine with steak, if it were prepared with a creamy, peppercorn sauce, the pairing wouldn’t work well. Instead, Royle says a creamy, oaked Chardonnay could be a good choice with that steak.
“It’s about intensity of flavours,” he said. “You want a wine that will stand up to it.”
Royle said that the basic concepts of food and wine pairing were based on four tastes components- salt, sweet, sour and bitter. However, he added that other aspects of food, like texture, body, fattiness, temperature and intensity of flavour, also come into the equation.
To demonstrate some of the concepts, Royle ordered a number of appetizers, main courses and desserts off the menu to try with three different white wines and two red wines.
Some starter courses can be difficult to pair wines with because they use high-acid ingredients like citrus or vinegar, or tricky ingredients like spinach, fresh tomatoes, olives, artichokes or asparagus.
Royle ordered four different starters that reflected the variety of a standard appetizer menu – spicy hot and sour Tom Yum Soup; wahoo ceviche; chicken liver pate; and arugula salad with fresh beets and goat cheese.
Three white wines were tasted with all of the dishes: 2007 Friedrich Becker “Laissez Faire” Riesling from Germany (Retail: $40.95); 2007 Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay from Napa Valley ($36.99); and 2009 Pascal Jolivet Pouilly Fume from France ($27.99).
With the spicy soup, the high-alcohol – 14.4 per cent – Chardonnay was like fire in the mouth.
“It makes you want to reach for water. With spice, you want to look for something with a little less alcohol,” said Royle, adding that fruity wines or those with a little more residual sugar like Riesling also go better with spicy foods.
The slightly-less alcoholic Pouilly Fume was better with the soup, but the medium dry and much less alcoholic Riesling was the pairing that worked by far the best.
Royle said that Riesling got a bad rap because of all the inexpensive sweet versions like Blue Nun that used to prevalent. However, when it comes to pairing wine with a lot of Cayman’s spicy dishes, Royle said people should consider Riesling.
“As a food-friendly wine, Riesling is a rock star,” he said. “It is really versatile.”
Next sampled was the salad, which featured the bold flavours of arugula, beets and goat cheese and a light vinaigrette. As expected, the Pouilly Fume – made from 100 per cent Sauvignon Blanc grapes – with its high acidity and high minerality paired best.
“Goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc is a match made in heaven,” Royle said.
Depending on where it is produced, Sauvignon Blanc can exhibit either high fruitiness or high minerality, making it a good wine for meal starters in general, pairing well with soups, salads, dips and seafood dishes, including fresh oysters and ceviche.
Morgan Harbour’s ceviche did in fact pair quite nicely with the Pouilly Fume.
Royle noted that oftentimes the fresh food available in a certain location will pair well with wine produced in the same area. For instance, he said Muscadet was a white wine known to pair extremely well with fresh oysters harvested from the area those wines are produced.
When it comes to Chardonnay, those produced in the United States tend to be heavily oaked during the fermentation and aging process. Although producing wine in this style gives the wines a buttery, rich taste, American Chardonnay can be difficult to match with food.
“Oaked Chardonnay is a cumbersome beast when it comes to pairing,” Royle said.
Although the Frank Family Chardonnay was oaked, French oak barrels – only 34 per cent of them new – were used, giving the wine a depth in flavour without being overpowering.
There has been some backlash against the more heavily oaked American Chardonnays, but Royle thinks they still have their place at the dinner table.
“As much as people are turning away from oaky Chardonnays, they can work if the [dish] has sufficient intensity of flavour to stand up to it.”
Interestingly, even though the Chardonnay wasn’t the best pairing with most of the dishes we tried, it was a favourite – the only bottle that was finished over the course of the afternoon. At $36.99 a bottle, we all agreed it was the best value wine tasted.
Moving to the chicken
pâté, the pairing with the Frank Family Chardonnay was quite good, and it was pretty good with the Riesling as well. It paired best, however, with the Pinot Noir, which was really for tasting with the main courses.
For the main courses, two bottles of red wine – 2006 Etude Pinot Noir Estate Carneros (Retail: $44.99) and 2006 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon ($53.99) were opened.
If Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc are the most food friendly white wines, Pinot Noir probably wins that distinction in reds. This holds particularly true when considering the variety Pinot Noirs available, from the full-bodied, mineral-driven wines of Burgundy, to the medium-bodied, fruit-driven New World wines of the United States and New Zealand. Because Pinot Noir isn’t very tannic, but does have good acidity and moderate alcohol levels, it’s easier to pair with foods than red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo and Syrah.
The main courses for lunch included a creamy seafood curry, lamb chops and a rib eye steak. Neither of the reds went well with the seafood curry, but the Chardonnay did quite well. The Pinot Noir worked best with the lamb chops, although the Cabernet Sauvignon was also very good. With the rib eye, it was the other way around, with the Cab being the best pairing and the Pinot good as well. We didn’t try it this afternoon, but Syrah is also an excellent pairing with lamb.
To prove his point about oaked American Chardonnay, Royle had us try a little of the Frank Family Chardonnay with the rib eye. While it might not have been the best pairing on the table, it wasn’t bad at all. In one of those cases where two people are dining out and one is having an
intensely flavoured seafood dish and another is having steak, and only one bottle of wine is ordered, oaked American Chardonnay could actually work.
When it comes to dessert, there aren’t as many choices for wines.
Royle said there was one key rule.
“The wine should be at least as sweet as the thing you’re eating or else it will seem very flat,” he said.
Because most desserts are very sweet, Sauternes, ice wines and other late-harvest wines are the most common white wines served. For tart desserts, especially those that include berries, something like Moscato di Asti is a good choice.
For chocolate, Royle said there was one excellent choice.
“Port and chocolate is another no-brainer pairing.”
When it comes to cheese desserts, the wider spectrum of red wines is opened up, which makes cheese a good dessert for those who are happy to keep drinking the red wine they had with dinner.
Although there are instances where opposites attract in wine pairing, it’s probably best to try to find wines that complement each other. For instance, highly acidic foods pair best with highly acidic wines; a delicate filet of sole pairs best with light-bodied white wine; a rich, juicy steak goes best with a big, tannic red wine.
Royle said good food-wine pairings can make both the wine and food taste better. However, he stressed that it was important for people to drink – and serve their guests – wines they like. A big, red tannic Cabernet Sauvignon might be the perfect pairing with a grilled New York strip steak, but not everyone likes big, tannic Cabs. Something less tannic like a Pinot Noir or Zinfandel could go very well with steak, too.
“There’s an awful lot of wines in the world, so you’re not necessarily limited to one or two choices,” Royle said.
Sometimes, the answer to the pairing question might not even be wine.
For instance, depending on what’s on a pizza, the best pairing might be beer, he noted. However, for those who just want wine with their pizza, Royle suggested something not very tannic, with good acidity and moderate alcohol levels – like Barbera or Pinot Noir. For a pizza with white sauce and ingredients like spinach and goat cheese, Sauvignon Blanc is the way to go, he said.
Sometimes, especially when there are multiple diners or someone is eating multiple, diverse-flavoured courses, it’s best to do separate wine pairings rather than finding one wine that works with everything. Many restaurant’s offer wine pairings by the glass these days.
Then there’s the old standby.
“When in doubt, choose bubbles,” Royle said. “Champagne goes with just about everything.”
To test the theory, Royle ordered a bottle of Ta
ittinger Brut Champagne and we tasted it with bits of all the foods remaining on the table. He was right – you can’t go wrong with Champagne.