Wednesday, 5 September 2012

It's a Jungle Out There! The Art of Wine and Food Matching

On the second Wednesday of every month we hold a food and wine matching evening,  The theme is usually a country or region or sometimes a grape variety.  Guests get to try five wines and in conjunction with Chris my Head Chef we match five starter sized dishes to the wines.  We try not to copy dishes from the country or region concerned but use the best of local ingredients to complement the wines.  Sourcing the wines, writing the notes, doing the food matching and then loosely chairing the evening has got to be the best and most enviable parts of my job.

Many of our guests arrive expecting a scientific insight along with a set of rules for the perfect matching of food with wine and are often surprised by my answer that there are no rules! Or at least, for every "rule" that there is there is also an exception! The reasons for this being that there are almost limitless possible permutations for wine and food combinations, not to mention personal taste and mood, general ambience and companions.

I believe that the most we can do is to try to follow some rough guidelines that may help to prevent the agonisingly embarrassing act of getting it horribly wrong! At the end of the day it’s your preference and that of your guests that really matters. Enjoying the occasion is what this is really all about - so don't get too serious about it!

The fact is there are very few extraordinarily good combinations when it comes to wine and food, just as there are very few combinations that are truly terrible. In the vast majority of matching, the wine and the food coexist peacefully, if unexcitingly. In a modest number of matches, the wine and the food accentuate the flavours in one another, and both taste better as a result!

The basic idea of matching food with wine I believe is to fuse the two flavours together to create a third. And magic can happen when you do. So here are a few classic combinations which never fail to please when searching for that perfect bottle of wine to accompany your meal.

  • Foie Gras and Sauternes 
  • Grilled or Fried Fish - A dry white, possibly with some acidity, especially where this is needed to contrast richness of a sauce or perhaps if the fish is an oily variety.
  • Seafood (shellfish etc) - A dry white, ideally with a bit of acidity. Oysters and Chablis
  • Salmon with Pinot Noir
  • Roast Chicken/Turkey - A good mature cabernet-sauvignon based wine such as a fine Bordeaux works extremely well with roast poultry. Also very good is a Pinot-Noir based red Burgundy. Also a good Beaujolais Cru, especially a mature full-bodied one. 
  • Game, Venison - Good robust red Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Rhone wine or a new-world equivalent
  • Red meats (beef, lamb) - A good robust Claret or Burgundy - or perhaps an oaky Rioja - to some extent this depends on how the meat is prepared and accompanied. Rarer beef or lamb may be better with lighter fruitier wines.
  • Asian/Oriental Food - To some extend this depends on how spicy it is - milder cuisines such as Chinese or Thai will work well with spicy or slightly acidic whites (such as Riesling) served quite cold - or equally well with light fruity reds such as Beaujolais. Very spicy foods such as hot curries probably fall into the problem category - and it may be best to go for an alternative to wine, as even the most fully-flavoured wines will be wasted if not a match for the intensity of flavours a hot curry can provide.  My personal favourite here would be a Chilean Carmenere
  • Dark chocolate with Californian or South African Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Cheeses - The varieties of cheese available, and consequently the combinations that work well, are huge in number and we can only generalise here; a book could be written on this subject alone. Generally speaking, stronger flavoured cheeses demand more robustly flavoured wines. Classic combinations include good strong cheddar with robust red wines, port and stilton and sweet white wines with soft creamy cheeses.  On the whole I find red wines work better with most cheeses. 

Probably more rubbish has been written on the subject of matching food with wine than on any other aspect of wine enjoyment!  The key is to experiment, identify what you like and go for it - it might not be conventional, but your own, personal taste is far more important than convention. It is important to remember that matching food and wine is essentially a highly personal thing - there is no definitive "right" or "wrong", and anyone who says that there is is talking rubbish.


Matching food and wine is fun but it can be a minefield, and is particularly hard to get right for many people at the same time. My advice to anyone trying this (eg at a dinner party) would be as follows:-

  • be aware of your guests preferences - is there anyone who dislikes all red wines, for example?
  • avoid combinations known to be contentious, unless you know for sure that your guests are OK with them
  • try to avoid including difficult or problem dishes in your menu
  • offer choice to your guests - always have red and white wines available, ideally several styles, and make sure they are at the correct temperature - there's nothing worse than trying to warm up a cold bottle of claret quickly, for example, or throwing a white in the freezer for 20 minutes.
  • have a decanter available to expedite the process of wine breathing

Above all don't take it too seriously - most combinations are at least acceptable to most people, even if unconventional.

Until the next time!

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