Do you really need to match your wine to your food?

By Yvonne Lorkin

Yvonne Lorkin on the science of wine and food and how to have a sensational sensory experience rather than a car crash in your mouth.
Do you really need to match your wine to your food? Photo / iStock
Do you really need to match your wine to your food? Photo / iStock

Wine and food matching. The fact that it's even a thing is the relatively recent result of American neo-prohibitionists in the 1970s demanding that if alcoholic beverages were to be served anywhere, then suitable food needed to be provided. So canny restaurateurs clicked rather quickly that if you're going to do it, do it well and put a price on it.

Back then, the US wine industry was still very much in its infancy and good French wines were cheap and easy to access - so consumers were given a pretty good start. However, the rules that came into play, i.e. red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat and never the twain shall, well, meet; were set in a time when dining choices in the Antipodes were about as exotic as an Arrowroot biscuit. We were a meat, three veg, and muller thurgau nation and that's just how things rolled, until the late 1980s at least.

So when my editor asked me to write about food and wine matching, I thought about maybe filling this piece with the kind of guffery that you can Google on the science behind it, but that, very quickly, became eyewateringly odious.

I considered sending polite emails out to all of my foody, winey friends in order to knock together some snazzy quotes about their "process" and "inspiration" when it comes to food and wine pairing, but then I thought better of it because I owe some of them money and it's probably best I don't ask for any more favours.

I've been working in wine and food for long enough to attack this thing on my own, I thought. So I tried, with much squinting at the ceiling and chewing of my bottom lip, to find my first really good food and wine flashbacks that might help you, the reader, get the best from your next meal and be mildly entertained in the process.

I was hoping to stumble across some long-lost memory of being at some super-trendy city eatery, with super-stylish people and being introduced to an outrageously good glass of wine with a meal that blew my girl-from-the-provinces mind, but that didn't occur. I suppose I could write about the time I was 21 and spent my rent money on shouting my flatmate and myself a lunch of scampi linguine and glasses of Sacred Hill chardonnay at Prego back in 1995. The waitress chose the wine for us and I don't think my flatmate and I even spoke to each other again until our plates were clean and our glasses were empty. The flavours were sublime and I think we might have hitchhiked home. Or there was the time a year or so before as a uni student in Christchurch, when I began waitressing at Bardellis Restaurant in Cashel Mall. The chef and her kitchen team nicknamed me "Dog Boy" on my first day because they couldn't get their heads around my surname. My maiden name, Dudman, hardly requires a linguistics major ... but I digress.

For my first staff lunch, the chef served up an enormous bowl of plump, steamed mussels in the shell, swimming in a garlicky, parsley-dusted, creamy broth and the bar manager poured me a glass of 1993 Stoneleigh Marlborough sauvignon blanc. I'd never eaten mussels before and I'd never tasted sauvignon, but from that day on I welcomed every ridiculous nickname they threw at me so long as they fed me that meal.

And yet I think it may have even been earlier than that (when I was 17 or 18 maybe) that the concept of a beverage being perfectly suited for a particular dish first hit home. Back then, "Chinese" food was all the rage and "gourmet" meant chucking in some frozen mixed veg, chopped onion and soy sauce into some browning beef mince and calling it chow mein. One time my mother bought home a bottle of something I think was called "Manuka Blush" from Vidals winery and I was allowed a glass with dinner. I remember acutely how the fresh raspberry, watermelon and creaming soda characters made the beef more "meaty", the sauce more tangy. For a girl who'd been bought up on casks of Cooks Chasseur and boxes of Blenheimer, it was a revelation.

I'm not entirely sure how the science of wine and food works, and of course everyone's interpretation of what constitutes "good" flavour is subjective, but I have, as a "professional food and wine person", learned that there are some combinations that can mean the difference between having a sensational sensory experience or experiencing a car crash in your mouth.

If you're going to order the beef vindaloo (or in fact anything with more than two chillies beside it on the menu) then step away from the cabernet. Do not, under any circumstances drink a big, rib-sticking red wine with ultra-spicy food, because the tannins and alcohol in the wine will react with the heat of the chilli and basically unleash the Battle of Five Armies inside your gob.

Do everything in your power to, at least once before you die, eat a fresh, plump scallop that's been wrapped in bacon or prosciutto and pan-seared, with a mouthful of Clearview Reserve Chardonnay. Or a chunk of grilled crayfish tail or miso-glazed hapuku steaks if scallops are stretching it. Those flavours, combined with the rich, peachy, tropical and toasty, caramelised characters of great chardonnay will bring you to bliss in seconds flat.

Shards of hard, salty pecorino or parmigiano cheese should immediately be dipped in liquid honey and popped into your mouth, followed with a sip of luxurious, candied citrus and toffee-laden late-harvest or botrytis-style sweet wine. Your world will shift on its axis, I guarantee it.

Everything we put in our mouths has a measure of sweetness, acidity, saltiness, bitterness and umami. (Umami is the type of taste and texture that provides savoury richness. Just think about the last time you had Chinese takeaways. It's the sensation you get when you eat oysters, soy sauce, kina, shitake mushrooms or foods with naturally high levels of glutemate.)

So when you're matching wines with food, you need to make sure those elements compliment each other and not clash. Some things work beautifully, like the acidity of champagne with the umami from freshly shucked oysters or the pear, quince and spicy, strudel flavours in pinot gris, with rocket, pear and blue cheese salad sprinkled with candied walnuts. Slivers of paper-thin venison carpaccio drizzled with olive oil and dusted with cracked pepper are elevated to superhero status with a Gimblett Gravels syrah.

Never sip sauvignon blanc with chocolate. Just don't. But do, definitely, crack open a bottle of viognier the next time you're serving roast pork clad in salty crackling. The exotic, orange blossom, apricot, jasmine and spicy, oily lusciousness of this wickedly good white wine is. The. Best. Match. However, if you won't touch anything other than red wine, then go a light, fruity pinot noir for your pork.

The berry, cherry and tea leaf characters in pinot noir also pair perfectly with the richness of salmon, the toothsome texture of rare tuna (yes, red wine and fish!) and if you've never tasted the combination of pinot noir and duck confit, every mouthful will baffle you with its simple brilliance. You're welcome.

- Canvas

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