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Food & Wine Matching can be Fun

Posted: Tuesday, 08 May 2012 11:58

Food & Wine Matching can be Fun

Matching wine with food can be an interesting exercise. Sometimes one stumbles across something wonderful by complete accident. Circumstances combine to create a glorious success out of totally random, uncalculated items, like the extremely personal business of finding the right wines for food dishes, writes Charles Metcalfe who suggests considering the peripherals as well as the main ingredient of a dish before finalising the pairing with a closed mind.

The dish on this occasion was Peking Duck, a long-time favourite of my children, who were all with me for lunch. All I had to do was roast the spiced, marinated duck in a hottish oven for 40 minutes, warm the pancakes, and get some spring onions and salad from the garden. Delightfully simple. Oh, there is one other ingredient, hoisin sauce. The main listed ingredients in this packeted version were sugar, plus fermented soya bean paste, garlic, sesame seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon and star anise. This is spread thinly on the pancakes before they are filled with crispy duck, salad and a spring onion, rolled up, and eaten by hand.

I suddenly thought I’d like a glass of wine (the children were driving, so not drinking). Well, crispy-roast duck: easy enough. Hoisin sauce: not so easy. My eye fell on a bottle my wife had opened a couple of days before. She had found herself in the dimly-lit cellar without her glasses, and the result was not the Recioto di Soave she thought she had found. The wine was delicious, but didn’t work with the pudding. I sighed, put the cork back in the bottle, and we substituted it with Moscatel. The rejected wine was a half bottle of 1988 Serego Alighieri Recioto della Valpolicella Casal dei Ronchi, an extraordinary, gently sweet red from just north of Verona, made from dried grapes, sweet but savoury, with notes of spices and dried fruits, lovely acidity, fresh and balanced.

Now, sole drinker at our Chinese lunch, I decided to try the spurned half bottle. Delicious! The hoisin sauce was sweet and savoury, the sweetness in the sauce echoed precisely by that in the wine, and the flavours worked as well, spice on spice, while the acidity of the wine linked in to the salty element of the sauce. It was an almost perfect match. And that set me thinking. Wonderful though the serendipity of that had been, it was an unlikely juxtaposition – a 23-year-old rare sweet Italian red with a Chinese duck dish. What might be more realistic?

I needed a wine with that same sweetness, with spicy, intense flavours, and a bright acidity to cope with the salty sauce. What about Port? I tried a British merchant’s own-label ten-year-old tawny. It was a bit too sweet, and rather spirity, but nearly right. I tried another ten-year-old tawny, from Quinta do Noval. This was much better, but still a little too sweet. A very good reserve ruby had the same problem – too sweet. Ah! Another thought. I needed acidity. Of course, Madeira, the perfect blend of sweetness and high acidity. A 15-year-old Bual was too acid, but the Blandy’s ten-year-old Malmsey was very good. So there were the answers for my Peking Duck and its challenging sauce, this old and rare Recioto della Valpolicella, or a ten-year-old Malmsey Madeira (which has the virtue of being much easier to find).

Would anyone venturing into a Chinese restaurant in London or Delhi think along these lines, I wondered? And would there be a selection of wines that gave them a decent choice? Almost certainly not, but it would be easy enough to set up at home at a dinner party. And then again, would this kind of pairing be acceptable to the friends around the table? Madeira with the main course? What do you follow that with? Maybe more Madeira with some cheese.

I’m not arguing for dinner parties where guests are left incapable of finding their way to their hosts’ front door. People are understandably worried about high-alcohol wines. But in the cases of both Port and Madeira, the costs of making them are so high that both wines really need (and deserve) the help of wine lovers to keep them alive.

Are we so conditioned to think along certain lines when choosing wine that we forget to think what might really suit the food? My first reaction had been ‘roast duck goes with red wine’. Yes, in most cases, it does. But what if the duck has a sauce that dominates the dish like the hoisin sauce with my Peking duck; or one of the fruit sauces that sometimes accompanies duck – orange, or black cherry? Here, the fruitiness of the sauce, and any sweetness, can completely wreck the chances of a dry red performing at its best.

And that is the point. Finding a good wine match for your food – or a food match for your wine – means considering the peripherals as well as the main ingredient of a dish. The first task is to match the basic building blocks of taste – sweetness, acidity, saltiness (saltiness in food can be well matched by acidity in wine). Then consider the elements of the sauce or accompaniments in the dish. Is it strongly flavoured? You’ll need a strongly-flavoured wine. Does it have butter or cream? Perhaps choose a wine that has a creamy smoothness, maybe a barrel-fermented white or at least a white that has spent time maturing on the lees. Are there spicy flavours in the food? Many red wines have distinctly spicy flavours. Herbs, spices and strongly-flavoured vegetables in a dish sometimes link very strongly to aromatic flavours in accompanying wines – in the case of the subtle blends of Indian spices, the wines to choose are more often white than red. Rieslings, Sauvignons and mildly aromatic whites are often good accompaniments, either dry or off-dry.

Wine and food matching is sometimes difficult to manage at a restaurant, when everyone has chosen different dishes. But it’s simple at home, when you’re in charge of both food and wine. Don’t feel you always have to go for the conventional choice. Be adventurous! Try a chicken korma with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, even the Peking Duck with Malmsey Madeira. And remember that you can adjust recipes to match your wine by adding a little butter here, a herb, spice or a sprinkling of sugar there, and a dash of lemon juice to raise acidity. The possibilities are endless.

Charles Metcalfe

Charles Metcalfe is a renowned wine critic, speaker, writer and a TV personality, having spent 12 years as drinks co-presenter on ‘This Morning’. He has also presented food and drink programmes and appeared on UK Food, Granada Breeze, Carlton Food Network and the Discovery Channel. ‘The Wine & Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal’, co-written with his wife, Kathryn McWhirter, won the 2008 Louis Roederer International Wine Book of the Year Award. He has also written books on matching wine with food. He is wine consultant to restaurants in London and India, and one of two wine consultants to the Corporation of London. He is co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge.



Subhash Arora Says:

Charles, you are so right.I am in Porto right now and have tasted some delicious Ports with different foods and strongly believe that Ports mut not be allowed to dwindle in importance. One discovery I have made on this trip is the Pink Port that may perhaps not be on your radar. Croft was he first one to bring out this new category only a few years ago, I am told. But wherever we went, the cocktails made with the pink Port have been so delicious that I, basically a 4-14% guy drinking generally wines of that alcohol range, really loved these cocktails, especially with the tapas. I can't believe that I went for refills!! Subhash Arora

Posted @ May 09, 2012 11:47


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