It is increasingly trendy for gastronomy restaurants to pair a wine with a course, matching the notes, flavours and textures of one with another. You read the list of ingredients in a dish and then the type of wine they think matches it. Trouble is it is difficult to imagine the effect of the pairing just from the words, and by the 4th dish one begins to start drowning in the adjectives and labels, and start to lose the plot. And, if the tasting menu is 5 courses or more then that amounts to tasting 5 or more different wines. One’s eyes start to swim a bit. But maybe that is all part of the experience.
The basic idea of pairing, which has been around for centuries, is to enhance the dining experience; the elements of one are meant to bring out the elements in the other, resulting in an accentuation of tastes. The texture, smell, sugar, acidity, etc., in both food and wine are assumed to react differently in each other’s company. The trick is to make sure they are compatible in the matching.
There are numerous websites, books and guidance to help the amateur select the right type and taste of wine to match the kind of dish and its way of cooking. For example, Natalie has an online tool that even lets you select a food type (e.g. pasta), a dish made of it (e.g. gnocchi with brown butter and sage) and then when you press the button, it selects the type of wine you should serve up with it (e.g. Pino Blanc).
It is a bit obvious but reassuring for those who are just learning pairing 101. There are some basic ground rules about matching, such as white with white meats and red with red meats. A fundamental aspect is to understand the balance between the ‘weight’ of the food and the ‘body’ of the wine. For example, one would not mix a Cab with a light fish and, conversely, a Pino Grigio with a hearty, venison stew. But when it gets to deciding on a vintage and its terroir and matching these with the complex set of flavours that a good chef creates, you are joining a different league. Only highly trained sommeliers seem privy to the chef’s thinking behind the complex dishes. Then, just like the beautiful game, it can be a pleasure to score, but you need to understand the rules of their game, and they can seem quite elusive at the highest level.
Yesterday we went to a restaurant in Cape Town called Planet that served 5 course menus – both regular and fully vegan – with matching wines selected by the very knowledgeable and brimming with enthusiasm, Carl Heinz Habel. We ordered two regular and one vegan. The pressure to choose the right wine to match the balance of the ingredients in the meal was offloaded into his hands and I, for one, was grateful for this. He seemed so jolly, attentive and knew his onions.
As we sat down on very comfortable chairs in the rather grandiose Nelson hotel, the ladies were tucked in and immediately provided with a handbag stand to place their bits on – rather like the portable stools creaky folk carry around with them to sit on during long trips to art galleries. We were tickled pink by this detail – we could only assume its function was for the ladies to keep an eye on their purse when wanting to do a bit of fixing and fussing without having to grope around on the floor or the back of the chair for it. I kept thinking how some old biddies might have popped their pooch or feline friend in their bag for company. It was the perfect shape and size for nestling a well manicured spoilt pet in.
Our sommelier, Carl, had done all his homework before. He’d gone to great lengths to chose five different wines that matched each of the dishes – and it turns out they were different for the regular and vegan menus. Whereas I had First Sighting Pinot Noir 2009 with my starter of marinated mushroom terrine, G had de Grendel PIno Gris 2010 to match her quail terrine, rooibos cranberry jelly, and smoked corn samoosa. Normal wines use animal products for purification, vegetarian use egg-white and vegan some unheard of chemicals…I was convinced that they were inferior.
We decided to keep the menu as our extended cognition companion, and placed it at the empty place at the table – it proved to be indispensible by the second course, as we could not remember what we had ordered or the wine that was to accompany it!
We straight away tasted each other’s wines. For some, that might seem like defeating the object of pairing but sharing and comparing is such a natural part of the dining experience. My fear was confirmed; I felt short-changed bar one wine. Somehow, G’s wines always seemed more colourful, leggy, full bodied, long noted, punchy, and enhancing. We were completely bowled over by one of her wines, in particular, forgetting all about the food momentarily and just concentrating on savouring her wine – a local Semillion from the Cape. It just sung to us a complex and rich melody – irrespective of the dish we were eating. And we wanted it to keep playing. Sadly, the glass emptied all too quickly and the waiter did not seem to want to replenish it. Instead, the next one arrived, which turned out to be a real anti-climax.
I am sure there is an art to how one tastes a wine, takes a mouthful of it and combines the lingering and ensuing notes – just as there is an art to tasting dishes. However, I always get caught up in the conversation and forget to drink the wine, after an initial tasting. Then before you know it, the waiter is standing next to you, ready to pour the next pairing wine. I either have to leave the old one standing or slug the remainder quickly. Neither approach is satisfactory. I can’t seem to get the talking, wine sipping and food sampling mix sorted.
Knowing how often to sip, at what point during the eating and how much to leave at the end to maximize the balance of grape and grub, seems a step too far for me. And sometimes one can be mightily disappointed with a wine and not know what to do, especially if your fellow diners are enjoying theirs much more. One of my vegan wines had no taste at all. It simply vanished in the mouth and left me wondering where had it gone. When I explained this experience to the sommelier, he was rather taken aback; presumably it being rare for a diner to dare question his selection. He swiftly took my barely touched glass away and returned, saying that there was nothing wrong with the wine – insinuating, perhaps, that it was my palette that was at fault. As a gesture, he replaced it with a big fat bulbous glass filled to the brim with a big, shouty Chardonnay. I was not sure how to react to his brashness and so took a tiny sip, heard it scream “tourist” at me and so left it equally untouched until the next more lively glass of Pino Noir arrived.
I am sure pairing can be lots of fun; breaking down and matching up the elements that chef and sommelier have brought together but, on reflection, perhaps we’d have been better off slowly sharing, at our leisure, the same bottle of fine wine, that we all liked the sound of rather than being paced by the courses.
And finally, as noted by wine expert Mark Oldman, “Food and Wine pairing can be like sex and pizza: even when it’s bad, it can still be pretty good”. But a very dry wine with a very sweet food is, in his words, “the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard” (Wikipedia). On another day, I am sure my vegan wines would have enhanced the dishes, but on this occasion, the more powerful and potent opulent atmosphere of the place and the wit and charm of my dining companions, overshadowed the potential pleasure of the subtle pairings on offer. But much merriment was had by all.