Advice from those in the vi-know…
For the unseasoned host, or just those who move in particularly fastidious social circles, planning a dinner party can be pretty anxiety ridden. The instruction leaflet – should hosting come with such a practical tool – would probably list the side effects as stress-induced sweats, prolonged bouts of temple-rubbing and regular spells of deep regret at ever having voiced the idea of mixing socialising with food preparation in the first place.
The mandatory visit to the wine merchants or supermarket wine aisle is usually considered one of the key triggers of the afore-named symptoms; the massive range of choice presents a massive chance of getting it totally wrong. So, we’ve enlisted the help of the founder of the Bristol Wine School (@Bristolwineschl), Tristan Darby, and Laura Atkinson from Berry Bros & Rudd (@berrybrosrudd) – Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant – to help with picking the right grape for the grub. So, whether you have a big night looming or just want to know what’ll go best with your fish supper on Friday, listen up.
Let’s get the not-so-great news out the way first – there seem to be no hard-and-fast rules for pairing wine with food. Stay with us though, all is not lost. You can’t go (too) far wrong if you stick to Tristan’s trusty advice: pick a wine whose weight matches that of the food. ‘For example,’ he says, ‘a light, crisp white wine would be most likely lost on a hearty meat stew, and conversely, a weighty Australian shiraz at 14 per cent would overpower a light and delicate seafood dish.’ Well that makes sense, and more importantly, sounds like something I could manage with relative ease.
For those who love a good shortcut when it comes to finding a successful wine match, Laura suggests opting for varieties from cooler climates, namely Europe. These – to generalise – tend to be more balanced and less likely to overpower a dish or clash too strongly with any of its components. Burgundian wines are particularly reliable with their white chardonnay and red pinot noir grapes.
Laura says, ‘Both suit a huge amount of flavour profiles, thanks to their infinite elegance and complexity. Chardonnay is very food friendly and excellent with poultry, pork, rich shellfish and white fish. Pinot noir also has an affinity with food and can enhance poultry, game, red meat, salmon, tuna and charcuterie.’ Want something a bit different? ‘A slightly more obscure grape variety to look out for is grüner veltliner, native to Austria. Thanks to its vivid acidity and appealing spicy quality, it pairs very well with pork, sweetbreads, veal, lobster, scallops, sushi and Vietnamese or Thai dishes.’
Tristan, meanwhile, suggests riesling as a great all-rounder. ‘This is mainly due to its balance of sugar and acidity,’ he explains. Be warned though; there are many different styles and variations of riesling, so best not to head triumphantly to the till with just the first bottle you see. ‘The acidity helps it to cope with hearty sauces and a range of meats, and even offsets some of the tangy flavours such as ginger and lime found in Asian food, while the sweetness in off-dry riesling also helps it to offset some of the spice found in hotter food.’
Close to Home
When asked if it’s true that wines pair well with food originating from the same region, Tristan answers in the affirmative – only broadly speaking, mind. He says that many European wines have developed a strong sense of rationality alongside local food, which tends to be comprised of whatever there is an abundance of in that particular region.
Pairing by region can be really important: ‘Some wines in particular, such as Barolo (Piedmont) and some Chianti (Tuscany) styles don’t show anywhere near their full potential without the right dish to unlock the flavours; it really can make the world of difference.’
The Danger Zone
Most wines do have culinary soul mates – although some are more monogamous than others. When it comes to food, there are types that simply don’t see eye to eye with any wine. Tristan recommends exploring other thirst-quenching avenues with excessively spicy curries, and to ‘be aware when matching wines with artichoke, asparagus and oily fish, as getting these wrong can create some pretty hideous flavours.’ You’ve been warned.
As with food itself, successful wine pairing is mainly down to personal preference. So, to improve your wine-matching skills, experimentation is key. Both Bristol Wine School and Berry Bros. Rudd offer great courses and tastings, with opportunities to try a range of wines and speak to the experts first-hand.