Many self-proclaimed wine aficionados insist on drinking robust reds with all dishes. Others think all Chardonnay is perfect and yet others insist that all Riesling is sweet. (Neither is the case). Still others refuse to drink white wine at all. It’s fine to have preferences. But stubborn imbibers are in for some nasty food and wine mismatches. Sometimes the chemistry between wine and food simply doesn’t work.
For instance, matching a burly Shiraz with sole amandine rather than, say, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc is asking for trouble. Don’t get me wrong. Red wine with fish can work very well. Pinot Noir and salmon can talk to each other fantastically. And I’m a big of seared pepper-crusted tuna and Cabernet Franc.
For many pairing their wine with their food is a matter of white or red. White meats like fish and chicken are served with a white wine and red meats like mutton and beef are served with a red wine. However, most people forget that a plate of food may also have certain vegetables on it. Serving wilted spinach with your piece of fillet may not have been the best option as the furry of the tannins in the red wine may taste as though you just swallowed a mouthful of iron filings. It is important that the chef not only consider the protein serving on the plate, but the vegetables accompanying the protein as well as that can make or break a plate.
Some Tough Characters
Artichokes, asparagus, spinach and mint are unruly characters that can play havoc with red or white wine. These ingredients just need a little taming — a squeeze of lemon, a splash of cream or a sprinkle of cheese.
Pair tender asparagus omelettes with an off-dry Riesling, whose restrained alcohol, fruitiness, and zesty acidity cut through mouth-coating butter and egg while flattering the asparagus. (Riesling loves salmon, ham, pork and chicken).
Artichokes, on the other hand, fool the palate into thinking all liquids, even water, are sweet. A splash of lemon juice in your dish will encourage the thistle to make nice with zippy white wines. Try an unpretentious rosé with it!
Mint and spinach match well with crisper Chardonnay or a lighter Sauvignon Blanc, so go easy on that mint sauce with your lamb when you have a red with it! A cold lamb, spinach and sweet onion salad with a creamy lemon dressing is simply marvellous with a buttery chardonnay. Avoid cream with your spinach and then serving it with a white wine!
A word about Indian curries and chilli – if you want to drink a wine with it, go cheap as the spices in the masalas and curries just kill any good wine. There is just too much competing activity in the mouth between food and wine when comes to Indian spiced food that I would rather recommend a beer or lager with it rather than a complex wine.
My Own Pairing Pearls of Wisdom
I apologise in advance to international readers, the wines recommended here are all from excellent South African estates, either match them with wines from your own country or look out for them in your shops or if you would like to try South African wines, here is a website where you can order directly. South Africa has over 500 wines producers and a strong and rich wine producing linage that stretch back to the time just after Van Riebeeck set foot in the Cape.
- Champagne – the dry white ones such as Pongracz, Graham Beck Brut or a Pierre Jourdan – Brut – is perfect with anything salty and makes them extra refreshing and bubbly when served with the right salty snacks.
- Sauvignon Blanc goes with tart dressings and tangy sauces and won’t overwhelm the crispness of wines such as Glen Carlou’s Sauvignon Blanc, Kleine Zalze Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc or Spier.
- Pinot Grigio pairs with light fish and seafood dishes and seems to take on more flavour and character when matched with this equally delicate white wine, my recommendations here are Van Loveren Pinot Grigio and Vrede en Lust Casey’s Ridge Pinot Grigio.
- Chardonnay breaks through the fatty fish or fish in a rich sauce. I love to pair it also with green vegetables such as zucchini and spinach. My top favourites here are Vrede en Lust Sarah Chardonnay, La Motte, Meerlust and Backsberg Chardonnay.
- Chenin Blanc pairs with dishes where you have used fruits due to the strong fruit tones of most of these wines. For example sweet melon wrapped in parma ham will do well with a Chenin Blanc. I love a goat’s cheese salad with crispy bacon and avocado complemented by a Chenin Blanc on a hot summer’s day, it is refreshing. Try Spier, Graham Beck, De Morgenzon or Springfontein.
- Sémillon and Viognier pair well with dishes where there is an element of smokiness that needs to be enhanced or complemented and they both marry well to Mediterranean tapas dishes. A smoked chicken or fish dish will take well to the complex notes of many of these wines. I recently had smoked haddock & mussel soup paired with Fairview’s Oom Pagel (a sémillon) and it was delectable. My sémillon recommendations are Glenwood Vigneron’s Selection, Fairview and Deetlefs 2007 Sémillon. In terms of Viognier try the Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Viognier or the Arabella Viognier.
- White Dessert Wines pair well with fruity dishes, but don’t like chocolate. My personal favourite and unfortunately not a South African dessert wine is Moscato d’Asti, I had it recently with a Orange Tart with ginger ice-cream and rosemary orange compote. It was lovely! South African dessert wine Klein Constantia Vin de Constance paired well with my pear and cranberry tart with a rooibos tea crème infusion. These dessert wines seem to enhance the fruits rather than the sugars in the desserts.
- Rosé Champagne is great with dinner, not just hors d’oeuvres and has a depth of flavour and richness that will pair well with a range of main courses. Unfortunately I only have found two Rosé Champagnes that is drinkable and to my taste and that are Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rosé and Graham Beck Brut Rosé. Both are expensive, but I find the cheaper Rosés harsh and undrinkable.
- Dry Rosé wines go well with rich, cheesy dishes as it has the acidity of a white to cut through the fat of these dishes. Personally I like to match the beautiful orange hues of some of the Rosé wines with orange coloured fish like trout or salmon. One of my best dishes is a lightly smoked trout with a caper butter sauce served with a Meerendal Pinotage Rosé. Other Rosé wines for consideration are the Hermanuspietersfontein Bloos, Vergenoegd Runner Duck and Vrede en Lust Jess Rose.
- Merlot has the structure as well as the acidity cope well with hearty stews, fatty lamb roasts and duck. I know everybody says you can drink a Merlot young, but I find that a mature Merlot is much rounder and more satisfying than a young one. My favourite labels are Diemersdal, Spier, Villieria, Groot Constantia, Veenwouden and Meerlust.
- Shiraz matches with highly spiced dishes, when a meat is heavily seasoned, look for a red wine with lots of spicy notes and this is where a Shiraz can be the perfect match. Good choices are from Middelvlei, Glenwood, Kloovenburg, Backsberg Pumphouse and my personal favourite is the Boschkloof 2007 Reserve.
- Cabernet Sauvignon is fabulous with juicy red meats, pâtés, heavy meat terrines, venison and ostrich and if the meat is accompanied by a creamy velouté, jus or dark gravy then the firm tannins refresh the palate after each bite of meat. I can recommend a cabernet Sauvignon from Boschkloof, Van Loveren Reserve, La Motte, Stark-Condé Stellenbosch and Rust and Vrede.
- Cabernet Franc is not very well-known in South Africa and is difficult to get, but if you can get a bottle, as a red wine it goes well with roasted chicken. The silky tannins if the Cabernet Franc is much gentler on the palate and many has note of chocolate which makes it the perfect wine with a chocolate fondant, torte or even a mousse. Labels that carry a Franc are Ondine, Mooiplaas, Paul Cluver, Raats and Bushmanspad.
- Pinotage is great for dishes with earthy flavours and complement meat dishes with mushrooms and truffles very well. Beyerskloof remains my personal favourite, but Kanonkop and Simonsig Redhill are also great choices.
A Few Guidelines
- If you can use the same adjectives to describe a wine and a dish, the pairing will often work.
- Start by thinking about the dish or meal as a whole. What are its dominant characteristics? Is it mild or flavourful? Is it fatty or lean? Is it rich or acidic?
- Keep flavours in balance. Match mild foods with mild wines. Match big, flavourful foods with big, flavourful wines.
- Try to match the richness of the food and the richness of the wine. A rich chicken or fish dish will do well with the crisp acidic tones of a Chardonnay. A tannin rich red will again cut through the richness of a red meat.
- Cleanse the palate with tannins in reds or acids in whites.
- Match Acids with Acids. If you’re eating a dish with a strong acidic content such as Shrimp with Lemon or Pasta with Tomato Sauce pair it with an acidic wine that can keep up with the acids in the food.
- Acidic Wines and Cream Don’t Mix! Rich cream sauces will usually clash with an acidic wine like a Sauvignon Blanc. Think about it this way…If you squeezed lemon juice into a cup of milk, would it taste good?
- Wine and Strong Spices such as in some Chinese or Indian food, can clash and destroy the flavours in a wine.
More About Tannins
Tannins can come from many places, including the skins of the grapes used in winemaking as well as the wood barrels a wine may have been aged in. Tannin tastes similar to the flavour you would get if you sucked on a tea bag. This astringent flavour is what helps strip the fats from your tongue and thereby cleanse the palate of the rich fats from a meal and provide a refined, refreshing drink. Some studies have also indicated that tannin might help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Specifically, tannin might suppress the creation of a peptide that causes arteries to harden.