Drink, then eat

Wine and food matching is an inexact science, and the best idea might be to enjoy them separately, writes JOHN WILSON

Wine and food matching is an inexact science, and the best idea might be to enjoy them separately, writes JOHN WILSON

Matching food and wine is often presented as an incredibly complicated yet important exercise. It doesn’t need to be. All of us take a break of five to 10 seconds between chewing on a mouthful of food and taking a sip of wine. So unless the food clashes horribly (think vinegar, something sweet, or a combination of the two, such as balsamic vinegar, or chilli), you can drink your favourite wine with any food without fear of killing the wine.

The general rule of red wine with red meat, white wine with fish and either with white meat works perfectly most of the time. The accompanying sauces or vegetables can be as important as the main component, as can the power of a dish. However, taking things a step further can be a lot of fun, as well as improving your enjoyment of wine.

Despite the fuss made about pairing wine and food, as far as I am aware no wine producer thinks about food when making wine, and no chef has ever created a dish to go with a particular wine or even style of wine. The two work completely independently of each other, and leave it to the sommelier to come up with the matches.


Last autumn, I attended the first Wine Culinary Forum, hosted by Catalan wine producer Torres, in Barcelona. Over the course of three days, we ate our way through countless Michelin stars (despite the demise of El Bulli, they seem to be scattered like confetti around Catalunya) and listened to a number of very interesting speakers, including wine writer Jancis Robinson, her restaurant critic husband Nick Lander, and Johan Agrell of Faviken restaurant in Sweden.

In one workshop Ferran Centelles, sommelier at El Bulli for more than a decade, teamed up with renowned pastry chef Oriol Balaguer. They presented a series of pairs of various foods. In each set one had more complex flavours than the other, such as a plain Parmesan biscuit served alongside the same biscuit flavoured with herbs. In each case, the simpler food was a better match with the accompanying wine, proving the theory that if you want to show off your wines, keep the food as plain as possible.

Quebecois sommelier Francois Chartier, whose book Taste Buds and Molecules has recently been published on this side of the Atlantic, spent two decades working with scientists and chefs to discover the aromatic molecules that give flavours to both food and wine. He argues that wines should be matched with foods that share the same predominant molecular flavour compounds. So with your Sauvignon Blanc, try mild goat’s cheese, or dishes with mint, parsley, tarragon and chervil.

We tried Riesling with squid, cedar and saffron, Cabernet with charred beef, toasted sesame oil and grilled peppers, and Syrah with coffee, olives and wild rice. Did his combinations work? Sort of; not all of them made sense to me, but I can see what he is trying to do, and have bought the book. Overall the conference was an interesting and serious effort to examine the subject in a semi-scientific manner.

Most of the time, wine plays second fiddle to the food, whether in a restaurant or at home. However, if you have a really good bottle of wine, what is the best way to enjoy it? In the past I have argued for roast meat served without any accompanying sauce, but I am becoming more and more convinced that the best way to enjoy mature fine wine may be without any food at all.

Pekka Nuikki, in the wine magazine Fine, argues that food is fine wine’s worst enemy. “I have organised hundreds of tastings of top wines. Not once, in my experience, has a Château Latour 1961 or Romanée-Conti 1985 been improved by being served with food, even if the food was of a similar standard. By the same token, no dish by René Redzepi of Noma, or Thomas Keller of The French Laundry has tasted better when served with such wine. Indeed, quite the opposite was true.”

His solution is simple but controversial – taste and enjoy your fine wine beforehand, and drink pure Finnish spring water with the meal.


Muddy Water Grower's Series Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Waipara, New Zealand, 13.5%, €16.95This is one of the best New Zealand Sauvignon I have tasted in a while. Stockists: Redmond's, Ranelagh; Donnybrook Fair.

Lindes de Remelluri 2009, Rioja 13.5%, €21.50This is a Rioja with depth. It has good length and structure, lovely pure dark fruits, and a dry mineral finish. Stockists: MacGuinness Wines, Dundalk; Next Door, Kilkee.

Ch. des Annereaux, Lalande-de-Pomerol 2006, 12.5%, €19.99A very nicely made mature Bordeaux, medium-bodied and elegant with cool plum fruits, a touch of new oak spice, and a dry finish. Try it with roast beef. Stockist: O'Briens.

Saint Veran, Domaine des Valanges 2010, 13%, €19.85A beautifully balanced wine with succulent, rich green apple fruits, and zesty citrus. Stockists: Bradley's, Cork; Baggot Street Wines: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock.