After working in a restaurant environment for some time, you begin to develop a sense for the food that is served. Raws (such as oysters, caviar, sashimi, etc…), seafood, poultry and red meats become part of a seasonally-changing list in your mind that you itemise and categorise.
Such detailed knowledge isn’t arbitrary. As well as being able to answer customer’s questions regarding the ingredients and preparation time for each menu item, it’s also to be prepared to make any changes for people with severe allergies or moral/religious convictions (vegetarian, Halal, Kosher, etc…)
For the sommelier, this detailed knowledge is used for another dimension – matching wine with food.
Factors To Consider
Food is no longer just food. It is a combination of flavours, aromas and textures, arranged in a visual manner, that is designed to bring you a unique experience.
Notice the sensual words that were used in the line above – taste, smell, touch and sight are covered, exactly the same as with wine.
Now imagine that you are sitting in a restaurant with two other friends. One orders a fish dish, the other a duck item, and you yourself have decided to go with steak.
Individually, I would suggest the following pairings:
- With the fish dish, I would usually go with a Chardonnay, with the guest’s preference determining the overall style (clean, crisp and acid-driven, or oaked, buttery and textural).
- With the duck, as it is a gamey meat, I might pair with an aged Pinot Noir, which is light in colour but has just a touch of tannin to match with the proteins.
- For the steak, especially if it comes with a heavy sauce, I would consider a Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, or at least a Cabernet-dominant blend.
However, your friends have decided to share a bottle instead of having a glass of wine each. What to do?
The Compromise Wine
In a previous article I mentioned the 3 Main Things To Think About When Choosing A Wine. So let me give you my criteria for the ideal bottle of wine for your hypothetical table.
- Varietal: Pinot Noir
- Region: Cool-climate
- Vintage: Aged 4-7 years
Considering what you and your friends have ordered, the odd-one-out would be the fish item. Choose the wrong wine and it will cause the dish to seem unusually fishy.
So why Pinot Noir? Because it produces wines that are light enough in colour and body that don’t interfere with most fish dishes. However, the red component will pair well enough with the duck and steak items.
According to research, the main factor in wines that makes fish more fishy is iron. Grapevines get their nutrients from the soil, so you wouldn’t pair a Coonawarra Cabernet, grown in iron-rich Terra Rossa soil, with seafood.
(As an aside, I actually considered adding a section on soil types in my ebook, and had already written a few pages on chalk, clay, limestone, sand… before deciding it was probably too much detail to go into.)
Secondly, you want to make sure the Pinot Noir chosen was produced in a cool-climate region. In warmer regions grapes can become overripe, producing fruit that is high in sugar, which will lead to wines that can seem jammy and high in alcohol. A cooler climate will ensure that the grapes will not produce too much sugar and retain enough acidity to produce a wine that feels fresh on the palate. Acidity is important as it helps to cut through the sensation of fattiness in food dishes. Fortunately, most quality and accessible Pinot Noir wines are produced in cool-climate regions already, so this shouldn’t be a problem.
Third, you want a wine that has some maturity on it. I find that 4-7 years of age is just right. At the time of this writing we are now in 2015, so I will be looking for a bottle of Pinot Noir from 2008 to 2011. Younger wines will seem much more fruit-forward, which may interfere with the savoury flavours of the food. Older wines may seem too savoury and not have enough fruit to carry it through. A good balance of savoury, with just a touch of fruit, would be just right.
By following the above reasoning process, if you ever find yourself having to choose a good compromise wine to share with friends, I hope I have put forward a good argument as to why a good, mature Pinot Noir is the way to go.
As with any compromise, on a qualitative level you can expect to achieve a “Good” to “Very Good” experience. To glimpse the heights of an “Outstanding” food and wine pairing experience will require more surgical precision.
Finally, these are merely my own recommendations. If you understand that your own palate leans towards riper or more mature examples, by all means make the necessary adjustments. The idea is to be aware of your own tastes and preferences, use the information available, and finally make your choice.
Read more: Do You Drink Wine For Fun, Or For Pleasure?