Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Wine and food - a match made in heaven?

A recent dinner arranged by Robert Mondavi Winery was definitely a pleasure - but it was also perplexing, challenging, thought-provoking and just downright bamboozling. As I found myself sipping a lusciously sweet Ice Wine with my New York strip steak I knew that, like Dorothy, I wasn't in Kansas any more.

Let me explain. Master of Ceremonies at this Alice Through the Looking Glass version of food and wine matching was Mark de Vere MW, a Brit now based in Napa at the Constellation Academy of Wine. For the past 15 years he has been preaching what he calls “the liberated enjoyment of wine”, which sounds very 1970s California. Much influenced by the pioneering work on wine and food of Tim Hanni MW, his thesis is that, as long as there is a balance between sweetness and/or umami flavours with salty and sour/acidic flavours in any food, then the wine that you drink along with it will always taste the same.

Umami is a fifth flavour element, in addition to sweet, salty, bitter and sour that we can taste. It is sometimes referred to as savoury, can be hard to define, but you know it when you find it. Ripe tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and soy sauce are all rich sources of umami.

To illustrate his thesis, Mark made us taste a range of perfectly cooked, but unseasoned, foods. Without seasoning, they have a high level of umami, but with no balancing salt or acidity. None of us could argue that unseasoned fish and a Sauvignon Blanc made a very delicious wine when tried on its own, into something really quite unpleasant. Mark had made his point.

We then proceeded to add salt and lemon juice to the fish, chicken and steak on our plates and tried the wines again. As Mark knew they would, the wines with these seasoned dishes tasted much better – as in, they tasted as they did before we tried any food with them.

But Mark wasn't going to stop there. The thing that makes this theory of food and wine matching so shocking is that, as long as the dish you are eating has that sweet/umami-salty/acidity balance, then ANY wine will taste as it should alongside it. So, on we went to taste the Sauvignon Blanc with steak. Whether your personal taste or prejudices stop you enjoying a crisp white wine with red meat, it was undeniable that the steak did not “spoil” the wine; nor did the wine make the steak taste funny.

As some kind of sick horror movie finale, we all dutifully tried Ice Wine with our steaks and, I'm not ashamed to say that Mark was right – it really doesn't matter which wine you have with what food.

Which makes a complete nonsense of what I and other wine writers are talking about when we recommend wines to go with particular foods, doesn't it?

There are still some unanswered questions, such as: what about chilli and spice in general? Mark views the heat of chilli as more of a sensation than a taste per se. However, I would argue that it plays just as important a role and certainly can dictate whether a particular wine will be enjoyable with the food.

Do we all have to carry round our own salt and lemon juice supply to make this work? Well, yes. Because, as Mark demonstrated, getting that balance of sweet-umami vs salt and acid right is important if the wine is going to taste right. Not always practical.

Many of us who take our wine drinking seriously have experienced a wine and food match that seemed to make both the food and the wine taste better. Have we just been imagining it? Mark's view is that, in order for a wine to improve when drunk with food, it must have had some kind of imbalance in the first place. My hunch is that he might be right, technically – but sometimes those imbalances are what makes a wine more fascinating to drink. They can be the wrinkle on the face of Catherine Deneuve or George Clooney.

Which leads me to my final quibble with Mark's thesis: humans are not robots and sometimes we seek out and even enjoy experiences which are far from optimal. Any woman who has given birth once knows that, if she had any sense, she would never dream of repeating it – and yet so many of us do. I can't refute the evidence of my own experiences testing out Mark's new world of food and wine – but something within me is programmed to seek out certain wines with certain foods.

But, in the final analysis, what Mark is telling us is that we can all enjoy whatever wine with whatever food we like – there are no rules. No-one can tell you that you can't have red wine with fish or white with steak. And that can only be a good thing.

This week's wine tips – sans food recommendations!

Chimères, Château Saint-Roch 2009 - £12.30 from slurp.co.uk, £12.39 from invinitywines.co.uk
If you like a sense of wild, untamed nature in your reds, this could be for you. Full-on herbs and fruit combined with savoury flavours and fine tannins make this an intense yet lively mouthful. It picked up a Gold Medal at last year's Decanter Awards.

San Leo Nerello Mascalese/Garganega Vino Spumante Brut - £9.99, down to £5.99 until 26th June at Waitrose
I'd love to know how this odd couple of grape varieties came to be in the same bottle. Nerello Mascalese is a rugged native Sicilian red variety grown mostly on the slopes of Mount Etna. Garganega, meanwhile, is the white grape of Soave, in the northern Italian region near Lake Garda. Someone has had the temerity to mix them up and make them into a pink wine and, not content with that sacrilege, they have made it fizzy too. Well done them, as this is a gorgeously pretty pink with lively cherry fruit. Do not think about keeping it!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Australia - not just sunshine in a glass

Remember Monty Python and Perth Pink? “A pleasant, sugary wine that really opens the sluices at both ends.” How we used to laugh at Australian wines, thinking them fit only as the butt of jokes – certainly not something  to take along to a polite dinner party.

However, that period in Australia’s wine history was something of an aberration. In the early 20th century, its wines were highly respected, especially its dry reds. Penfold’s Grange was already going strong by the 1950s and continues the tradition of fine Australian wine to the present day.

Of course back in the old days it was called Grange Hermitage, in homage to the great wines of Hermitage in France’s northern Rhône Valley. However flattering the intent, this kind of borrowing of wine regions or grape variety names are a no-no with the EU and so Australia has had to give up this and other epithets like Hunter Valley Riesling (not, in fact, Riesling but Semillon), White Burgundy (Semillon again, but riper), Claret (early picked Shiraz) and Red Burgundy (the ripest Shiraz with some Grenache thrown in).

When Brand Australia was born back in the 1980s, the need to set aside its beloved “Clarets” and “Burgundies” in order to export its wines legally to Europe was turned into a marketing opportunity – varietal labelling. Aussie Chardonnay and Shiraz tout court were born and a boom in Australian wine exports followed as consumers took like ducks to water to these easy to say, easy to enjoy wines.

However, cheap and cheerful, sunshine in a glass wines are just a sliver of the production and styles in a gargantuan wine producer such as Australia. In addition, other countries can copy simple, fruity, flavourful wines and the race to the bottom in terms of pricing and quality has now gone as far as it can. Australia has spent the last few years trying to re-establish itself as the home of quality, as well as quantity.

The good news for Australia is that the calibre of its wines in the £10-£30 price range has probably never been better. There are stunning Shirazes and Chardonnays, nuanced dry Rieslings and lip-smacking and ageworthy Semillons aplenty to discover for those customers looking to trade up and see what Australia is really made of.

Additionally, Pinot Noir, which, frankly was a let down until the last decade or so, has improved dramatically.

Here are some of the cream of the crop to seek out. Most of them are white, many from cooler climates and all are from somewhere much more specific than the catch-all South East Australia designation that abounds at lower price levels.

McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2005, Hunter Valley, New South Wales – usually £11.99, but down to £9.99 currently at Wine Rack
This has to be one of the best white wine bargains around. Semillon and the magic of the Hunter Valley have combined to make a bright, crisp wine which is just beginning to develop fascinating toasty, savoury, lime marmalade flavours. At seven years old, it has a long future ahead of it.

Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2006, Eden Valley, South Australia - £13.70 from www.slurp.co.uk
Here I go again, banging on about dry Riesling. For those still reading, this has a lovely earthy nose combining blossom and stonefruit, leading onto a dry and delicate palate of lemon and lime fruit.

Ocean Eight Verve Chardonnay 2010, Morngington Peninsula, Victoria - £25.99 from The Secret Cellar (Oxted)
Forget overblown, over-oaked and overly-alcoholic Chardonnays past. There is oak here, but it’s subtle, giving a gunflint smokiness and texture to the wine, alongside the juicy fruit, kept fresh in this chilly site south of Melbourne. A very smart bottle – not cheap, but then neither is good white Burgundy.

Tahbilk Marsanne 2009, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria - £9.99 for the 2008 from Waitrose or £10.95 from slurp.co.uk
Tahbilk Marsanne is an Aussie wine classic. Marsanne is a grape more readily associated with the Southern Rhône in France, but Tahbilk's relatively cool-climate version is a southern hemisphere success with talc, pineapple and peach aromas, leading onto a dry palate with lively acidity and lasting texture. It is, and always has been, anything but a fruitbomb.

Stonier Pinot Noir 2010, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria - £12.95 for the 2009 from Waitrose, or £12.50 from slurp.co.uk
As well as top notch Chardonnay, the Mornington Peninsula is also cool enough to make just ripe enough Pinot Noir for it to retain its juicy, cherry and mulberry fruit. There is also an earthiness here and velvety texture – lots of wine for your money.

Greenstone Shiraz 2009, Heathcote, Victoria - £17.90 from slurp.co.uk
At last! Shiraz, the grape that is synonymous with Aussie wine. Heathcote as a region may not be so familiar, up in the hills north of Melbourne, this cool-ish area has ironstone-rich soils which apparently give a bloody flavour to the wines. There is no shortage of glossy new oak in this wine, but also plenty of room for the bay leaf tinged, dense black fruit. The finish is a satisfying combination of bitter chocolate and black pepper.

D'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz 2006, McLaren Vale, South Australia – not easy to find but The Wine Society has the 2008 for £25 and the 2007 for £27
Chester Osborn, the winemaker at d'Arenberg, is famous for headache-inducingly loud shirts and a hairdo that is a peroxide version of Rebekkah Brookes'. However questionable his personal style, his skills as a winemaker are never in doubt. This is an intense essence of Shiraz in the bright, Black Forest Gateau, McLaren Vale style. What is it like? Aromas of smoke, leaves, peppercorns and polish and flavours that are medicinal, like an Italian after-dinner amaro, alongside berries, twigs, chocolate and roast meat. It's almost a meal in itself and is, without doubt, a modern Australian classic.