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!

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