“First thing to consider when choosing a wine is the flavour and weight intensity of the food, including any sauces, spices or herbs which may or may not dominate the dish…”
There is no question, the enjoyment of wine can be enhanced by matching wine and food that work together, and equally a good match will bring out the best in the food. It is fun to experiment but there are some tried and tested theories it is as well to know. Here we explore them, but it is as well to state from the start that wine and food “matching” can, and often does, equal “contrasting”, for example in the case of Sauternes and Roquefort cheese where the sweetness of the Sauternes contrasts magnificently with the salt in the Roquefort. If you can`t be bothered with understanding the whys and why nots we are happy to provide benchmark examples or to make specific recommendations. If you give us not just your menu but the cooking and sauce detail as well, we will draw on our collective experiences here and second guess the best possible match. All we ask in return is you let us know if our guess was right, so we can be absolutely 100% sure next time and pass the knowledge on!
Rule of thumb: there is rarely one right match. Usually there is a favourite and even a benchmark wine to go with any dish or food type, but alternative choices can still work well and this is where experimentation is fun, provided you avoid an outright clash. Take cheddar: You might choose a fruity red Zinfandel or a white burgundy with Godminster, or a Sauvignon Blanc with young Wensleydale, each providing a different taste sensation which will add not detract from both wine and cheese. In the case of Wensleydale its coating effect on the palate, like a goats cheese, makes the more acidic Sauvignon Blanc the better match.
An oily smoked fish will be evenly matched by a rich wine, one with texture, flavour and aromatics. It is why smoked salmon is text book with Gewurztraminer. However, add dill-sauce and a powerful, acidic Sauvignon Blanc such as Pouilly-Fume will fair better, as would Champagne, matching the acidity of the sauce while cutting through the oils, for an all together different taste experience. A rich white fish, especially an expensive fish, will be better with a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, acting as a velvet backdrop, giving full expression to the delicate yet deceptively rich flavours of the fish; or a fine Pinot Noir with Red Mullet in red wine sauce. There again for a spicy Thai fish cake the Gewurztraminer would once again be my first choice, the aromatics and spices in the wine matching those of the dish and the bold ripeness of the wine further enhanced by the addition of a sweet chilli sauce. You might think a rich Chardonnay would do as well, but not so. I once made the mistake (at The Ivy, no less) and the two together were overwhelmingly rich and really quite sickly. Of course, an un-oaked Chardonnay might have been different. We had an oaky Australian Chardonnay, the sweet-vanilla oak in the wine we chose being the proverbial straw that broke the camel`s back. Even a fresh white burgundy, being of a cooler climate and higher in acidity, may have provided a better outcome. I think at the time we were trying to “go with the richness” “to equal it” but in fact, as we now know, we took it too far. The next time, at home, we sliced through the richness of the Thai cake neatly with an NZ Sauvignon Blanc: the perfect contrast and match if you can`t be doing with the exotic character of Gewurztraminer!
For shellfish I might well recommend a Sauvignon Blanc, particularly one with good minerality, but the classics are, of course, Champagne, Chablis and Muscadet Sur Lie, wines with good minerality and/or yeast character which match with the particular salty mineral flavour and richness of shellfish. Alternatives, to name a few, Picpoul de Pinet (France), Verdejo (Spain), and good Soave (Italy). If matching with crab or lobster you might choose instead a good Viognier, for example Condrieu, to match their richness, or a rose champagne. And with scallops: Champagne, good white burgundy or my favourite, Vouvray demi-sec.
Incidentally with sushi Champagne is delicious, but so also is a fine dry or off-dry Riesling.
Lamb is a fatty meat which works well with Pinot Noir, claret (especially Medoc) or Rioja, depending on the sauce and the herb flavouring (see section Herbs) but also your personal preference. Pinot Noir is the lightest. Alternatively you might try Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, or a Bordeaux blend, from the New World. Pork is fatty like lamb so the same wines might well apply, but being a white meat possibly served with apple sauce I would choose a low-tannin fruity red such as Beaujolais or a fruity white wine like Chenin Blanc. Actually these wines work well enough for roast chicken and turkey as well, though bronze chickens can cope with a little more weight in much the same way as lamb. Goose is a fatty meat which is often matched with Riesling for an alternative taste sensation, the naturally high acidity and lime flavour cutting nicely through the fat. Ham or gammon are good with Riesling also, the natural sweet note of Riesling contrasting pleasantly with the salt in the meat. Getting back to red meats, duck and game can work extremely well with Pinot Noir, especially a rich Burgundy, but a mature Zinfandel or a flavourful Malbec can be lovely as well, especially if there is a fruit sauce. With venison you might pair with a powerful, savoury red such as France`s Bandol. Beef is our favourite red meat, for which the same meats as lamb can apply but you can also enjoy richer flavours. If choosing a fine claret, you can step up a notch in weight and spice to Pomerol. If your preference is Pinot Noir, ask your merchant for a rich, savoury bottle. And if it is a fine steak you are having, I would recommend a good Chianti Classico or a full-bodied Syrah. However, if you like your steaks blood-rare, probably best to avoid excess tannin so Burgundy or a mature red.
Spices & herbs
Spices and herbs can also play a significant role in the flavour profile of a wide range of dishes, often sufficient enough to consider when choosing a matching wine. Rosemary with lamb lends itself to Pinot Noir or even Gamay (example Fleurie) rather than the other lamb classic, claret. I have mentioned dill, dry acidic wines, likewise basil. With coriander and/or parsley Riesling or Chenin Blanc, likewise lemongrass though also Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris. Thyme and/or mint, with lamb, claret or Rioja; mint otherwise with Sauvignon Blanc. Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris have perhaps had more than their fair share of references, but where spices are concerned it is hard not to think of them first. Ginger is often a flavour component of these wines so it is not surprising that cardamom and tumeric spices work well and curries generally (dry Muscat another one). Riesling and Chenin Blanc (especially Vouvray) are not generally so exotic but nonetheless make good partners with Asian food, thanks to their ample acidity coupled with sweetness.
Salty dishes require a wine with a little sweetness, the more salty the dish, the sweeter the wine. The ultimate aforementioned, Roquefort cheese with sweet Sauternes. And of course stilton with port. Two obvious exceptions are Fino and Manzanilla dry sherries served as aperitifs with salted nuts, smoked almonds or anchovy-olives. These nervy, challenging combinations can be invigorating and most appetising. Reds by contrast are mostly all disastrous with salt, unless they have zero tannin and plenty of sweet fruit.
Sweet dishes require sweet wines which are sweeter than the dish. There are all sorts and an endless number of fantastic combinations. Christmas pudding, for example, may be enjoyed with dark sweet wines, Black Muscat, Maury or Banyuls, red wines which have been fortified with spirit to preserve their natural sweetness. I think of this match as a merging of flavour, weight and texture, because they are similarly dark and rich. By contrast, a light golden Muscat serves well as a foil, a light and refreshing sweet drink to contrast neatly with the pudding [two different approaches for alternative taste experiences]. I have found my favourite almond tart works best with sweet Semillon or the Sauternes blend of Semillon and Sauvignon, alternatively Vin Santo, tried and tested in Italy with biscotti. Apricot brioche with Orange Muscat, baked pear with sweet Vouvray. This last one is a sore point: I took a bottle of sweet Vouvray to a friend`s house having been told poached pear was on the menu. It was duly served and it turned out the pear had a sweet biscuit base with caramel, sweeter than the wine. The wine appeared thin and sharp and was a total wash out. Lesson: beware the sauce! Incidentally one idea to ensure the sauce is a match: serve vanilla ice cream and chocolate cake then pour Pedro Ximenez over both cake and ice cream to serve alongside a small glass of the same delicious, dark, treakly PX! If you think that`s weird, did you know red wines such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can work with chocolate dishes? An interesting choice and I have enjoyed the combination, though my preference is a sweet red such as Maury. With fruit salads and fruit tarts generally we will serve a golden Muscat but a late harvest Riesling works really well for lemon or citrus tarts and a late harvest Gewurztraminer can be fantastic in a fruit salad with lychees. Creme Brulee is a difficult one – its creamy sweetness requiring low acid intensely sweet wines such as Sauternes or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.
Sweet wine with Cheese
Personally my favourite match for sweet wine is cheese. I have mentioned the big two, Roquefort with Sauternes and Stilton with port, well try either of these with a slice of pear and a glass of sweet Vouvray! Indeed, try any blue with any sweet wine and the contrast is sure to be explosive. Some other tried and tested examples include our Myriad sweet red with Epoisses, Monbazillac with Coeur Neufchatel, Loupiac with Montgomery or Lincolnshire Poacher, Vouvray or Riesling with Banon goats cheese. Goats cheese is a funny one because it can coat the palate, which is why its marriage in heaven is the acidic dry white wine Pouilly-Fume; but both Vouvray and Riesling have a good natural acidity so fair best among sweet wines. Sweet Alsace Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris score highly matched with aromatic, flavourful cheeses… but I prefer the dry versions because, for me, they are ripe enough.
Sauvignon Blanc is once again an automatic contender where citrus and tomato sauces play a significant part in a dish , acidity matched with acidity; though where white fish and lemon combine, better still a white burgundy (or for a simple white fish unoaked Chardonnay).
For red meat dishes with tomato sauces, such as meatballs on pasta, better a red with ample acidity such as Chianti (Sangiovese grape) or Valpolicella (Corvina grape), possibly a tasty Pinot Noir, Syrah or Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Incidentally, if you must drink red with seafood – and with a good Bouillabaise this would be quite reasonable – then drink low tannin reds such as Pinot Noir or Beaujolais. Tannins in heavier reds taste metallic with seafood.
Creamy dishes are best served with fresh wines with some, but not too much richness, so for fish pie a Macon, Rully or NZ Chardonnay. With Carbonara could be the same, or a good Pinot Grigio (nothing overly rich). Viognier is a distinctive, perfumed alternative if you have some spice in the dish. Again Chardonnay when cream combines with cheese. With creamy mushroom soup an Amontillado sherry.
Food served simple
Just as sauces and spices can alter a choice of wine to match, equally there is the simply prepared food you would not want to spoil by overpowering it with an overly strong wine. For simple poached salmon, for instance, choose a light dry white wine such as Sauvignon. The same rule of thumb applies but choose the lighter option. Additionally, when opening a special mature bottle of claret or burgundy it may be the case you choose to make a simply prepared leg of lamb or beef to enjoy it with, so as not to obscure the subtleties of the great wine with an obtrusive sauce or spice.
Pates & terrines
Our fish pate has a good proportion of oily mackerel in it, so it is best enjoyed with a Sauvignon Blanc or similarly acidic dry white to cut through it and double as a palate cleanser. The Salmon pate is creamy so a better choice would be Chardonnay or for a change try Albarino or Pinot Blanc. Actually these last two wines would work well for vegetable pate as well, as would a light fruity red such as Marlborough Pinot Noir or Beaujolais-Villages. With meat pates you might step up to bigger and better fruity reds, good Australian Merlot or top Beaujolais crus, or NZ Pinot Noir from Central Otago or Martinborough instead of Marlborough. Incidentally we recently enjoyed a smooth liver pate from our local butcher on wholemeal bread with Turckheim Pinot Gris – the texture of the meat spread over the soft middle of the bread with its crunchy exterior was scrumptious in itself; washed down with the Pinot Gris (as opposed to a fruity red) it was heavenly. It goes to show that sticking with hard and fast theories on flavour can be a mistake: for me its as much a question of consistency, smooth or rough. I have since been advised that a sweet German Riesling Spatlese is another excellent partner with smooth meat pate, which makes perfect sense now, especially in light of the world`s most expensive pate: Foie Gras, controversial yet a classic with sweet wine as a starter, Sauternes, Alsace Vendange Tardive and Tokaji. Incidentally would be remiss of me not to mention Rose – of course there are a number of good pink wines about and the dry ones go well with pate, charcuterie and deli generally.
Wine and cheese is, of course, a world renowned pairing in heaven. I have attempted to match wines with our cheeses over the years and under the separate heading Cheese and Wine have listed a good many of them. More generally hard cheeses can work well with fruity red wines, goats cheeses with Sauvignon Blanc, blue cheeses with sweet wines, and soft cows milk cheeses with full-bodied whites such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. These last three would also be my choice when serving a platter with fruit.
Our favourite salad is Nicoise with tuna and our mixed olives thrown on top. It has a slightly salty edge to the flavour which works best with fruity red or rose wines, or, if you prefer white, a full-flavoured wine like Albarino. However, we would choose a Sauvignon Blanc with a simple green salad, and a Macon or other simple white burgundy with Caesar and chicken. When serving cold red meat with a salad side, a Fleurie or Pinot Noir is perfect, as is Charcuterie with salad, though our Valpolicella by Allegrini is superb with salami. When we combine red peppers and salad with barbecued meats we step up to Hawkes Bay NZ Syrah or Adelaide Hills Australian Shiraz. Another favourite in season: broad been salad with young Albarino. An Italian red wine vinaigrette on your salad could be a calling card for a young, acidic Italian red, likewise a white/green vinaigrette requires an acid white wine, Soave, Pinot Grigio or Gavi. Tomato in salad might yet direct you to Sauvignon Blanc.
As an introduction this is neither emphatic or complete as a guide, but it might be useful; it is not emphatic because this is not an exact science and it is not complete because the subject is endless. Indeed, it is limited in respect of my chosen wines because I have my favourites and draw largely from my own experiences. A better guide would be to take stock of the special dishes made regionally around the world and to see what the locals drink with those dishes. I have written an introduction to each country or region as listed on our home page under Wine List.