We, the team at Restaurant Mosaic at Château des Tesnières, take our wine pairings seriously.
Chef Chantel Dartnall painstakingly prepares every dish, deconstructing it to test each element with considered wines before tasting the exquisitely composed plate. My responsibility is to acquaint myself with Chef Chantel’s ingredients, menu and all of its intricacies to envision the best possible match to create pairing nirvana. Once tasted together by the team, discussions abound, scores are tallied, and pairing decisions are eventually made. The process is repeated as each dish evolves, long before it is featured on the degustation menu or offered to patrons.
More about the concept and minutiae of deconstructed pairings in a future post. We offer a dizzying array of choices in our award-winning cellars or bespoke, curated tasting offerings. But what if you are having a kitchen table supper midweek at home, a romantic dinner for two, are enjoying a casual bistro experience or throwing a celebratory dinner party with friends – how do you choose which wine to enjoy with your meal?
I recently chuckled at a cartoon on social media titled “Wine Pairing in the Stone Age” featuring a couple standing next to an open fire captioned “Simple rule of thumb: if it tries to eat us, serve with red. If it runs away from us, serve with white.” Let’s begin by doing away with all the rules. White wine with white meat and red wine with red meat is an antiquated notion. So is the idea of a perfect pairing. As close as you might come is the dizzying heights of not knowing whether to raise the fork or the wine glass to your lips next.
Certainly, there are some classic pairings. Think Champagne and oysters. Burgundy with duck. Cabernet Sauvignon with rare beef. Sancerre with goat cheese. Sauternes and foie gras. Sweet Chenin Blanc with Tarte Tatin. Brunello di Montalcino with wild boar ragu. A well-chilled Provence rosé with a salad Niçoise. An off dry Riesling with spicy Thai food. Manzanilla Sherry with almond stuffed olives. The truth is that wine pairings are largely about your own personal preferences.
Let me let you in on a little secret. Almost every wine will work with whatever is on your plate. Aromas and flavours are based on an individual’s sensory capacity, sensitivity and personal experiences. Chances are, if you like your coffee with plenty of cream and sugar, highly acidic or tannic wines may not be to your personal taste. Everybody’s noses and palates are different. Far more can be gleaned by looking at the structure of the wine or dish: the acidity, level of sweetness, body, depth and texture.
Rather than rules, here are some basic principles of pairing to consider when making your next wine choice:
“The pursuit of the perfect should never be the enemy of the good” wrote New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov. If you choose a wine or wine-style that you like and a dish you like, you can’t really go wrong. At best, you’ll find joyful harmony but if they don’t quite gel together, you’ll still have a lovely glass of wine and a great dish to savour individually.
Consider intensity. Think about the flavour intensity and weight of the wine as well as the dish. Delicate, light bodied wines are easily overpowered by intensely flavoured, heavy dishes. A full bodied, oaked wine can also overwhelm more delicate dishes. Some dishes that aren’t rich or heavy can be intensely flavoured and the pungency can overwhelm a wine. There is so much joy and fun in experimenting with wine and food.
A is for Acid. Acidity in a wine adds freshness and lift the same way a squeeze of lemon, citrus zest or a dash of balsamic vinegar might to a dish. If the acidity of the dish is greater than that of the wine, the wine can seem rather dull. Acidity in the dish increases the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in the wine and simultaneously decreases the perception of acidity in the wine.
Pinch of salt? Arguably the most wine-friendly component of food that can in fact soften some of the wine’s harsher edges, salt increases the perception of body in a wine. Salt also tamps down the perception of astringency, bitterness and acidity in a wine.
Bitter pill to swallow. Each of us has different tolerances to bitterness making this principle highly subjective. Just because you might be sensitive to one bitter compound, doesn’t mean you will be sensitive to them all. Bitterness tends to be compounded, so while you may find pleasant bitterness in a dish and balanced bitterness in a wine, when you combine them, they could exponentially appear more bitter and rather unpleasant.
The F word. Fat is found in milk, butter, cream, oil, cheeses and nuts. Most proteins contain fat. Think about how sauces containing these ingredients can add body to a dish or flavour intensity. While fat contributes positively to flavour and mouthfeel it will make wine seem less acidic. The principle here is to pair wines with higher levels of acidity when it comes to dishes with higher fat content.
Some like it hot. Less about taste and sensitivity, chilli heat in food is a tactile sensation that increases your perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and alcohol burn. The intensity of this reaction increases as the level of alcohol in the wine rises. Fruitiness, body, richness and sweetness in a wine are all muted by chilli heat.
Understanding umami. In Japanese, umami means “essence of deliciousness”. Alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty, umami is one of our five basic taste sensations and is best described as savoury. Fermented products, nori, mushrooms and meat broths have an umami character as do asparagus, eggs and ripe soft cheeses. Umami dishes, accentuate the perception of bitterness, astringency and acidity in a wine. Many foods have umami character combined with saltiness, for example: cured fish, smoked meats and hard cheeses like Parmesan. This can help mitigate the negative perceptions.
Sweet heart? Remember that sweetness is not simply related to desserts. Sauces can be sweet. Fruit, when ripe, is sweet. Some vegetables, like carrots and beetroot can be perceived as sweet too. Even seafood can appear sweet. Sweetness in a dish increases the perception of bitterness, astringency, and acidity in the wine. A good general principle is to opt for wines alongside sweet dishes that are equal to or greater than the level of sweetness in the food.
Toss the rulebook aside and enjoy exploring the options. While we work tirelessly in pursuit of the perfect pairing, we seek to understand your personal preferences and unique sensitivities to deliver the best possible pairing experience.
Enjoy what is in your glass! Santé!
Debi van Flymen
Restaurant Mosaic at Châteaux des Tesnières