Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Variety is the spice of memorable meals

A meal without food is like a honeymoon without a bride – something vital is missing. One glass of wine transform a sandwich into a repast and two different wines – a white and a red, say – transform your meal into a feast.


Almost all food tastes better with wine and dry wines surpass themselves with food. Once the cork is drawn, aroma and flavour expand; and when food and wine commingle the flavour of both is enhanced.


Whites have the edge with fish and reds with meats, but that should not deprive us of the pleasure of less conventional matches. A lushly fruity Fleurie, served cool, is quite delicious with grilled salmon; a subtle dry white can shed completely new light on tender pink lamb; a sweet Vouvray or Sancerre with goat cheese can be a revelation. One should not be hidebound: the palate swiftly grows tired of the same thing.


Dramatic contrasts – rough red with bland dishes – can work well, but harmony seems to be the keynote. A fat, succulent, deep-flavoured Bâtard-Montrachet from Burgundy is celestial with lobster but would be killed stone-dead by roll mop herrings.


A delicate Volnay from Burgundy (or a flowery Margaux from the Médoc), perfect with tender lamb or fillet of beef – would be wasted on a peppery stew. In this context, a massive red Rhône of the more rustic kind would come into its own – and would be much cheaper!


Affinity is the name of the game. By pure chance, a decadently ripe ’78 Grand Cru Chablis in my cellar goes superbly with asparagus simply because it smells and tastes very much like it. (Asparagus is reputed to be impossible with wines, but to my taste a white Hermitage or white Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône, or a Pinot Gris Réserve Personnelle from Alsace, also work very well indeed.


If a dish contains mushrooms it makes sense to uncork a bottle that has developed mushroomy aromas (many older wines do so). Salmon is a fat fish and tastes wonderful with “fat” whites like Pinot Gris and voluminous white Rhônes.


The choice is completely different if the salmon is smoked: a dry fino sherry, a spicey gewürztraminer, or (truly a revelation) an off-dry Riesling from Germany.


If cod is flavoursome enough to take on really burly whites and even reds (the Norwegians love it with cool young claret), more delicate fish go swimmingly with more refined kind of wine – a white Premier Cru from Burgundy, fine Chablis, a dry Riesling from Alsace.


A truly massive, slightly decadent red is indispensable with game. And if the game is overripe, go for an almost decadently overripe red from the Côte de Nuits or the Rhône. In this respect, Alain Graillot’s superior Crozes Hermitage, “La Guiraude”, is an inspired choice, developing as it does aromas of truffles, autumn berries, undergrowth, and mushrooms (if you think I’m exaggerating, try it – if there’s any left!).


Butter-sauce (beurre blanc) figures in many fine dishes. A “buttery” Chardonnay is ideal here. Science supports custom: many wines described as buttery have been found to contain some of the very elements present in butter.


The choice of dishes and wines available to us is almost without limit. We could spend the rest of our lives ringing the changes on dishes and bottles. And starting a collection does not have to cost the earth. Only avoid dull wines without personality: they cost money without enhancing the quality of your life. And as a wise man once said, “Life is too short to drink mediocre wine”.


© Frank Ward 2010

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