In Focus: In search of the ‘perfect’ food and wine pairing

The concept of food and wine pairing came under the spotlight recently when Tim Hanni MW publicly criticised the practice. Edith Hancock asks restaurateurs and sommeliers if matching still has merit.

Master of Wine Tim Hanni has dismissed the concept of food and wine matching (Photo: iStock)

“Please don’t do this if you have a heart condition,” our mentor warns as I dab my little finger into the fine white powder in front of me. “Now, see what you think.”

The room around us is heaving. The amps are booming, there’s still a queue running along the length of the velvet rope that pens us in, and nervous giggles bounce from table to table. On sampling the strange substance, more than a few people can’t resist a furtive grin.

We’re at a WSET masterclass at ProWein. The powder is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavour compound often added to Chinese food and processed meats. We’re also given a lemon wedge, a shot glass of salt and four marshmallows. We’re told to place the powder on our tongues and think about how it would react with the three wines in front of us; a Pinot Grigio, a Gewürztraminer, and a Pinot Noir. Once the initial salty taste wears off, there’s a warming sensation not unlike chicken stock or miso soup. Jude Mullins, the managing director of WSET’s operations in Asia, says this is the elusive flavour umami, which in Japanese, translates as “deliciousness”.

Now Mullins tells us to take a sip of the Pinot. “I’m not a nice person,” she says, and it’s soon clear why. The tannins that were already fairly present are now overwhelming. The fruit dies. The bitterness prevails. Basically, it tastes awful. She then tells us to combine the MSG with salt and lemon. Suddenly, sour cherry aromas are brought back to life and the wine turns to silk.

Whether you believe it’s science, fiction or somewhere in between, sommeliers earn their living by doing a far more complicated version of our half-hour masterclass. They taste hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of wines to see what they can match to their restaurant’s menu. Much of the WSET’s curriculum is based on the fine art of balancing salt, fat, acid and alcohol, but there’s a rebellion rumbling in the wine trade.

(Photo: Lucy Shaw)

This year Tim Hanni MW, the vocal American chef, critic and certified wine educator, told a packed room at the 2019 Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough that a perfect pairing doesn’t exist, and we’re doing “a lot of damage the way we’re matching wine and categorising it”. He called for a campaign to end the practice altogether, “as we’ve created a lot of bullshit around the idea”. Speaking a few weeks after the festival, Hanni’s prose is more academic. “What I’m actually talking about is the genetics that give us differences in how we perceive sensations,” Hanni says. “Some people have extremely sensitive hearing or eyesight. Others have, if you will, a diminished capacity.” Some people lack certain receptors and have a very high tolerance for bitterness; even high levels of alcohol can taste sweet. At the other end of the spectrum, around 40% of people are extremely sensitive to bitter flavours and struggle with any wine with an ABV higher than 13%.

Plenty of variation

This figure, Hanni says, jumps to between 50% and 70% of the population in Asia. There is also a middle ground, and plenty of variation between the three. “It shows up all the time in every wine competition or judging or when discussing what wine goes with what food.” It is a point that came up at the start of the WSET masterclass at ProWein. Before Mullins began the session, she asked the attendees to place a strip of Phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) paper on our tongues.

PTC is a bitter chemical compound that is intolerable to some people but undetectable to others. Out of the 20 people in the room, five removed the strip of paper immediately, while others took about 30 seconds to do so. Some barely reacted to it at all. Hanni’s issue is not with the concept of matching food to wine itself, but with the ingrained truths that some styles, such as Sauternes, should be served with certain foods, like foie gras or blue cheese, regardless of the individual diner’s tastes. Hanni says this is rarely the case, but “the knee-jerk reaction is somehow that the sommelier has something to lose in understanding the guests they serve, which is actually kind of crazy”.

Master Sommelier Clément Robert, wine buyer and group head sommelier for Caprice Holdings in London, agrees that taste is subjective, but thinks the idea that sommeliers are preventing people from enjoying their meal thanks to their own role in the dining room is simplistic. Wine, he says, hasn’t been over-intellectualised in the way Hanni sees it: “Wine pairings are very simple things. There are good sommeliers and there are bad ones,” he says, as is true in all professions. “A good sommelier should listen to the guest and find something that suits their preference. In any case, they should never impose their opinion.”

It is a view shared, at least in part, by Roger Jones, the chef-owner of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in Wiltshire, and a keen oenophile. “There are obviously simple things, like how Riesling should go with spicy foods,” he says. The general rule of thumb from WSET is that high tannins and acidity in a wine exacerbates spicy flavours, so the lighter the better, but during a recent pairing competition that Jones helped to judge, buttery Chardonnays came out as the winner with spices. “Chardonnay has always been the perfect match with Indian food. It follows the exact suit of what Indian people would drink with their food,” referring here to yoghurt-based drinks such as lassi or kefir.

The malolactic qualities of some Chardonnay, he says, provides the requisite cooling effect, but the general consensus revolves around light and aromatic serves. So, how can you anticipate a diner’s tastes? Hanni uses me as an example. “Do you drink coffee or tea?” Coffee, I reply. He asks if I take sugar or milk, or both. “There are very simple things we can ask and listen to for prompts that can give us quite good insight into what kind of sensory world a person lives in.”

 

Small plates

Getting to know your diner and their tastes may be a rewarding challenge, but it’s not the only thing somms must consider, especially in today’s dining culture. Speaking at the same Sauvignon Blanc celebration in Marlborough, Hong Kong-based MW Sarah Heller announced that our modern tradition of food and wine pairing is “a waste of time” in Asia, as there is a lot of eating off a Lazy Susan in a banquet setting, involving lots of courses that are only on a table for a bit. “Sommeliers should think more holistically about the style of cuisine being served and how certain wines pair with the sweetness and acidity levels in the food.”

(Photo: iStock)

Granted, lumping all the culinary cultures of one continent with cuisines as diverse as those from China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea or Nepal, and all of their subregions, is simplistic at best, but historically the tradition of serving multiple dishes at once is more ingrained in some parts of the world than others. Conversely, matching one alcoholic beverage to one plate of food is also more ingrained in certain areas, and this, Heller says, is where problems arise. China is a fast-growing and increasingly attractive market for fine wine producers, but sommeliers in Asia, she says, will need a different approach to sourcing and selection compared with their peers in Europe.

“Matching one wine to a meal can create a lot of anxiety,” she tells the drinks business a few weeks after the symposium, “and the idea that you have to have these strict rules takes much of the enjoyment out of the whole process.” There are a few ways to approach this. “It’s all about compromise,” says Robert, referencing the myriad pleasures Sherry can bring to a meal.

Tapas also has the potential to throw up issues when it comes to matching drinks, but, as he notes, many of these dishes share common themes, such as certain herbs or punchy garlic. “This means that a Sherry, with all its oxidative flavours and acidic profile, can go with most things fairly well on the list.” When it comes to service, restaurants are becoming more adept at catering to those needs. Robert and Jones both advocate wine flights, which are made possible by more wineries moving to aluminium closures, or expensive tech like Coravin’s preservation solutions found in such high-end haunts as 67 Pall Mall. Additionally, Robert says, it is “great to see so many restaurants serving their wines by the glass now”.

 

Modern affectation

Hanni’s comments may have caused a stir in February, but the MW has done his homework. During our interview he name-drops the culinary tome Larousse Gastronomique, and insists I find the first edition from 1938.

“It’s been my Bible since I was 14,” he says. The takeaway point is that the idea of matching one wine to one dish is a modern affectation. There is a section when you come to the main courses, he says, that details the wines you could serve, “such as Lafite, Romanée-Conti and Côte-Rôtie,” but he said the tome adds that “if the guests prefer the wines of Sauternes, they are more than welcome to imbibe those instead.” More recently, Hanni put this into practice in Marlborough when he suggested that drinking Sauvignon Blanc with a steak is far from a crime.

Whether a modern concept or not, there’s clearly a demand for it. “Look, Sometimes I just want to enjoy a wine with a steak and to not really think about it,” Robert admits, but adds that that’s not really the point. “If you go into a fine dining restaurant, the people you are serving go there because they have a genuine interest in what is being served.” House reds and whites are offered for a reason: not everyone wants to pursue the elusive ‘perfect pairing’, but other diners do. They might be interested in the food more than the wine, or vice versa, but Robert defends their right to have intellectual curiosity about their meal, especially when some are paying upwards of £200 per head. Luxury, he believes, “can be an intellectual experience.”

 

Diverse pairings

(Photo: iStock)

The craft beer movement is nearing adolescence in the UK, and has evolved to extend beyond the micropub and into dining rooms. Last October, beer writer and certified Cicerone Melissa Cole published The Beer Kitchen: The art and science of cooking and pairing with beer, offering a fresh take on food and drink that can be applied at home, but even London’s high-end on-trade is getting in on the act. In February, db visited Michelin-starred Alyn Williams at The Westbury in London to road-test the chef’s beer pairing menu, which the restaurant has offered since it opened in 2011.

“You could say we were a bit ahead of our time,” he told our reporter. There, we found oysters and dill granita paired with Helles lager, and squab pigeon with beetroot ketchup accompanied by a milk stout. Williams may have been a trailblazer at the start of the decade, but an increasing number of UK chefs are catching on. Tom Kitchin, the chef-owner of his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in Edinburgh, as well as Castle Terrace and others, collaborated with Isle of Skye Brewing Co. to create a pale ale, Yer Ben, that is sold in his restaurants. Last year, he told db that wine and beer can complement each other by “offering a different approach to food matching”.

Kitchin said he’s planning to add one dish with a beer pairing option to his tasting menu. “Some beers with higher ABVs are slightly richer and darker and therefore complement winter meat dishes, or a sweeter beer could be used to match a dessert.  At Castle Terrace, a classic combination to start would be oysters and dark beer – Loch Fyne Brewery does a great example of this with its Sanda Black IPA – and we are planning to add one dish with a beer pairing option to our tasting menu.”

Kitchin said he gives his staff an education in beer akin to a somm’s own vineyard expeditions, with in-house staff training and tastings, as well as regular brewery tours. Breweries of other kinds are also grabbing restaurateurs’ attention. Saké is growing in popularity in the on- and off-trade in the UK. According to Japan’s National Tax Agency, exports to the UK rose by 63% from 2012 to 2017 – from 238,000 litres to 388,000. WSET even introduced a Level 1 course on saké in 2016, which can be followed up by the Level 3 award that started accepting more advanced students in 2014. Since then, restaurants like Hide in Mayfair have made a point of including saké on their menus, and Japanese tea room Katsute100 in Islington sells a wide range of saké.

Could this provide the on-trade’s food pairing tradition with a breath of fresh air? “Of course,” says Robert. “If you look at the way saké and spirits have taken off in WSET, there is a strong desire from sommeliers for more education around these diverse topics.” Sommeliers like Robert may be open to adding more beers onto their menus and broadening diners’ experiences, but chef Roger Jones says, logistically, it’s not that easy for restaurants to accommodate just yet. “Beer pairings are great,” he says, “but I can’t sell a glass of beer for £68; it’s not in the same bracket as fine wines. Then you need to think about storage. At our restaurant we do very limited beer sales because we’d lose money.”

 

Perfect Pairing

If we’ve learned anything in the past three months, it is that it’s all too easy to create a war out of something that brings joy to so many. Every interviewee has their own perfect pairing they’re keen to share and wax lyrical about. Pairings, Robert says, are “great if people want to enjoy them, but then again it’s very important not to impose them”.

The perfect match, then, is the Schrodinger’s cat of fine dining. Hanni says it doesn’t exist, and Mullins agrees, but adds that a combination of a certain wine with certain food “could be perfect for that person. It’s all subjective”.

Roger Jones notes that, even if a Sauternes chimes perfectly with a cheesecake for a certain diner one day, “it could just be the day their boyfriend proposes to them. If a diner comes in a rubbish mood, nothing is going to make them happy.” The important point is that pairings, perfect or otherwise, are meant to be fun. “Nothing on a table is more important than the people around it,” Jones says. “Everything must be in perfect harmony”, from the bottle on the table, or the company you keep. db

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