Food and wine matching is complex – and one of the best trump cards that a sommelier can play
During our latest menu change for the Rex Whistler Restaurant in Tate Britain I was chatting to the head chef. He is not only a brilliant cook, but an inquisitive one who really gets the importance of food and wine matching. He was asking how I go about matching a wine to his food and I trotted out a few of the basic rules, which he already knew.
As we discussed the issue further I realised that while general food-and-wine matching rules might be used as a starting point for a dish, more often than not the match that ends up on the menu is a mile away from the style – and sometimes even the colour – of our initial thoughts. The team was essentially involved in a complicated, sometimes long process of trial and error.
Increasingly nowadays, the traditional role of a sommelier, and the financial value they bring to a restaurant, is being questioned. There are plenty of excellent consultants out there, and more and more merchants will often put together a good selection of wines for you, along with a well-designed, informative wine list that can help you to sell them.
However, neither consultant nor merchant is going to be on the floor day in, day out. Food and wine matching is one of a classical sommelier’s trump cards and they should play it as often as possible, because in my experience customers love it. It is another part of the dining out experience that is unique.
Food and wine matching at home is usually informed guesswork. In a properly run restaurant with the right sommelier, however, it is much more of an exact science. Traditionally the experience has been limited to the tasting menu in restaurants with Michelin aspirations. Increasingly, though, better operators are offering a drinks match (and yes, that includes cocktails, spirits and beer) to each dish on the menu.
It’s something we’ve been doing for a couple of years and last month’s till report tells me unequivocally that our clientele embrace it: matches accounted for just under 20% of wine sales. Many are people who drop in for one course and like the hassle-free element of not having to trawl through a list.
It’s a great way to introduce an unfamiliar style or region, which, of course, are further reasons for guests to remember their visit fondly. With the right team on the floor and flexibility, it is also an excellent way to monetise any open samples or use up excess stock.
Chef did seem upset that I couldn’t pass on the perfect technique for matching food and wine. Though, on reflection, perhaps he was secretly happy that there is no set recipe to learn. With no easy answers, he knows that if he wants knowledge, he’ll just have to sit down after service and do a lot more ‘tasting’!