Our new food and wine matching series kicks off with Alliance Wine unveiling a succession of hopeful food wines to a group of eager sommeliers. Spit bucket, camera, action! says Chris Losh
To kick off our new food and wine-matching series, Alliance Wine partnered with The Orange
gastropub (part of the Cubitt House pub group) and group wine buyer Matthew Cocks.
Their task: to choose five wines each for starter, main course and dessert that would stimulate the judges and offer thrilling matches or contrasts to the food.
And so, with a panel of expert tasters assembled, corks were pulled, the stoves fired up and the very first Come Wine with Me slid down the gangway into the sea of editorial history (that’s enough laboured metaphors. Ed).
How it Worked
One wine merchant teamed up with a restaurant to suggest five wines for three courses. No criteria were laid down, other than to point out that our tasters would give extra marks for overall consistency of quality of the wines, adventurousness of choice and, of course, success of food match.
Our five tasters (four sommeliers plus an Imbibe journalist) each tasted all of the wines first, scoring them out of 10 to give an overall score out of 50. They then re-tasted each wine with its relevant dish, scoring the match out of 10. Again, leading to an overall score out of 50.
Finally, the four sommeliers were asked to score the overall experience (using the criteria above) out of 10. This Come Wine with Me total will go on our overall wine merchant leader board.
Paulo Brammer, ETM Group Nigel Lister, Consultant Chris Losh, Imbibe
Emily O’Hare, The River Café Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan
Sea bass carpaccio with fresh lime and black pepper dressing
Proceedings kicked off with an interesting and wide-ranging selection of wines – from a well-priced English white up to a Central Otago Pinot at £18 – all with an attractive underlying minerality. ‘We were looking for varieties that had an acidic backbone,’ said Cubitt House’s Matthew Cocks. ‘The dish is quite subtle and simple – with a lot of focus on the quality ingredients. To go with that, you need wines that have plenty of acidity but are not too austere.’
‘A few from our portfolio that we tried with the dish didn’t work,’ said Alliance’s Christine Allen. ‘Anything with oak had too much power.’
The sommeliers were impressed with the interesting range selected, agreeing with Emily O’Hare’s assessment that they were ‘excellent across the board and had a real sense of place’.
With the food
It quickly became obvious that what looked like a simple match on paper was significantly more complicated, largely due to a knife-edge balance between the delicacy of the fish and the strong, sour elements in its dressing.
The Grüner, for instance, was rendered one-dimensional by the food, while the Pecorino simply swamped the fish, with any savoury notes being replaced by the grape’s hallmark pear-drop and bubblegum characters. The Pinot Noir was seen as a passable match rather than an inspired one. But it had a significant champion in Christine Parkinson, who pointed out that ‘it would work if you wanted to drink a wine right through the meal. It had acidity and structure – the whole thing was refreshing.’
The two winners, though, were the Brauneberger Riesling and the Three Choirs. The former came with a caveat that the customer ‘would have to like a bit of sweetness’, but, in fact, the touch of residual sugar allowed the wine to ‘surf over the fruit in the dish’ as Nigel Lister put it. ‘The fish is quite oily, so you need plenty of acidity – a lot more than if
it was cooked.’
The champion of this round, however, was the Three Choirs. ‘It didn’t hide any of the elements of the dish,’ praised Paulo Brammer. ‘It had acidity, but also a lovely lightness.’ Nigel Lister enjoyed the fact that it had ‘such a lot of personality. I thought it would be too much for the food, but it wasn’t.’
All in all, though, Alliance’s bravery in selecting unusual options was rewarded and the sommeliers agreed this was a hugely successful range of wines for the dish.
Beef fillet on the bone, with oxtail
This was a safer selection of wines that practically came with the words ‘made for beef’ stamped on them. The prices were rather more ambitious, with only one wine under a tenner, and two over £20.
‘This is a big, powerful dish, so we went for rich, opulent reds,’ explained Cocks. ‘It actually made it quite hard to narrow the selection down to just five.’
The two talking-point wines were a brawny Garnacha made by a Scotsman in Spain, and a rather more restrained Southern French blend, which were pitted against such steak-related classics as a Barolo (quite modern in style), an Argentinian Malbec and a Napa Cab.
‘The Mas Cal Demoura, for me, is one of our stand-out wineries,’ said Allen. ‘It has real elegance. The Escocés Volante Garnacha is an edgier match.’
The sommeliers certainly loved the untamed nature of the latter. It was a wine with a cheerful insouciance, and one that they felt would work well with the steak. All the tasters picked up on high alcohol levels (14% plus across the board) but were happy that they were, nonetheless, all in balance.
With the food
With tenderloin roasted on the bone, pearl onions braised in red wine and honey, and braised oxtail, this was a big, powerful dish that took no prisoners. ‘None of the wines came through unscathed,’ said Parkinson. ‘They all either changed or lost something.’ Part of the problem was the concentrated sweetness of the meat allied to the tang of the onions. This was food with flavour dialled up to 11.
Again, there were two stand-out wines. In second place was the Barolo – ‘It’s a young wine, but it’s extended and lengthened by the dish,’ said Brammer. It held onto its savoury fruit, and the tannin dropped away to leave a savoury, refreshing, elegant finish.
The favourite, though, was the Malbec. With so many classy wines on display our tasters felt vaguely uneasy about recommending a sub-£10 bottle. But there was no question that it was the best match. It had sufficient sweetness to stand up to the reduction, but no jamminess – its bright fruit notes adding a new element to the dish. ‘It does the job that redcurrant jelly does with lamb,’ observed Parkinson.
Again, our tasters were pleased to have two very different – and highly successful – matches that could be made to work for different customers.
Tarte tatin with milk ice cream
The shackles were off again here, with a wide range of wines, from a classic apple-dessert match, Côteaux du Layon, through a Portuguese late harvest to a (terribly brave) ruby port. ‘The Grandjo is our star,’ said Allen. ‘It has the same kind of attributes as a great Sauternes, but it’s phenomenal value for money.’
‘For me, the two stars were the Côteaux du Layon and the Sauternes,’ said Parkinson. ‘The latter was absolutely tremendous. It was like unwrapping a present, with so many layers of good things to discover.’
There were question marks over how the port would get on with the food, but the sommeliers were still stimulated by the challenge. ‘They didn’t play safe, which is good to see,’ said Brammer. ‘It’s an exciting line-up of wines.’
With the food
The fact that only one wine improved its stand-alone score with the dessert tells you everything you need to know here. This was an extremely difficult dish to match, probably because of the caramelised nature of the apples, which added a toffee note that both contributed sweetness and tended to stamp over more delicate flavours.
Hence, wines with lower acidity, like the super-lush Grandjo just made a ‘sweet plus sweet’ combination that rendered it, as O’Hare put it ‘like an extra sauce’, while the delightful Sauternes
simply had its elegance stolen by the fruit. The port didn’t really work and the satiny Wachau Beerenauslese couldn’t compete with the richness.
All of which left only one wine: the Côteaux du Layon. Its appley flavours and general freshness gave it the edge over the Sauternes that was more than twice the price.
‘It was a fun flight of sweeties, but really hard to find any to go with that dish,’ concluded O’Hare.
In the Cab…
OK, so we didn’t really debrief our sommeliers in a rain-lashed taxi like they do on TV, but we did get them to hold up scorecards…
Paulo Brammer, ETM Group
‘Overall, the wines were very, very good. I loved that they had the courage to put in things that were different, for the starter and dessert especially. Getting two very different matches for one dish, like we did a couple of times here, really brings our job to life.’
Nigel Lister, Consultant
‘The wines hit a nice balance between stuff you’d expect and more left-field options – that’s what you want as a sommelier. Whether they worked with the food or not, this was a high quality range of wines, with no duds.’
Emily O’Hare, The River Café
‘These were really competent choices – not too expensive or dull, but thoughtful and practical, and we didn’t get much we’d seen before. Nothing didn’t work – the problem was finding a winner. These were premium wines.’
Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan
‘The wines for the starter were ambitious, but succeeded, and I liked the unusual dessert choices, too. But the main course wines were more reliant on big, alcoholic styles. Perhaps they could have tried one left-field choice like a big, rich white?’
Alliance Wine: For more information on any of the wines in this tasting contact Alliance Wine on 01505 506060, or [email protected] All bottles are 75cl except the port.