The second in our food and wine matching series sees John E Fells & Sons putting a range of wines to the test with a group of hungry sommeliers. Chris losh hopes that the chef’s turkey drummers turn out ok…
The task, on paper, is simple: for our participating merchant (in this case John E Fells & Sons) to team up with a venue (The Gilbert Scott at the magnificent St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel) to seek out some high class food and wine matches across a starter, main course and dessert.
But as we saw in the last issue of Imbibe (with Alliance Wine), bottles that look to be nailed-on matches can disappoint our sommelier panel when the time comes, while others sneak up out of nowhere to take top spot. So how would Fells get on with their suggestions?
How it Worked
Our wine merchant teamed up with a restaurant to suggest five wines for each of three courses. No criteria were laid down, other than to point out that our tasters would give higher marks for consistency of quality, adventurousness of choices, value for money and,
of course, the success of the matches themselves.
Our judges (four sommeliers plus Imbibe editor Chris Losh) 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, again scoring out of 10 to give an overall score out of 50.
Finally, the four sommeliers were asked to score the overall wine experience out of 10. This score out of 40 (plus the scores of the three best food matches and the average scores with and without food on the day) went on our leaderboard.
Marco Feraldi, Galvin La Chapelle Nigel Lister, Bread Street Kitchen Chris Losh, Imbibe Angus Macnab, consultant Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan
Dorset white crab meat, brown crab mayonnaise with pomelo, fennel, chilli and coriander
Fells put forward a well-priced, wide-ranging selection of whites here. While our sommeliers
often enjoy seeing a left-field red-with-fish suggestion or a sneaky fortified, for a tricky dish
like this one, such choices would probably have been suicidal rather than brave.
‘The fennel is a prominent part of the dish – so you need wines that go with the meat, but they also need to have the weight for the distinctive aromatics,’ explained Fells’ Christo Elliot Lockhart of his choices. The result was a mix, from ‘safe’ clean wines like the Chablis, to a Torrontés – which was described by Lockhart himself as ‘a gamble’.
‘I was excited,’ said Hakkasan’s Christine Parkinson. ‘These were wines that you really wanted to taste: a great combination of traditional mixed with edgy. The Sauvignon, for instance, was an edgier choice, and the Gentil is not usual.’
With the food
Our tasters had felt that the Semillon would be the best match here – though with the caveat
that, with so many elements at play in the dish, its success would depend hugely on balance.
In fact, it turned out to be a dish of two halves, with a sweet ball of crab meat and mayonnaise sitting beside the edgier fennel/pomelo/coriander garnish. It was, however, beautifully put together, elegant and precise, and no elements dominated.
What quickly became obvious was that oak and acidity were disastrous elements from a match point of view. The Chablis had its acidity exaggerated by the soft sweetness of the crab, and the oaky Sauvignon (the most popular wine on its own) turned out to be a self-confessed gamble that didn’t pay off with the food, its score almost halving.
Of the remainder, most of the wines worked better with one half of the dish than the other. The Torrontés, for instance, was popular with the meat, but was felt to be doing the same job as the garnish; while the Semillon was excellent at clearing the palate, but did rather overwhelm the subtlety of the delicate dish.
The winner, by quite some distance, was the Hugel Classic Gentil. A blend of five Alsace grape varieties, it was a gentle, soft wine with attractive stonefruit and citrus flavours and plenty of persistence, but not too much volume. It had the freshness and weight to go with the meat (but no overt acidity), and understated aromatics that went neatly with the garnish. It was, in other words, a wine that went very well with both (very different) halves of the dish, despite being the cheapest of the bunch.
Hugel Classic Gentil 2010, Alsace, France, £8.08
A lovely harmonious combination of flavours on the nose, from stonefruit to grapefruit, both aromatic and mineral. Its understated balance and complexity proved a sympathetic foil for such a well-balanced dish.
Braised beef short rib served with cumin-buttered carrots
After tasting the selection of wines laid out before them our tasters weren’t expecting too many problems here. ‘Textbook examples of different styles,’ said Bread Street Kitchen’s Nigel Lister. ‘Interesting wines, but not self-consciously wacky.’
Certainly, Côtes du Rhône and Chianti were never going to gain marks for originality, but they were excellent and well-priced examples. The edgier stuff was a Bordelais/Portuguese hybrid, a Cape Blend, and a Hawkes Bay Syrah – interestingly, the most expensive wine of the day.
‘We could have chosen a Bordeaux, or Masla Plana [by Torres], but then we wouldn’t have learned anything,’ said Lockhart.
Certainly Fells’ policy seemed justified, as the feedback was good, and the scores very high. In fact, the Bullnose Syrah had the highest ‘tasted alone’ score of ‘Come Wine With Me’ to date.
With the food
Braised for 14 hours with lots of garlic and herbs
– the stock then reduced to make a treacle-black sauce – this was a dish that was not short of intensity yet retained the elegance and balance of the starter.
‘Deceptively simple,’ praised Parkinson. ‘A subtle, delicious dish without complication, but with absolutely nothing to fault. Hats off to the chef.’
The problem with such an immaculate dish was that the food ruthlessly picked apart any elements in the wines that were not perfectly balanced.
The Syrah, for instance, went from first to last – its fruit cruelly stripped. A disconsolate Parkinson explained: ‘The dish is so compact and balanced, wines with sweetness seem clumsy and lopsided.’
This explains why the more understated Ricasoli breezed from fifth to first place when paired with the food. In fact, tasters were split here, with three favouring the whispering elegance of the Chianti, and two the roller-coaster ride of the port.
‘Initially the port was too much, but if you wait a few seconds the dish comes back, with more complexity,’ said Galvin La Chapelle’s Marco Feraldi. ‘It was edgy, but the minerality of the wine shone – I liked that,’ nodded consultant Angus Macnab.
Overall, though, the scores were high here, with just nine points separating first and last. ‘In fairness, most guests could drink any of these wines. None of them really failed,’ said Parkinson.
Barone Ricasoli Chianti del Barone 2010, Italy, £7.70
A youthful, fruit-driven Chianti, combining classic red fruit and sour-cherry notes with balanced tannin and acidity. Its weight, freshness and structure played alongside the short-rib beef beautifully.
A sweet pastry case filled with apples, topped with apple meringue, served with clotted cream
The choices here may have seemed a little esoteric, but Lockhart was confident. ‘The Riesling and the Madeira are safe bets. The Muscat (Torbreck) will go with the meringue, and the tawny could be a surprise.’ The Malvedos was, he admitted, a ‘left-field choice’.
Our team loved the wines for their quality, balance and finish (each scored over 40). But they questioned how well any would match the dish. ‘Three of these are fortified,’ mused Parkinson.
‘But this isn’t a dish that makes you think “fortified’”.
With the food
In spite of our panel’s reservations, the dish was sweet, but not markedly so, and the apples were fresh, rather than tart. But the clotted cream had a significant impact on the wines, particularly the fortifieds, helping to tame the heat of the alcohol.
The biggest loser, perhaps surprisingly, was the Riesling: its piercing acidity exaggerated.
The Malvedos drowned the dish in fruit and the Madeira was deemed to be a miss by most.
On one level, the Muscat came closest. ‘As a flavour match, it’s outstanding,’ said Feraldi to nods of agreement. ‘But it’s too sweet.’
The best match – to raised eyebrows all round – was the tawny port. It refreshed the palate, mixing with the cream to take the dessert in a new direction. ‘The cream was vital,’ said Parkinson. ‘It took down the alcohol and let the other flavours emerge.’
Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port, Douro, Portugal, £14.70
With its dried fruit, spice, mocha and coffee flavours, this was an attractive and well-balanced wine, with a firm, voluptuous elegance and a persistent finish. It added brown sugar and spice flavours to the apple dessert to make an unusually successful match.
scores so far…
This stellar performance put John E Fells & Sons in the lead, just edging ahead of Alliance Wines. Though the individual match scores were tight, the panel’s final verdict was: Alliance, 29.5; Fells, 34.5.
In the Cab…
Oh, all right. We’re not really in a cab. The wine storage unit probably gave that away. But our sommeliers did make do with the whole ‘scores outta 10 on a card’ thing.
Marco Feraldi, Galvin La Chapelle
‘The choice of wines was well done. Some worked better than others, but the thinking behind them was very good. Everything worked properly – it’s just, sometimes we agreed and sometimes we didn’t.’
Nigel Lister, Bread Sreet Kitchen
‘I kept using the word “classic”. Almost all of the wines we saw were from great producers, but Fells was still brave in its selections. There was a good breadth of wines, especially for the starter.’
Angus Macnab, consultant
‘There was a good variety of wines. The sweeties were more experimental than the reds, but there was a huge diversity overall and I liked that. About half worked, and that’s not bad, given some of the brave choices. There were some standout wines too.’
Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan
‘A really appealing selection, with classics like Chablis and Chianti and imaginative choices like a Torrontés, but all from top-notch producers. It was also clear the team had considered the menu, and I’d have served most of these quite happily.’