Vinous and Gastro Bedfellows
There are strange companionships. People who seem almost gratingly bizarre together, but click with a chemistry that restores your faith in human versatility
And sometimes there are multitudes within a person, cohering in some ineffable way. Our tastes either reinforce a central narrative about us, or showcase our mysterious uniqueness: say the banjo playing, ballet loving, South Asian cuisine adoring, devotee of Checkov and Indie Films, who loves the game of squash and the martial arts, gregarious and yet also isolated at different times and in different ways.
And so too beyond the “obvious companionships” in tastes in food and wine, and the natural affinities between evident flavors, there are fascinating detours, divergences and offramps.
Enjoying Burgundy with Cantonese Cuisine is a natural, and the bridge between the two is evident. Imagine the intrigue though when Pierre Lurton of Chateau d’Yquem suggested enjoying Yquem with Sushi, and our surprise, in finding out how right he was. The acid in the soy, the tang of the wasabi, was cooled and caressed by the majesty of this Sauternes.
Champagne goes beautifully with caviar we are told, but with age, depth and nuance, it plays so amiably with roast chicken, veal, and when present with a bit more heft and more Pinot Noir in the picture, ravishingly say with a Duck a l’Orange as well.
Emphatic Tuscan reds send you scurrying towards tripe yes with all its piquancy. More layered Nebbiolos may incline towards a crackling Maialino or the more simple yet alluringly robust enchantment of a pasta with Wild Boar Ragu.
Off to Asia, and Riesling, off-dry most likely, frolics with Uni, and with Yuzu, or back in Europe, with Ceviche. Go to Spatlese or older Auslese though, and Sichuan presents itself very willingly, ready to be wooed and won.
Get those Oeufs en Cocotte made traditionally with some morels, cream and cheese, and the debate is not if a Chassagne Montrachet provides a ballad for them, but at what stage of its development it is ready for this heady exchange.
Savennieres is being rediscovered, things Loire are being admired as they should. Older vintages will ally beautifully if not self-evidently with kidneys, veal with cream and mushrooms, and certain expressive cheeses.
And there are multiple roads to palate pleasure here.
We know Pauillac and rack of lamb is a natural marriage, but add a little Foie to your roast duck, and the Pauillac can veer merrily in that direction. Take a Richebourg from Meo, when the acidity has become a bit more encased in the rich fruit, and the lamb rack will still be beaming!
Cassoulet and Madiran are naturals, however there is no reason a Cote Rotie couldn’t enter the fray with amiable aptness.
Take the resplendently intriguing Four Rows Sauvignon Blanc from Canada and it will romance Goat Cheese with virtually the same success as a lively Sancerre.
Sweet potatoes, chard, lentils, mushrooms, vegetables that can be chameleon-like based on how they are nurtured, marry surprisingly well with an atypically full bodied, thrilling Rose like Chateau Simone’s from Provence.
Amontillado Sherry with raw or gently seasoned fish (anchovies among them) is lovely, but watch as our gaze expands as we experience it proudly serenading a Game Consommé.
Indian curry (when produced with sophistication and not just an egregious avalanche of chilis) works with slightly more lush Pinots from the New World, though also with the sweet appeal of Grenache from the dwindling number of producers who can wield that baton (try Mont Redon or Pignan), or indeed the dark fruit and pepper notes of a soulful Cornas or St. Joseph.
Slow simmered Rabbit and a Beaujolais from Fleurie flirt sensuously, and a tangy Pork Belly positively purrs when accompanied by a lovely Chenin Blanc.
Last evening, with an eminent guest we had beautiful sweetbreads with a mustard beurre blanc harmonizing delightfully with the mature splendor of a Kalin Chardonnary 1995, defying time with a touch of oxidative brio.
So other than stoking our appetite for gastro indulgence alongside vinous exploration, what’s the point to this foray through tastes?
It is to suggest that “classic” pairings can be admirable. But we may wish to seek thrilling new pairings as well, and the trick is to go for two variables: balance and expressiveness.
If the balance of a dish or a wine is upset by its cohort, head elsewhere! If it is deepened, rules and conventions be damned, invite them back together.
And/or if a primary defining element of a dish is dampened, or a key part of the taste profile of a wine is suppressed or distorted by the attempted partnership, file the divorce papers without delay! If instead such a key element is buttressed or enhanced, let the romance flourish and strike up the band!
Slightly more specifically, when some guard rails to guide intuition are sought:
Salt: This reduces the impact of acidity, and vice-versa. That’s why a citric Assyrtiko works so naturally with salty Feta. Sugar with salt works too (remember Yquem and Sushi), but also think of Charentais Melon and Prosciutto. Hence sweet wines, and salty cheeses cavort with glee.
Sugar: The wine should be sweeter than the dessert or sweet dish it’s accompanying. Sweetness otherwise renders a wine bitter or at least flaccid. For a disconcerting experience, try to return to a dry red after an apple crumble and it will be grimaces galore.
Bitterness: If flirting with bitter leaves or astringent tastes, go for an acidic companion, a young Chianti will flourish, while a plump oaky white will lead to the kind of dismay you experience when you have to force a smile while nonsense is spewed with solemnity.
Acidity: Again, amity prevails overall, acidic food, acidic wine. Or when you have food with “bite” again having enough acidity entices, and depending on the level of heat some sweetness (sweet fruit though plays as well as sugar) helps to placate and balance the palate.
Umami: Often described as a “meaty, savory taste” (soy, dashi, shitake, aged parmesan, anchovies, etc), works with slightly oxidative flavors as you get from Sherry or say wines from the Jura, and also of course with the fermented smoothness of Sake. The key is not to overpower the mid palate sensation, and texturally ally with the umami on the palate. Gamey Nebbiolos (particularly with mushrooms and tomatoes), dry mineral laced Rieslings (particularly with anchovies and brined fish) and mature Champagnes also make for fascinating consorts.
Fat: Tannin and acid in harmony will engage, pacify and at times, exalt high fat dishes. And the gamier the dish, the more the acid helps. The more rich in flavor, tannins take precedence. So think of more expressive Burgundy and Goose on the one hand and Claret and a Porterhouse on the other.
Summing up, diverging without distinction is just silly. Having to be different is merely another type of prison just as needing to be the same is.
We should instead, do both, and flex our fancy. Keep exploring, as we seek to each month at Business and Wine, with senses at the ready, discernment aquiver, and our palates primed, as marvelous possibilities and combinations reveal their treasures.
Or indeed, equally, we often can and should simply rejoice -- when we are opting to instead just exult in savoring and celebrating the timeless.