A new seasoning agent aims to make food more wine-friendly. A sceptical FIONA BECKETT gives it a shake

Close your eyes and imagine there is a seasoning you could use in every recipe that would make every wine you partnered it with it taste delicious. The stuff of science fiction? Not according to Tim Hanni MW, who has come up with an all-purpose ‘wine friendly’ seasoning called Vignon.

Hanni, as those of you who have followed his eclectic career will be aware, is a larger than life character who, for some years, has been promoting the virtues of flavour balancing, a technique he first developed when he was working at California producer Beringer. Food and wine pairing, he says, is simply a question of understanding the impact that the primary tastes have on wine – that dishes high in acidity, for example, make wines taste more mellow.

Grasp that and you can drink any food you fancy with your favourite wine. Vignon is the logical next step, an umami-rich blend containing salt, garlic, Parmesan, mushroom and tomato powder and citric acid. It is, as the label states, based on natural ingredients, but with the rather unpleasant aroma of processed Parmesan you find in one of those long life tubs. Having persuaded Hanni to send over a batch, I could see it might appeal to wine newbies who find the taste of wine rather challenging.

But perhaps not the average Decanter reader. Or was I just being a typically cynical Brit? There was nothing for it but to give it a try. I carried around a tub in my handbag for several days without quite having the nerve to bring it out. It just looked like such an insult to the chef, particularly if I were sitting under his nose at the bar, as I was at the stylish new Soho joint Bocca di Lupo.

Eventually I found myself in a brash new diner where I ordered macaroni cheese and a glass of Rioja – neither terribly good. To my surprise, the Vignon considerably improved both – the macaroni cheese becoming cheesier and the wine richer and more velvety.

The next day in a pub I tried it again, this time with a dish of baked duck egg with potatoes and chorizo, and a glass of Australian Shiraz. Here it had much less effect, the chorizo overwhelming the taste of the seasoning and proving the more decisive influence on the match. The central problem, it struck me, was that using Vignon indiscriminately could

make everything taste the same and overwhelm more subtle flavours. Howcould it improve a delicate dish of seabass for example? It was time to speak to the man himself.

‘Would you use it at The French Laundry?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely not!’ he replied. ‘You don’t want to take a dish that’s already been seasoned and add this on top. The best way to use it is when you’re cooking, just like salt. It’s a very low-key background seasoning. Things just have this yumminess that lets the flavour of the wine shine through.’

Do try it at home

Still unconvinced, I conducted an experiment with our youngest son who has an exceptionally sensitive palate, cooking his favourite chicken scallopini dusted with Vignon. ‘These taste different,’ he said suspiciously. ‘Different in what way?’ ‘Sort of fishy.’

I explained that the point was to make any accompanying wine taste better. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘but if it makes food taste worse, what’s the point?’ We also tried it in a vinaigrette, which

oddly made the dressing taste curiously flat, but made the accompanying South African red taste positively luxuriant.

With cooked asparagus, another Hanni suggestion, it was weird, again removing the vegetable’s characteristic grassiness, but also having no perceptible effect on the two unlikely wine pairings I’d put up against it, an over-oaked Languedoc Merlot and a Blossom Hill white Zinfandel.

The Blossom Hill also tasted exactlyas you’d expect (sweet and sickly) with a dish of mushrooms in cream and sherry, exactly the result Hanni was seeking to demonstrate. ‘It won’t change a wine you don’t like. If you think white Zinfandel sucks to begin with, you’ll still think it sucks,’ he said cheerfully.

Essentially, the seasoning is what’s known as a bitter-blocker, counteracting the bitter flavours of astringent or bulky tannins and mellowing wines that have pronounced acidity. It does what it says on the tin, which is to allow wines to taste the way you like them, but at the expense of the character of the food.

It enhances existing umami flavours (which is why it worked with the macaroni cheese), but seems to dumb down everything else. Vignon is obviously not intended for people like me, who believe in the art of food and wine pairing. But that’s not saying it won’t be successful. It can be ordered, if you’re curious, from www.napaseasoning.com.

Written by Fiona Beckett