Contrary to popular belief, no food is truly unmatchable, says Fiona Beckett. It just takes imagination to find the right wine
Look up any book or guide to food and wine matching, and you’ll invariably find a list of foods that are regarded as anathema to wine. I’ve listed them myself, but have come to the conclusion recently that the problem is often overstated. It may be true that most wines fall out with such ingredients as artichokes or hot curries, but they may be the kind of wines you would not be inclined to drink with those dishes anyway.
There are also elements you can introduce to make a difficult ingredient more wine-friendly, either by building a bridge to the selected wine or by softening the impact of the food (such as adding cream or ricotta to spinach). Here goes…
The problem Artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin that reacts badly with oaked whites and most reds, making them taste oddly sweet.
The solution Serve them as the Italians do rather than as the French do; grilled, fried or raw in salads with lemon (including peel) or olive oil, rather than boiled and served with a vinaigrette. The wines that match best are dry, earthy whites, such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano or Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, or southern French whites, including grapes such as Terret or white Grenache. Bone-dry fino or manzanilla sherry is another option.
Chocolate fondant puddings
The problem The palate-coating effect of very rich, dark, sweet, molten chocolate.
The solution Lighten the effect with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or extra-thick double cream. Add a dark cherry or berry fruit compote and serve with a sweet red, such as a Recioto della Valpolicella, or a modern-style vintage-character port. It’s the best match going (short of espresso coffee).
Very hot curries
The problem Very hot chillies both anaesthetise your tastebuds and strongly accentuate the tannins and alcohol in the accompanying wine.
The solution I’m tempted to say don’t bother, stick to beer or don’t make your curries so hot, but, if you must, a very well-chilled Riesling or a flowery white, such as Torrontés, is best. (If you offset the heat by offering raita and naan as well as boiled or pilau rice, you can even get away with a jammy red.)
Ice creams and sorbets
The problem Again, they numb the palate and can have the effect of making most dessert wines taste thin and sharp.
The solution Serve them with more wine-friendly ingredients – fruit tart, a crumble topping or accompanying fresh fruit that is less sweet than the wine you pick to complement the dessert. It depends partly on the ice cream. Rich vanilla, coffee or chocolate ice creams can be sensational just with sweet (PX) sherry or Madeira, sweet fortified wines such as Malaga, or Australian liqueur Muscat.
Very ripe, washed rind cheeses (e.g. Epoisses)
The problem The bitterness and ammoniac flavours of the cheese, particularly the rind, completely alter the tastes of most reds, especially oak-aged ones (though the French, who frequently recommend red Burgundy with Epoisses, disagree).
The solution I favour a Marc de Bourgogne, but if you want to stick to wine, choose an aromatic, unoaked white, such as Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer (the traditional pairing with Munster). They allow the flavours of the cheese and the wine to stay intact. Alternatively, don’t allow your cheese to run away with you.
Tarte au citron
The problem Seemingly innocuous, but, in practice, the intense sweetness and acidity of the lemon filling knocks the stuffing out of dessert wines that have a similarly citrus flavour profile.
The solution Serve crème fraîche with the tart to offset the sweetness, then serve a super-sweet beerenauslese or botrytised Riesling. You could also add some tart fruit to the plate, such as fresh berries.
Herrings and other pickled or salted fish and vegetables
The problem Vinegar doesn’t like fine wine. Add oily fish, and you’ve got trouble.
The solution Another food where beer (especially pilsner) has the edge, but you can alleviate the problems of the match by serving boiled potatoes or light rye bread alongside. Wines that will work best are high acid whites, such as Muscadet Picpoul de Pinet or seafood whites, such as Albariño. Spicy pickles are bad news, though.
The problem It’s not so much the leaves that are the problem as the vinaigrette, especially with red wines, if you serve it after the main course, French-style.
The solution Soften the dressing’s acidity with a proportion of balsamic vinegar, cream or even chicken stock, and don’t add raw onion or garlic. Use a milder, fruity oil at this stage rather than a pungent, grassy one, which can throw a serious red off course. Walnuts, slivers of parmesan or air-dried ham, or crispy bacon pieces will all make a salad more red wine-friendly, especially if it contains bitter greens.
The problem One liquid with another is sometimes one liquid too many, particularly with more finely textured soups.
The solution Introduce texture – a few noodles or a raviolo to consommé, a little cream to a smooth vegetable soup, or chunkier ingredients to make the dish more like a stew. An oaked white will give more texture than an unoaked one.
The problem A subscriber to my website alerted me to this when it stumped a sommelier at a restaurant where he was dining. And it is a tough one to match.
The solution Botrytised Riesling. You need sweetness and piercing acidity. Austrian wines of ausbruch quality tend to have the requisite power too.
Not the villains you think they are
Held to be a similar villain of the piece to artichokes, but you can drink a light red with asparagus spears if you chargrill them and serve with a touch of balsamic vinegar and some shaved parmesan.
Cold dark chocolate desserts rarely cause the same problems as hot ones, and can be paired with similar wines to those already suggested. With lighter milk chocolate and white chocolate desserts – especially if partnered with fruit – you can serve more conventional dessert wines.
There’s virtually no way of serving them that can’t be dealt with by Champagne, smooth, dry, unoaked whites, such as Pinot Blanc, or inexpensive white Burgundy.
There are so many big, porty reds now that you don’t have to stick to port. Amarone, Zinfandel and other ripe, sweet, New World reds all do the job well, especially with more mellow blue cheeses, such as Fourme d’Ambert. Or, of course, the classic Sauternes.
You can pair almost any conventional wine with the subtly spiced Indian food you find at such fine dining establishments as The Cinnamon Club. And all these big, fruity new rosés that are hitting the shelves are good too.