Chefs aren’t to blame if you can’t find a wine to match their food. It’s also up to winemakers, sommeliers and diners, says FRANCIS PERCIVAL.
Modern restaurant chefs are accused of neglecting the wine lover (Fiona Beckett, ‘Very pretty, but what about the wine?’, Decanter, March 2008). Their food is so over-wrought that even the finest wines struggle; the blend of restaurant fashions and lack of knowledge on the part of the chef have left the wine enthusiast with little option other than to eat – and drink – at home. But if wine and food are in danger of splitting gastronomy into two mutually suspicious cultures, it is not the fault of avaricious, ignorant chefs.
Winemakers, wine writers and consumers have to recognise their own responsibility too. If we are going to serve wine with food, then surely it’s logical that the wines we like to drink should go with the foods we like to eat? Alas, this is far from the case. Oddly enough, it is not the parade of foams, clouds or hot gelatins that arouse the greatest hostility towards practitioners of culinary modernism. It is simply their repackaging of the meal into a multitude of small courses. Michel Roux Jr, chef-patron at Le Gavroche, voices a common frustration: ‘Long tasting menus are such a shame. I look at them and think “What do you drink with it?”’ No single bottle or even a progression of half bottles could harmoniously pair with 14 courses. The great irony is that chefs are trying to achieve the same effect as a winemaker crafting a wine to show well in a blind tasting. As Thomas Keller, chef at Napa’s The French Laundry, says: ‘I want that initial shock to be the only thing you experience. So I serve five to 10 small courses, each meant to satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity.’
Each course tend to be seasoned for maximum impact, as small portions will help to avoid palate fatigue. The same phenomenon can be witnessed at a blind wine tasting, where concentration, depth and extraction will almost inevitably outscore subtlety and finesse. As wine becomes seen as a beverage akin to beer or a cocktail, rather than a fixture at the dinner table, it evolves away from something that would make a happy food-pairing: in the case of a red wine, effort is expended on softening tannins and raising alcohol to give a sweet mouthful of lush richness. This lush sweetness can make the wines feel heavy and clumsy with food. When chef Rowley Leigh was compiling his wine list at Le Café Anglais, he felt compelled to restrict his selection to France, Italy, Germany and Austria. ‘I don’t sweeten my food, and I think the higher fruit/sugar content of New World wine is suited to food that is sweet,’ he says.
Terry Threlfall, sommelier at Chez Bruce, is also vociferous about avoiding heavy, alcoholic wines. ‘No matter how big, a wine must always have that refreshing character. With each sip you should want to drink more.’ Berating Bordeaux Praising a wine for being ‘food-friendly’ too easily falls into well-rehearsed arguments about ripeness, alcohol levels and pH. If a wine is a fine companion to food it should mean more than ‘relatively restrained and slightly lower alcohol’. In gastronomic terms, the world of wine is vastly over-preoccupied with reds, particularly Bordeaux blends. When a restaurant is criticised for not having a sufficiently wine-friendly menu, the real subtext is that there are too few dishes that will accompany a bottle of claret. This is not to deny that some of the finest wines are made in Bordeaux, just to note that such wines are inflexible when it comes to finding a food match. Why do wine connoisseurs place such emphasis upon this most gastronomically inflexible style? Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate has given 100 points to only eight dry whites (including five vintages of Chapoutier l’Ermitage Ermite Blanc), and even Jancis Robinson MW has only ever given full marks to two dry whites among her 30 perfect scores. I’m sure it’s a reflection of good readership research that of all the Decanter panel tastings scheduled for 2008, four are dedicated to red Bordeaux and only three will be of exclusively dry white wines. For all the impressive auction prices and critics’ scores, red Bordeaux will never be the most adaptable food wine.
Beyond the obvious meat dishes, its partners are few. We would get far greater mileage in most meals from a high-acid white, perhaps balanced with a hint of residual sugar. A great Vouvray demi-sec has all the potential longevity of a Paulliac classed-growth but will happily pair with spices, fish, poultry and all manner of rich sauces; even a hearty stew of duck, pork and beans finds a thrilling foil in the sheer refreshment of a fruity Mosel Riesling Kabinett. And yet (or thankfully for those in the know), these styles remain among the world’s great bargains. If we are to resurrect gastronomy as an equal dialogue between food and wine, we need to value food-friendly bottles as much as we cherish wine-friendly cooking: ‘food-friendly’ cannot simply be a euphemism for wine under 14.5% abv.
Written by Francis Percival