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The 25 best food and wine pairings

Over the years, Fiona Beckett has found a match for pretty much every food or wine imaginable. Here are her all-time favourite matches...

Over the years, Fiona Beckett has found a match for pretty much every food or wine imaginable. Here are her all-time favourite pairings

How on earth to whittle all the great food and wine combinations that I’ve ever experienced down to a mere 25? And how not to base them all on a few favourite wines and foods? Some criteria had to be set.

Nothing too blindingly obvious and nothing so obscure that you couldn’t possibly replicate it, like the remarkable 1820 Bual I once drank with a sabayon of pruneaux d’Agen.

There are obviously omissions, some deliberate. No chocolate (wine matches can be workable but are rarely great). Not much cheese (again, seldom sublime). No offal (a minority taste, great though it can be with wine). And few of the very simple pairings that can be pleasurable given the right moment and the right company – a simple crisp white with a grilled fish that’s jumped straight from the sea…

Fiona’s best food and wine pairings:

Oysters and Chablis

Whether it’s the fossilised remains of oysters that can be found in the soil of the Chablis region or simply the severe steely dryness of the wine, there are few purer, more reliable combinations than oysters and Chablis. My own preference is for native oysters, totally unadorned with lemon, shallot vinegar or any other condiment, and young premier cru Chablis.

Other good options with oysters: Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, Picpoul de Pinet

Apple tart and sweet Chenin Blanc

A classic-style French apple tart is, of course, one of the most wine-friendly of desserts but it has a particular affinity with the best Loire dessert wines such as Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume. Don’t overelaborate – add cream, if anything.

Other good options with apple tart: Sauternes or similar sweet Bordeaux, Vendange Tardive Gewurztraminer

Tuna and Loire reds

Tuna is often served as rare as a steak these days so, like seared salmon, it suits red wine better than white. The grape variety that works best is Cabernet Franc, especially from the Loire, which has a delicious mulberry fruitiness but also a dryness and acidity that works well with the often fragrant spicing of the fish. (It isn’t as good with tinned tuna, though,)

Other good options with tuna: Pinot Noir, strong, dry rosé

Caviar and Champagne

I dithered over this match both because it’s so well known and because a sizeable number prefer vodka, but texture is key. Only Champagne – top-quality vintage Champagne at that – leaves you with the taste of each individual egg intact. Vodka is too ‘hot’, even when ice cold. And if you’re paying that much for the real thing, you want to appreciate every mouthful.

Other options with caviar: None

Lamb cutlets with Rioja Gran Reserva

Lamb goes with most reds but when it’s cooked – as it is in Rioja and elsewhere in northern Spain – as herb-strewn cutlets of baby lamb grilled for a few minutes over vine cuttings, you don’t want a blockbluster to trample all over them. A mature gran reserva has the power and finesse to handle the delicate, sweet, smoky flavours.

Other good options: similar-styled wines from Navarra

Chinese food and Bordeaux rosé

There might be better individual matches within the Chinese canon (dim sum and Champagne, duck and Pinot Noir) but if you want one wine to take you through the meal, Bordeaux rosé, with its bright, sweet berry fruit, handles the combination of sweet and sour particularly well.

Other good options with Chinese: Merlot or Cabernet-based rosés, German Riesling

Stilton and Tokaji

Yes, vintage port is the more classic combination, but try Tokaji, a pairing I discovered a few years ago at London cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield. Five puttonyos is ideal, and a five- to six-year-old wine, so that the rich, caramelised orange flavours are fully developed. It’s also fantastic with Cashel Blue from Ireland.

Other good options with Stilton: Sauternes, vintage Port, oloroso sherry

Foie gras and Jurançon

I find starting a meal with Sauternes too overwhelming. Jurançon, while sweet, has a sundried apricot and quince character so you can segue comfortably into a red. It also handles seared foie gras which can be challenging for Bordeaux-style dessert wines. And of course it comes from the southwest, the heart of foie gras country.

Other good options with foie gras: Tokaji, vin santo

Chicken with morilles and vin jaune

A classic dish from the Arbois region of France – the chicken (generally a poulet de Bresse) is cooked in a creamy sauce with morilles mushrooms and vin jaune, an acquired taste but it gives the dish a lift you wouldn’t get with less intense wine.

Other good options with creamy mushroom sauces: a rich Rhône white, Alsace Pinot Gris, a top white Burgundy or other good-quality Chardonnay

Steak and Californian Cabernet Sauvignon

I agonised over whether to make my ideal pairing an Australian Shiraz or an Argentinian Malbec but in the end it was a perfectly cooked chargrilled steakhouse-style ribeye with, say, a four- to five-year-old Stags Leap Cab that won the day.

Other good options with steak: Any medium- to full-bodied red (the rarer the meat, the bigger the tannins it can take on)

Game pie and first-growth Bordeaux

One of the best food pairings I ever experienced was at the Connaught in London – a hot, rich ‘pithivier’ of game with a glass of 1979 Château Lafite. No vegetables, not even potatoes. Perfection.

Other good options with game pie: other clarets, Northern Rhône reds

Duck and Mourvèdre

Mourvèdre is a sleeping partner in many southern French reds but always leaves its exotically scented footprint. When it dominates, as it does in Bandol, it can be a sensual partner for duck, especially cooked Provençal style with olives.

Other good options with duck: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Barbera

Crab and Australian Riesling

Ever since I ate Neil Perry’s blue swimmer crab omelette at Rockpool in Sydney some 10 years ago I’ve been obsessed with the combination of spicy crab and Aussie Riesling. Crab lends itself particularly well to flavours such as lime, chillies and coriander, while Australian – especially Clare Valley – Riesling adds a vibrant zest to the dish without overwhelming the delicate texture of the crabmeat.

Other good options with crab: dry German Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne

Salade niçoise and dry rosé

What to eat with the oceans of rosé now engulfing the shelves? What better than a classic salade niçoise – if you can agree on what the classic recipe is. (Mine comprises tuna, anchovies, tomatoes, green beans and hard-boiled eggs with warm new potatoes on the side.) With that I want a strong dry rosé from the south of France or Spain.

Other good options with salad niçoise: a dry earthy Rhône or Languedoc white

Lobster with ginger and Gewurztraminer

A combination I would never have thought of from flamboyant restaurant Everest on the 40th floor of Chicago’s stock exchange building, where it’s one of Alsatian chef Jean Joho’s signature dishes. Ginger and Gewurz is a great combination.

Other good options with lobster: Viognier, Meursault and other fine white Burgundy, top-quality Chardonnay

Veal and Chianti Classico

A pet hate is the intensely reduced jus so many chefs now insist on serving, so a typically Tuscan roast of veal with a light white wine- and stock-based sauce is right up my street. The natural match is a mature Chianti Classico riserva, intense enough to shine in its own right, subtle enough to not overpower the flavour of the meat.

Other good options with roast veal: older claret, Rioja gran reserva

Smoked salmon and manzanilla sherry

Not the most usual combination with smoked salmon but the most reliably consistent one. It goes without saying that the sherry should be served chilled from a freshly opened bottle.

Other good options with smoked salmon: Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, malt whisky

Truffles and Barbaresco

The idea of pairing a full-bodied red with an ingredient as evanescent as white truffles might seem foolhardy, but if you’ve been to Piedmont you’ll know how sublime it can be, especially with the ultra-indulgent tagliolini pasta, which can be enriched with up to a dozen egg yolks per 500g of flour.

Other good options with truffles: vintage Champagne

Scallops and oaked Chardonnay

Seared scallops have a caramelised sweetness that harmonises perfectly with the creamy, almost nutty taste and texture of a mature oak-aged Chardonnay. The scallops should be fat, fresh and diver-caught and the Chardonnay at least two years old.

Other good matches for scallops: oaked white Bordeaux, vintage Champagne

Goats cheese and Sauvignon Blanc

An all-time great food and wine match. It doesn’t seem to matter how old the cheese is or what type of Sauvignon Blanc (though I prefer more austere, minerally styles) – it works. The ultimate match is probably a Sancerre with a Crottin de Chavignol which comes from the same region.

Other good options with goats cheese: Loire reds and dry rosés

Pork belly and dry German Riesling

Ubiquitous in gastropubs, roast pork belly works best with a wine that has a high level of acidity plus a touch of sweetness. Cue dry German Riesling, especially if apple is served alongside. It provides welcome freshness, cuts through the fat and doesn’t detract from the crispness of the crackling.

Other good options with pork belly: Alsace or Austrian Riesling, young red Burgundy

Thai food and Pinot Gris

Rarely do you find a wine that handles a whole cuisine better than Pinot Gris and Thai food. Like most Asian cuisines, dishes are placed on the table at the same time so one wine has to do duty for all. The crisp acidity of Alsace Pinot Gris makes it a reliably good match but the new wave of Pinot Gris from New Zealand (see panel tasting, p101) with their opulent fruit and beguiling sweetness are impressive.

Other good matches for Thai food: none is quite as flexible, but Gewurztraminer works with many dishes

Salmon and chilled Pinot Noir

With most salmon these days being farmed and consequently coarser in taste and fattier in texture than wild salmon, it a) tastes better seared than poached b) generally pairs better with red wine than white. The obvious choice is a chilled Pinot Noir which picks up perfectly on the richness of the fish and the caramelised crust.

Other good options with salmon: Chardonnay

Sea bass and Albariño

The combination of the restaurant world’s most fashionable fish with one of the wine world’s most fashionable wines might be terminally trendy but it’s none the worse for that. Sea bass is a delicate fish, often served simply with Mediterranean flavours such as olive oil, tomato and basil, and Albariño is the perfect seafood white.

Other good options with seabass: Chablis, Loire Sauvignon Blanc

Vietnamese spring rolls and Grüner Veltliner

I like Grüner Veltliner with Vietnamese food in general but its clean, green peppery flavour is sublime with the country’s crunchy fresh mint and coriander-laced spring rolls – not fried and served cold rather than hot. You want a young, simple Grüner, not a mature one.

Other good matches with Vietnamese food: dry Austrian or German Riesling, Australian Verdelho

Strawberries and cream with Muscat de Beaumes de Venise

There’s a sentimental aspect to this match – the first time I realised food and wine could interact in such a way that both tasted better than they did on their own. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise isn’t a great wine or even particularly fashionable these days but it’s a charming and simple pairing for one of summer’s great desserts.

Other good options with strawberries and cream: Sauternes, demi-sec Champagne

With thanks to the Tate Modern for the food served.

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