Food and Wine Pairing...simplified
Before I started my career I knew nothing about wine…actually, to be honest, I knew nothing about alcohol in general. If it had alcohol volume and it was sweet, I would drink it. Then I did a wine course and studied food the French way. Everything in French cooking seems to have wine somewhere along the line. If there’s no wine in the preparation then there will be wine to pair the dish with at the table. No matter what, wine will make the picture in the end.
As part of our studies we also had to work 3 months in the academy’s restaurant, I learned quite a few invaluable lessons there too. I’ve made it my mission to simplify that rather mystical world of fine dining as much as possible for the ordinary person.
So what is it that wine snobs are doing when staring at that wine glass? There’s an actual process that one follows when tasting wine. You’re checking for sediment, for clarity, for intensity of colour and even alcohol volume. When one twirls the glass they’re checking how slowly the wine sinks down the sides of the glass. These streams of wine that seep down the glass are called “legs”. The slower the streams move the higher the alcohol content in the wine. When they lift the glass up to the light they are inspecting the clarity of the wine and also checking for sediment. When they stare down into the glass they’re checking the colour of the wine, you can actually tell what type of wine you’re about to drink simply based on colour, but that comes with experience and time. When you see people sticking their noses into wine glasses they’re smelling the wine to test for any signs of it being off (referred to as the wine having “corked”) and they’re sniffing the wine to also pick up any notes of potential flavours they might find when drinking it. Some people over do it and end up looking rather silly and some people do it just to seem like they’re experts. At the end of the day wine ends up in the same place and it’s all unique to each person. No matter what someone might try to tell you the best wine in the world is the one you’ve enjoyed personally. It’s not based on price, awards or what anyone else has said. If you’re enjoying it and like the taste, then it’s the best wine.
The descriptions and wording on the bottles are useless, don’t go with them. Every persons taste buds are unique and different. The price of a bottle of wine is determined by the wine estate that makes it, so the price of a bottle of wine is also not an indicator of the quality of a wine. A cheap wine can also be equally great tasting. A cork is also not an indicator of a good wine. In actual fact, a screw top wine bottle is better as it means you can store your wine better and there’s less chance of air (the biggest enemy of stored wine) getting into the bottle.
There are étiquettes to how wine is meant to be served. There are 6 main wine glasses. A tasting glass is the shortest and is brought to your table by the waiter when you order a bottle of wine. The waiter will show you the face of the wine, if you agree it’s the wine you’ve ordered he will then turn the bottle and offer you the description label for you to read, once you’ve agreed to it the waiter will then proceed to open the bottle. If it’s champagne a professional waiter won’t make a sound when opening the wine (I know it sounds weird but its etiquette). When pouring your wine the wine bottle must not touch the rim of the wine glass nor can the waiter lift the wine glass up. The only time the waiter will lift your glass to pour your wine is if the wine is champagne or sparkling wine. The other 5 glasses are the white wine glass, red wine (the largest wine glass), dessert wine, sherry and port glasses. The other room of thumb is that red wine should be served at room temperature, sure but keep in mind that we are in Africa, our room temperature is higher than in Europe where wine originates from. So what am I saying? It’s perfectly fine to chill red wine. Yes, I said it.
Wines are named after the grape they’re made from. Example, Pinotage wine is made from Pinotage grapes. (I’ll leave the technical stuff for now, this is a chef blog afterall!)
I love South African wines and try to always use local wines when cooking. This is my current list of top 10 South African wines…
Tokara Reserve Chardonnay
Kleine Zalze Chenin Blanc
Diemersdal 8 rows Sauvignon Blanc
Vergelegen G.V.B. (Blend)
Fleur du Cap (Unfiltered) Cab Sauv
Vergelegen V Cab Sauv
Simonsig Redhill Pinotage
Rust en Vrede Estate (Red blend)
La Motte Pierneef collection Shiraz
Tips on how to pair wines and food:
Wine pairing is all about balancing the food you’re eating with the wine. You don’t want one to overwhelm the other. The last thing I want as a chef is for a wine to change the taste of my food. Also look at the dish as one entire thing, don’t just choose a wine based solely on the protein or main ingredient, think of the sauces and what other components are on the plate.
Sweet wines go with sweet foods (e.g. Chocolate pairs well with port or sherry).
Slightly sweet food like bbq ribs or sweet chilli stir fry go well with off-dry wines like Riesling
Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with foods that are a bit sharper in taste. Example foods that have balsamic vinegar, sushi, salad dressing, mayonnaise etc.
Cabernet Sauvignon goes well with more rich foods. Food that is “heavy” and more intense in body and flavour. Steaks, bolognese sauce, pasta sauces, rich hearty stews, things with mustard sauce, roasts, braai meat
Light cheese and cheesy dishes go well with Chardonnay. Anything savoury and rich also pairs well with Chardonnay, like creamy sauces and fish
Contrary to popular belief, you can have a light red wine with fish. Salmon pairs well with a Pinot Noir but the general rule of thumb is that Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay are the wines that are best for pairing lighter textured/flavoured fish
Beef curries and heavy read meat dishes go well with Shiraz/Syrah because it’s also a heavy red wine but not as intense as a Cabernet Sauvignon
Champagne goes well with salty foods, like crackers.
Malbec and Côtes du Rhône are awesome with braai meat
That’s it. There is a lot more to wine. Play around and enjoy it the way you want.