by Margaret Rand

A Good Marriage

Most wines are diminished by food. Discuss, writing on both sides of the paper at once, preferably in green ink.

How could it not be so? Wines today are intended to be perfect. They are intended to be in perfect balance, with perfectly ripe tannins (if applicable), perfect acidity and/or freshness and are, of course, perfect reflections of their terroir; and are often intended, moreover, to be judged and scored with no other accompaniment than the previous and next wines in the line-up. How can even the best-judged dish improve on that?

‘Oh, we make our wines to be drunk with food’, says every single wine producer in the world. Maybe; but you make them to be assessed without food. And if you are successful in that, food cannot improve them.

Not that they all care about that. As a witness, let me summon my recollections of various dinners and lunches over the years, all held by eminent wine producers at eminent restaurants, some of which clearly didn’t give two hoots about matching food and wine. Or rather, I would infer that the wine was left to its own devices – because a well-constructed dish, a well-constructed meal, should be perfect on its own, and need nothing else. Surely?  Would you, would a top chef, serve a dish thinking, well, it’s not quite right on its own, but give it a glass of Coonawarra Cab and it’ll be bang-on?

First, a recent dinner at a London restaurant for a famous Chilean red; a red of depth and suppleness, low acidity and high alcohol. There were bottles of Coca-Cola on the sideboard as well, and though nobody drank it, it would have had exactly the same hit rate of one out of three.

The first course was crab and mango. Delicious. With Famous Chilean Red, a car crash. Second: lamb and mashed potato – I forget how it was described, but that was what it was, and lamb and mashed potato with Famous Chilean Red was fine. Couldn’t fail. Then a chocolatey dessert. The Coke would have been better, probably.

I also recall, from many years ago, a lunch at Arpège in Paris for Vega Sicilia. VS is wonderful with things like ox cheek and mashed potato, which is what I’ve been served for lunch at the estate. (Is mashed potato actually the best possible food for wine? Just a thought.) But Arpège is famously vegetarian. Complicated tomato dishes with Vega Sicilia are not ideal.

Then there was the dinner at The Fat Duck for a Champagne launch, nearly as many years ago. The food, often wonderful, appeared to make no concessions to the Champagne, which had to take its chances. Sometimes it swam, sometimes it sank painfully.

This happens more often than you would think; so often that perfect – or even good – matches of food and wine, course after course, at such lunches or dinners are the exception, and cause astonishment. El Celler de Can Roca pulled it off for Recaredo’s Turó d’en Mota the other week. One wine, different vintages, different dishes, every one a winner.

Most of the time hoping, expecting, that the same wine, or even variations on it – the entry-level version, the super-selected version – will go with three different courses seems to me to verge on self-delusion. Why should the poor wine have such expectations thrown at it? It’s only a wine. It is what it is.

This is all irrelevant, I hear you cry. Of course bad matches don’t work. Of course lots of chefs don’t care about wine, and want their food to take the foreground. And of course there will be producers who choose restaurants that underline the status of the wine, rather than the flavour of the wine. And I daresay enough of their consumers privilege status over flavour in just the same way.

Often, in tasting notes, we might write, ‘needs food’, or ‘needs a steak’. I’ve just been tasting old-vine Barbera in Piemonte, courtesy of the Old Vine Conference. Beautiful wines, but not to be drunk on their own. Is there something wrong with the wine in those cases? Clearly not.

If you can sense a U-turn, you’re right. Wines are made to be as perfect as possible on their own, but of course tasting and scoring is not the same as drinking.

So: perfect matches of food and wine. They’re rare. Alex Hunt MW reckons ten per cent of matches are bad, ten per cent perfect and the other 80% perfectly okay. Most of the time, if you use common sense, the food and the wine will be perfectly all right together and nobody will notice anyway.

But you and I are always chasing that top ten per cent, are we not? At Noble Rot the other night I had squid with chorizo sauce with Filipa Pato’s Bairrada Nossa Calcario: wonderful. Ditto Frédéric Mabileau’s Anjou Blanc Les Rouillères with monkfish, mussels, girolles and sweetcorn. Yalumba’s The Caley with lamb, slow-cooked courgettes, borlotti beans and cumin salsa verde at Spring at Somerset House. Yet would I have appreciated the wines in more detail without the food? Of course. But a good match, like a good marriage, offers compensation for what you give up.

Yet some wines are so rare, so special, that you don’t want anything to interfere. Cristiano van Zeller has just launched three Colheita Ports from 1860, 1870 and 1888, and recommends you drink them on their own. Anything that diminished them would be a loss, without enough compensation. The compensation must be at least equivalent to the loss.

In Piemonte I bought a small white truffle, freshly dug up. Yes, I did. I know. Yes, very.

We had it grated over baked Mont d’Or with new potatoes. The wine was good but quite simple. You can’t eat a truffle on its own, but that truffle was expensive. I didn’t want it diminished in any way by some overbearing, status-conscious wine that didn’t know its proper place.

Photo by Amirali Mirhashemian on Unsplash