Ask Tom – Matching Food and Wine

Dear Tom

Can you tell me how to match food and wine ?  Should I stick with the classics – what about modern dishes?

Matching food and wine is probably more art than science and matches should be measured more on a scale than a simple yes/no.

One often speaks of food-friendly wines – that is wines with the body, tannin and acidity to stand up to food – but equally, there are wine-friendly foods, such as plain roast meats, simple fish dishes or anything with a classic sauce (and that does not include Daddies or HP !).

Once you have your food sorted, whilst there will always be an element of personal preference, there are a few basic principles to bear in mind:

– A crisp, acidic wine will cut through rich, fatty foods (white wine with cheese or pork).

– Tannic wines (Bordeaux, Rioja) will be softened by protein such as red meat (hence the classic matches of beef and lamb).

– Tannic wines do not match well with salty food (red wine and crisps is not a match made in heaven).

– Match heavy creamy or buttery sauces to more full-bodied wines (full-bodied whites will stand up to and cut through a hearty cream-based sauce).

And remember, some foods are just not wine-friendly – anything that is too greasy and / or sweet is best matched with beer instead (think chips, spring rolls, baked beans or anything with ketchup).

Also excessively strong flavours (such as Indian curries) will also overpower most wines, so if you are dirnking wine and want some spice, use it sparingly.

Ask Tom – wine styles

Dear Tom,

What do people mean when they refer to the New World and the Old World in wine ? Are these the main styles now ? I thought it was Bordeaux or Burgundy ?

There are almost as many styles are there are wines, but some broad-brush categorisations are possible.

The Old World is cool-to-moderate-climate Europe and styles here are traditionally more restrained and food-friendly.

There is traditionally more emphasis on the texture and structure of the wines, than on ripe, up-front fruit flavours here.

By contrast, the New World (everywhere apart from Europe) is warm-climate and styles there tend to be more fruit driven, resulting in crowd-pleasing quaffers with lots of ripe fruit aromas and higher alcohol levels.

Of course, there are cool-climate regions of Chile, New Zealand and even Australian which produce steely whites or concentrated reds, just as baking inland Spain, Southern Italy and the south of France can produce fruity quaffers.

So these days, New World vs Old World is more a stylistic term about the fruit and alcohol levels of a wine, than a reference to its place of origin

When considering the place of origin of a wine, we need to think about terroir – that untranslatable French word which refers to the unique combination of spoil, sun, aspect and climate conditions which result in specific qualities in the resulting wine.

For example, clay soils in Bordeaux do not drain so freely as gravel thereby retaining moisture and suiting earlier ripening grape varieties such as Merlot.

In Austria, the eastern end of the Wachau valley enjoys warm southerly breezes whilst the western end is cooled by northerly winds resulting in a cooler climate and steelier white wines there.

Chile, Argentina, Greece and Styria all have high-altitude vineyard areas leading to extended growing seasons with lighter, paler, but more intensely flavoured and crisp whites, whilst reds from altitude will feel more restrained and concentrated.

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Ask Tom – fruit-driven wines and other considerations

Dear Tom

What are fruit-driven wines – is it a good thing ? What else should I look for in a wine ?

Many, perhaps most, wines these days are fruit driven – that is to say, they have lots of fruit aromas on the nose and palate.

However, there is more to life than mere primary fruit aromas.

With time and exposure to air, the overt primary fruit fades revealing (in a good wine) more interesting and complex, but less immediately-obvious, secondary aromas.

Some wines, of course, are not made to be aged and have only up-front fruit to show.

Then, there re are wines that are not at all fruit driven; the most notable of these is sherry which has neither primary nor secondary aromas and merely tertiary or evolved aromas from fermentation and aging. As a result, sherry will seem quite “neutral”, but have a bracing tang and crisp acidity.

As well as fruit flavours, a well-made wine will have good acidity (fresh and juicy, linear or complex rounded and mouthfilling but not harsh) and texture (good, smooth tannins in red wines, they can either be soft or prominent).

A well-made wine will also have a good finish and length (how long the aromas last after swallowing).

Some wines will be aged in oak which can act as the “seasoning”; Chardonnay is the top white wine for oak aging and new oak will give toasty, buttery, nutty, oatmealy aromas.

Aging a red wine in new oak will give more vanilla aromas and more mouth-drying tannins.

Oak barrels are also re-used for several years and aging in old oak will not give any additional flavours but will result in a more-rounded feeling wine.

White wines can take flavours from other areas including the soil and the skins; more minerally soils (such as granite) can result in a more minerally flavour on the palate and, especially, finish for certain grape varieties. Austrian Grüner Veltliner is particularly responsive to soil type.

In addition, botrytis, a grape-skin fungus which helps produces the world’s greatest dessert wines, has its own pungent aromas and even if botrytis does not develop, long slow ripening results in thicker skins which can noticeable as a phenolic ripeness in the finished wine.

With so much going on – fruit, oak, acidity, tannins, some sweetness – a good wine will need to show a balance between all these elements – very sweet wines, for example, also need high levels of acidity to keep them fresh and not cloying whilst very tannic wines will be overly coarse and chewy if they do not have the rounded acidity and fruit to match.

In our celebrity-driven culture, elegance is not much in fashion these days; however, once a wine has achieved balance, the next step is finesse, elegance, subtlety and restraint – think of a graceful Fred Astaire rather than an in-yer-face Lady Gaga.

A wine that impresses straight out of the bottle may lose its appeal after a few glasses. By contrast, some wines reveal their charms more slowly and seduce us over time in the same way that we still listen to the symphonies of Mozart but not the ubiquitous catchy pop-hit of last summer.

Ask Tom – Serving Wine

Dear Tom

Can you give me tips on how to serve wine properly ?

There are a few of things you need think about when serving wine to get the most out of it:

Temperature

Put simply, white wines should generally be chilled and red wines should be at room temperature.

Too cold and a wine, be it red or white, will lose perfume, fruitiness and acidity. Too warm and it will seem flabby.

To get wines to the right temperature for serving at home, I suggest keeping a clutch of reds in the kitchen for immediate drinking whilst whites can be put in the fridge or slipped inside a “wine-sleeve” depending on how much time you have.

Glasses

Wine is smelt much more than it is tasted, so the right type glasses can significantly enhance the experience.

They key is to get some bulbous, tulip-shaped glasses and fill them to around 1/3rd full.

Small ISO glasses work well for tasting small samples, but I like to use larger ones for drinking.

Getting the fill-level is actually really important because you can’t smell a wine properly when the glass is full to the brim – this is a real schoolboy error yet a frequent sight in pubs, bars and restaurants.

And Paris goblets are just downright wrong.

Air and Aeration

I frequently find that wines can improve over the course of 24, 48 or even more hours.

This particularly applies to young wines that are meant to be aged for a few years or more.

Wine’s relationship with air is a complex one and there seems to be little research and no consensus on how much air is right, but of all the factors here, air is the only one that is irreversible.

You can change glasses, warm up and cool down a wine, but you can never reverse the effects of air.

To expose a wine to more air immediately after opening, your options are either to put it in a broad bottomed decanter and swirl around or pour it into a bulbous glass and swirl around – or both.

There are no hard and fast rules to any of these areas, but getting some decent tasting glasses, filling them only 1/3rd full, aerating the wine and having it at roughly the right tempertaure should all enhance your drinking experience.

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Ask Tom – Wine 101

I often hear from people who are interested in wine, but find some of the terminology confusing and the sheer number of different grape varieties, regions and styles bewildering.

In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some of these areas in more depth and answering questions, but for now, here is a very quick – and none-too-serious – run through some of the basics:

Wine Styles

Red wine – dark in colour, made from crushing whole bunches of grapes – skin, pips and stalks included. Doesn’t match well with salty foods.

White wine - pale in colour, made from the juice of pressed grapes, greater variety of styles than red wine.

Dessert wine – wine with deliciously high levels of natural sugar

Fortified wine – wine with added spirit, a higher alcohol content and sometimes (but not always) sweetness, such as sherry, port or Madeira

Sparkling wine – wine with bubbles in, can be achieved by various methods

Ros̩Рa pink wine that swings in and out of fashion as wildly as flared-trousers and Latino music

New World – 1) anywhere that is not in Europe 2) ripe, fruity, easy-drinking style of wine

Old World – opposite of new world

Grape Varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon – tough and tannic, like stewed tea, in its youth, it usually needs food, especially roast red meat. Oh and it’s possibly the greatest red wine grape in the world. Don’t try calling it “Cab” unless you are a professional wine writer or a sommelier.

Chardonnay 1) character in TV series “Footballer’s Wives” 2) neutral grape variety with an affinity to oak aging, but can also be produced unoaked

Gewürztraminer – if you like the flavour of lychees and rose petals, its spiritual home is northern Italy

Pinot Gris / Grigio – actually, the same grape; Pinot Gris is rich, aromatic and fat when produced in Alsace; Pinot Grigio is crisp and minerally when from Italy

Pinot Noir – thin-skinned, hedonistic, elusive people tend to like this grape variety; was the star of 2004 film, Sideways

Riesling – ancient and vastly-underrated late-ripening Germanic grape that makes crisp, aromatic, complex wines – Austrian versions in particular are full-bodied, food-friendly and completely dry. Can be petrolly, but not in the way that cheap lager tastes like aviation fuel.

Sauvignon Blanc – bit of a one-trick pony, this was the first really popular grape in the backlash against oaky Chardonnay, rapidly followed by Pinot Grigio; comes in ripe, tropical versions (new world, think Marlborough) or lean and steely (e.g. Loire) – in either case, it should taste of freshly cut grass, gooseberries, nettles but, if underripe, cat’s pee

Syrah / Shiraz, the same grape – produces a few rarified bottles in the northern Rhone and a lot of less elevated stuff in Australia

Countries

Australia – ripe, fruity bruce juice from down under; often branded, frequently discounted, can be enjoyable but generally about as subtle as Hugo Weaving in a dress; occasionally as serious as Mel Gibson in Hamlet (e.g. Penfold’s Grange, Hunter Valley)

Austria – reinvented itself in the mid-80s following a typically Balkan scandal involving tax and anti-freeze as a producer of top-notch dry whites, superb dessert wines and some decent reds

Italy – produces wine like they drive cars; idiosyncratic and chaotic, but like an Alfa Romeo, capable of greatness

France – frankly, the starting point for learning about wine; you cannot consider yourself in any way a wine enthusiast if you don’t have at least a nodding acquaintance with French wines. France is to wine what the electric guitar is to rock music or the internal combustion engine to motor sport.

Key France Sub-regions:

Alsace – Franco-German region with identity crisis but producing great rich, dry wines. And lots of timbered cottages with neat hanging baskets.

Bordeaux – produces more wine than Australia; most famous for its reds and dessert wines

Burgundy – the spiritual home of Pinot Noir; also produces Chardonnay

Champagne – expensive, over-hyped sparkling wine, but anything else doesn’t quite make the same statement, though, does it ?

Languedoc – the new kid on the French wine block, this southern region makes exciting and often good-value wines

Loire – northerly wine region producing crisp Sauvignon, light Muscadet and the occasional red

Rh̫ne Рsoutherly region divided into Northern Rhone (rarified and expensive Syrah) and Southern Rhone (ripe, fruity stuff)

Germany – hideously unfashionable wine-producing country yet capable of greatness; it’s time to forgive and forget Blue Nun

New Zealand – cooler climate, smaller vineyard sizes and high technical standards mean it’s rarely cheap, but quality can be very good

Portugal – produces port, which everyone has heard of, plus a load of table wines from obscure indigenous grapes

Spain – forget Rioja, inland Spain is the place for good, value wines; also produces the ultra-unfashionable but wonderful fortified wine, sherry, as beloved of your Auntie; comes in a range of styles from bone-dry fino and tangy manzanilla to rich, nutty, raisiny dry oloroso and deliciously sweet stuff

USA – basically, California; wines can be a bit textbook – well-made but without a huge amount of individuality – but that has not stopped them beating the Frenchies in competitions

Food and wine – wine and food

Wine matching – the complex and sophisticated art of having a glass of wine with your food and seeing if both taste better as a result

Food-friendly wine – a wine with the body, tannin and acidity to be enhanced and not overpowered by food

Wine-friendly food – food that tastes better with wine; generally, does not include take-aways, kebabs and pot noodles, but this does rather depend on the wines you drink

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011