There are many right ways to pair wine and food – and fewer wrong ones than you’d think

Real happiness is combining people and flavours to the advantage of both.

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Great food and wine pairings are a little like friendship: two very different characters meet and enhance one another, without giving up their individual essence.

Here are a couple of particularly successful combinations that Victoria Moore’s new book, The Wine Dine Dictionary (Granta), has led me towards: asparagus risotto, made with duck stock, and Larry Cherubino’s Ad Hoc Straw Man Sauvignon Semillon from Western Australia; spaghetti alla carbonara, the uncritical creaminess of egg and pasta jabbed and jostled by smoked bacon, with the stunning red fruit of Coma d’En Pou by Celler Bàrbara Forés, in Catalonia.

Victoria herself is an old friend; we discovered wine separately but there’s no question that a shared interest that blossomed into obsession strengthened our rapport. In her book, which is structured as a dictionary (look up foods in the first half to find your wine match, or grapes at the back, to decide what to eat), Moore suggests white wines with duck à l’orange: Italy’s Falanghina, “which tastes of mandarins and orange blossom”, or Australia’s fruity Marsanne.

I prefer a red, such as Forés’s Grenache-based El Templari, but her choices or mine would work; there are many rights to wine pairing, and fewer wrongs than you might think. Don’t combine flavours that will fight, just as at a dinner party you don’t sit your socialist friends next to a
college chum who has hardened into Toryism. Listen to advice, but don’t let it deafen you.

As my acquaintance with different wines expands – a life’s project – I learn those I want to spend more time with, and which company will show my choices to best effect. I know that too much tannin will destroy offal, because I have experienced the unpleasant taste, like dried blood, of a good Madiran (by Alain Brumont of Château Bouscassé) matched with liver. I have despaired as the delicate minerality of Domaine Bott-Geyl’s Métiss Pinot d’Alsace fled before an earthy choucroute, the Alsatian signature dish. (Just because you grow up together doesn’t mean you’ll get on.)

And the company is at least as important as the nourishment. Real happiness is combining people and flavours to the advantage of both. I recall holidaying in the Rhône with a good friend, sharing thoughts and comfort and laughter, but also wandering food markets and delightedly experimenting: which Gigondas best suited the lamb; which herby rosé most enhanced the plump anchovies from the nearby bay at Collioure.

The joy of a book such as Moore’s, in addition to the writing, is the opportunity to venture farther afield than one gourmand, however enthused, can manage alone. It is useful to know that a pasta sauce to go with Nerello Mascalese should include “proper pancetta with a slightly dirty, feral taste”, but my gastronomic imagination is set alight by the idea of sea urchin with Zibibbo, a dry Muscat. That iodine seafood with the aromatic wine: wet and dry – the strange, spiky inhabitant of sea-splashed rocks and the scented white grape that always makes me think of a hidden garden in the desert.

As we grow older, our frame of reference grows wider. (Unless, of course, we embrace Conservatism, but that’s an argument for another dinner party.) Our choices, in wine or in people, become increasingly sophisticated, and our interactions should become more pleasurable and enlightening as we evolve from youth’s uncritical gulping of new facts or friends. Still, some early choices hold good. I still like Provençal rosé with anchovies, southern Rhône with rare lamb, and sharing either of these with friends who will appreciate the match – of flavours, and of minds.

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article appears in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special