Be Daring With Your Pairing

We all know about the classic, easy ‘safe’ wine-matches. Well, this article is meant to share and suggest my approach to daring pairings, based on my personal experience.

Although daring is often associated with rebels and anti-conformist behaviour, in this case I didn’t go down the ‘daring’ route because I was trying to shake things up. I had to take risks and think outside the box because the classic and safe options weren’t working.

Earlier this year, I was working at a restaurant, Cornerstone, that served umami-driven dishes that had high counterbalancing acids, sweetness and spices that defeated traditional matches. 

I went on the look out for residual sugar to tackle different types of salinity; lower alcohol and acids to offset spice; savoury and nutty flavours to sweeten umami. Then I cherry-picked those beverages that would fit within my allocated budget. It was important to me not to go crazy on the prices, but otherwise I kept an open mind.

And ask yourself this: have you ever thought of serving an old oloroso with mackerel?

The results were surprising, but educational. I learned a lot from the process, and I’d love to share my thoughts for three of the matches with you because there are some fascinating lessons for all of us.

‘Sea-cuterie’

A very British take on fish – but not without its challenges.

TREACLE-CURED SEA TROUT WITH SALMON PASTRAMI AND SMOKED COD ROE PATÉ

This was the first dish in a Nathan Outlaw tasting menu, and I paired it with a Cerdon du Bugey. It’s the aperitif wine they drink in Lyon – a low-alcohol (8%) off-dry sparkling red. A blend of Gamay and Poulsard, it’s Méthode Ancestrale, so not too fizzy.

They eat a lot of charcuterie and salty stuff in Lyon, and the reason I chose this is because I thought the sea-cuterie is a very British take on fish. The salt and oiliness are pushed right to the max – really savoury – so I felt the food needed a touch of sweetness, and red fruits rather than something lemony.

I discarded champagne and prosecco as options right from the start. But British people can struggle with off-dry wines, so I did try a cava to see if it would work. But it just didn’t have the sugar you need to balance the salt of the fish. The way the fish dishes were prepared, they were veering towards umami, and that just clashed with the high acid in the wine.

With the Cerdon du Bugey, the bubbles, rather than acidity, acted as a palate cleanser, and the sugar went against the umami. The sweetness was camouflaged under the bubbles. When I presented it to customers, I made sure to tell them ‘Please make sure you have a mouthful of the fish first, followed by the wine’. That way you don’t notice the sugar.

Renardat-Fache Cerdon du Bugey 2018, £13.75 ex VAT, Raeburn Fine Wines

Best bit of all, this wine was only £13. If I’d wanted something from Champagne to do the same job it would have been three times the price.

Grey mullet tartare cured in honey, salt and soy, with ponzu dressing, sesame seeds and egg yolk

Savoury flavours in the wine were the key to this particular match

There was a lot to deal with here. There was citrus from the ponzu, sweetness from the honey, which is going to bring down any flavours you have unless the wine is slightly oxidised or savoury, then you had the egg yolk, which covers everything, and lots of salt.

It was a bold dish, and initially I tried sake, vermouth and fino sherry. But they didn’t work. Sherry  was too dry and the alcohol levels in the others were too high – I didn’t want to move from a light sparkling (the Cerdon) to higher fortified levels of alcohol, then back to wine. It would have been a bit clumsy.

So in the end I stayed with wine, but in contrast to the first pairing, here I went richer in body. I was looking for a wine with a bit of sunny ripeness in it, but savoury rather than fruit driven. Because there was a sharp acidity in the dish thanks to the ponzu dressing, I had to drop acidity, too.  All the dishes we had at Cornerstone were really balanced when it came to acidity, so I didn’t want to spoil the balance of the sauce.

Here I was trying to complement the food – like putting prosciutto with melon. Eventually I settled on this weird off-dry 2016 Catalan Chenin Blanc with prolonged skin contact from Raeburn wines.

I was relying on the fact that some styles of Chenin have that kind of bruised apple note – slightly oxidative. And orange wines take on a more savoury note, which was ideal. Add in a little extra sugar, and it all goes really well with umami flavours like we had here.

I picked the most dominant components in the food and tried to match them head to head with similar components in the wine so they cancelled each other out and what was left was something really nice.

This wine would go with anything that’s saline and rich: salted cod, mackerel pate, kippers – any fish that’s been cured or has heavy sauces to it. Even fried eggs with a garnish.

Bodegas Escoda-Sanahuja Els Bassots 2015, £16.00 ex VAT, Raeburn Fine Wines

Mackerel pate with cream and treacle soda bread

Be prepared to be amazed…

The dish is quite rich, and usually, I’d pair this with the Catalan Chenin Blanc, but I’d run out one day, and this guy came in who clearly knew his food and wine – I could tell he was a chef – and asked me for a wine pairing with the dish. I thought maybe a slightly higher alcohol could help with the richness of the dish, so I was looking fortified. Fino wasn’t a good match – again, it was too dry.

I was nibbling on a piece of the soda bread, and it was really nutty and caramelised. And for some reason I looked up on the shelves and there was the Matusalem – a 30 year-old sweet oloroso. I thought ‘why not? I’m going to give it a go.’ I tried a bit with the bread and the paté in secret behind the bar and I was amazed. I let everyone else try it and they were all like ‘fuck, this is great’.

I had to tell the chef not to be scared and to trust my choice, and the moment he put it in his mouth he was like ‘hell yeah – best match of the flight.’ Yet it only came about because I was in the shit and had to improvise.

Flavour wise, those nutty, caramelised flavours worked really well with the bread, and it’s not as dry as a straight oloroso because there’s that touch of PX, which helped the wine to stand against the richness, oiliness and smokiness of the fish – but without smothering it. You could still taste the fish.

As well as fish, Matusalem could work with a rich Moorish lamb with lots of spices. The higher the smoke, the better it would work.  Trust me, you’d drink a tonne of it.

Matusalem 30-year-old sweet oloroso, £18.03/37.5cl at Gonzalez Byass UK

And the customers?

The final question of these Daring Pairings is how you ‘sell’ these left-field matches to your customers.

First of all, you have to watch them carefully. As soon as you see a bit of frowning when the wine arrives, you have to go over and explain carefully to them what they’re about to taste and why you’ve chosen it. Maybe explain to them the order they should eat or drink things in, if that’s relevant – but without being too technical.

Bear in mind that the wine flight is designed as a complement to the food, so basically they should have the food first, then follow it with the wine, not vice versa.

And having taken people away from their comfort zone, I made sure that with the final match of the four I took them back to something more familiar – an aged St Péray. It’s really important that the last dry wine is good. That’s where you put your big budgets. That seals the end of the tasting.

Main image: David Loftus

What’s the weirdest food and wine pairing that you’ve put on your menu? Why did it work and how did you come up with it?

Let us know at by joining The Sommelier Collective discussion group on Food Pairings for the Daring or leave a comment below.

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