A good sommelier can turn an ordinary wine-and-dine event into something magical and truly memorable. But what role does the wine style have on the food choice? And are wine styles tinkered with in order to be more appealing to a wider audience?
A sommelier is often described as a “wine steward” or “wine waiter”. Wikipedia’s definition is more revealing. It describes a sommelier as “a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants, who specialises in all aspects of wine service as well as wine-and-food pairing”.
While this definition might satisfy some, the more curious may wonder about changing wine styles, the transformation of the modern palate when it comes to food and wine, and even regional cuisines and their suitability for pairing with local or even international wines. So many questions … and, fortunately, so many wines.
Jo Wessels, a South African sommelier currently living and studying in Germany, was recently crowned Best German Sommelier, making him well placed to provide some insights into the world of food-and-wine pairing and dispel the notion that it’s just a gimmick. “I can understand that some may think food-and-wine pairing is pretentious, but it’s actually a much grounded practice,” he says. “Correctly chosen wines can enhance a meal, which is value in itself. And it doesn’t have to be haute cuisine – fish and chips at the seaside is much nicer with a crisp citrus-driven Sauvignon Blanc than a fatty wooded Viognier, for example.
“As for fine-dining restaurants, I believe a multiple-course wine pairing offers great value, not only in terms of money, but also experience. You have the option to try various wines, which are expertly selected to match and heighten each course. A good sommelier can take guests on a journey through the wine world while they remain seated at a table.”
Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines winemaker Andrea Mullineux describes an epiphany that changed the way she views food-and-wine pairing. “The white wines of the Jura region in France, specifically Vin Jaune, pair brilliantly with the foods of the region, especially with Comte cheese and Morelle mushrooms. I was once doing a dinner and tasting in Norway where they paired our Kloof Street Rouge, a red blend, with halibut and it was the most outstanding combination. I now often pair any of our red wines with firm white fish. A local option is kingklip which is a great fish to have with a glass of red wine.”
Andrea believes that changes in wine styles aren’t necessarily to make them more accessible with certain foods. “I don’t think the best winemakers change their styles to match food. You can’t please everyone, but you can find your own audience and, as you mature as a winemaker, your style may change and therefore so will the foods that go best with the wines. Our wine styles have been developed over time and are inspired by wines I enjoy drinking. They lend themselves to naturally marry well with foods high in umami such as roasted or cured meats, artichokes and hard cheese. I just keep on making wines I like to drink, and the food pairings just come together with trial and error. If a wine is too closed to have with a meal, and you can’t wait, then simply decanting it opens it up and makes it more accessible.”
The thought process behind a truly masterful food-and-wine pairing involves a great deal of planning, Jo says. “I start by looking at the perceived weight and intensity of a dish and finding a wine style to match, not overpower, the food nor get lost in the background,” he says. “I consider the main components in terms of sweetness, acidity, fattiness, salt and texture, and which aspects of a wine suit these. Salt for instance asks for tannins and sweetness for higher residual sugar.
“Then I look at the prevailing flavours in the food and which wine can match or highlight these. An interesting approach is to think of a wine as another ingredient in the dish and whether it would work or not. The two ways most sommeliers enhance a dish is both by matching and building on flavours or by contrasting flavours to highlight their differences. But most importantly, I try to have fun in the search, experimenting until the right combination presents itself.”
Andrea agrees pairing should be a fun experience and that contrasts can enhance a dish. “Balance and experimentation – these are key to finding the right combination,” she says. “Sometimes two flavours you think might work together end up opposing each other. Sometimes it’s the opposite. It’s about creating a balance of flavours, aromas and textures through trial and error, and often pairings that are outside of the box are much more interesting and exciting than traditional, stereotypical ones. So have that tannic red with white fish and a white wine with pork belly. Also there’s no rule that says white wine first. I often start with a red, follow it with a white, and finish with a sparkling wine. Wine and food are fun together, so have fun pairing.”
Local stalwart Chenin Blanc is also great for pairing with a variety of dishes. “Chenin Blanc is the great white variety of South Africa that pairs well with so many different foods,” Andrea says. “But you need to know if it’s a richer style with some residual sugar or bone dry with high acidity. In South Africa you get Chenin Blanc that’s dry, rich, sweet, sparkling or sometimes a combination of all of the above. A good sommelier or wine shop salesperson will guide you in the right direction if you know what food you’re having.”
Jo is excited about the diversity and freedom South African wines offer international sommeliers. “I find our white blends especially exciting,” he says. “The spectrum of flavours in these blends offers a great deal to play with when doing food-and-wine pairings. I believe Cinsaut is a brilliant food partner. It offers a similar structure to a fine Pinot Noir, but is more juicy and quaffing. Internationally, quality Beaujolais is currently enjoying a lot of favour with sommeliers. South African Cinsaut could offer something similar and become big too.
“And then there’s our Chenin Blanc, which is truly multifaceted – you can find a style to match almost any meal. In fact, I’d love to do a wine pairing solely with Chenin, moving through its various personalities. For instance, sparkling for an aperitif, then a lighter and fresher style with a starter, then moving onto a riper, richer, possibly wooded example with a richer course, perhaps an oxidative and textured orange wine for the mains and finally finishing with a dessert wine.”
The bottom line is there are an infinite number of excellent food-and-wine combinations. And having fun discovering them is what’s important.