“Just wondering if you can do the next dinner, the rest of the year is taken but you missed the Christmas dinner and there is just one spot left – February.” An offer I couldn’t refuse!
Like many of our friends in Pokolbin Wine Country, we have been involved in planning such dinners for years and the trick is to make them interesting. A wine region or a food-based theme, a travel-related or grape varietal based topic, something to help make it memorable.
With the raging bush fires (in other regions) at present, I ruled out Fumé Blanc wines straight away! We are all on edge hoping not to get any smoke taint on our grapes as we are just about to start picking.
Important in these dinners is the discussions that occur and knowledge shared not only about the wines and food but what is going on in our wine-growing district. At a critical time as this, the bushfires and what to do top the list of issues discussed.
By mid-February, we hopefully will be all picked and can relax a little. Too hot for any heavy reds so I have paid a visit to my cellar and found some Pinot Noir of interest plus some other similar weighted reds…I don’t want to give too much away just yet. The whites will be some aged Semillon plus other interesting similar styled wines. We usually start with some cold sparkling wines, so from two regions, I have that covered and an interesting white fortified to finish with.
Now for the food matching.
Food like wine is such an individual thing and really today there are only a few guiding rules when it comes to matching. The permutations and combinations are endless.
Gone are the days when Semillon is matched with oysters as a rule, white wine with white meat – say chicken and reds with red meat. That existed in the day when sherry was served before the meal. When I was working in the UK only the women got sherry the men drank scotch or gin (not to be wasted on the women!!!)
There was a period of total freedom “drink what you like with anything” was the go. Such a waste when good wine was spoilt when mismatched and visa versa. We, fortunately, have moved on from that.
So the trick is to try and bring the best out of the combination and this may take a little experimentation. With 25 people we are not going into too much depth with outstanding wines but good solid representative examples are to be served. The food needs to be able to carry and match the weight and not detract from the wines. I have in mind the food and wine matches but will need to have a quiet dinner at the restaurant beforehand, just to check. Dam.
The delicacy, strength and robustness of both the food and wine have to be considered. As Len Evans remarked “A light delicate white with a great beef stew would merely be mouthwash”.
With the wines, of course, dry before sweet and white before red is a given. It is important not to assume a wine is dry or sweet unless you know the producer well. At a recent dinner meeting of one group, three Zinfandels were served, all lovely examples however the middle one was almost port-like in its sweetness, very surprising. A good story behind its character made it interesting but possibly should have been last in the lineup. Best also to taste the wines before serving to make last-minute changes in the order of presentation.
The volume of wine consumed is modest at these functions. Generally, we get about 12 glasses to the bottle and we have four glasses with the entrée and four with the main. With the sparkling beforehand and a small serving of a fortified to finish just under a bottle per person is consumed. This then places the emphasis on the discussions, the memories of past vintages, the regional characteristics, the winemaking approaches, how the wine is travelling, the food itself and how it was prepared as well as how well it went with the wine and other related matters.
Now one critical issue for me is what to serve with dessert. Often a sweet table wine or fortified wine is brought out and enjoyed. I, on the other hand, prefer a dry sparkling wine with a sweet dessert. The sweet or fortified I believe is better suited to have with cheese. That, of course, opens a whole new field of enjoyment.
In the English tradition, Stilton cheese goes so well with a port wine style and in a similar way an Italian Gorgonzola with a twany or white port style. Some would prefer an older Hunter or Coonawarra Cabernet with the stronger blue cheeses and we often do this at our Legends wine lunches.
When it comes to pairing wine and cheese I have often been disappointed at dinners, lunches, and parties. The anything-goes principle can spoil both the taste of the cheese and enjoyment of the wine.
Just like food matching, in general, we should pair wines with cheeses of equal strength and intensity. So starting off with a sparkling wine, I think we should look for soft, creamy cheeses. How fortunate are we in the Hunter to have great examples from Hunter Belle and Binorie to choose from, not to forget the long-established Hunter Valley Cheese Factory. Brie, Camembert or Epoisses de Bourgogne are the classics of course. Pinot Noir and Beaujolais go well with these styles also.
Will Sauvignon Blanc ever recover from Len Evans comparing it to cats pee? In any event goats cheese and Feta with a good wine and garlic and herb flavoured if you want to mask the feline effect.
Being a producer of Sangiovese its interesting to see how well the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino go with this Chanti style wine. Something to do with the terroir maybe. Similarly, Manchego, that famous sheep milk cheese of Spain, matches the Rioja or Tempranillo wines.
We like to sit down with a good Hunter Shiraz and a cheddar with a bit of bite, and we vary the cheese with a Gouda, Edam and occasionally an overripe soft cheese dripping off the bread. If in the mood or depending what’s at hand a Cabernet, Cabernet Merlot or Merlot go well. Bearing in mind bold and aged reds pair best with aged cheeses. The fat content is enhanced as the cheese loses moisture which then balances out the tannins in the wine, allowing the wine to just slip down without any trouble!.
I could fill a whole blog on wine and cheese pairing and still not cover the topic fully. How fortunate we are to have so much choice and ability to express our individuality through food and wine.
The closure of a dinner is just as important as the opening and there are many ways to wind up the evening leaving everyone satisfied. I enjoy a coffee with a little milk and a dash of Cognac some prefer a Scotch others a fortified wine, no matter what if the conversations have been good and the culinary matching worked we will do it again.
I have used Cellarmaster’s Guide to Australian Wines by Len Evans in writing this Blog.
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Author: Robert Lusby AM
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