It all used to be so simple. When pairing food and wine, everyone knew that red was served with meat and white with fish.
There were a few other specific combinations regarded as sacrosanct – champagne with caviar, port with Stilton, sauternes with Roquefort, and so on. But beyond these conventions, for most people “pairing” meant choosing food you liked and wine you liked and ordering them at the same time.
No longer. The old shibboleths are now not just disregarded but ridiculed. An industry has grown up in prescribing new and sometimes improbable-sounding matches between food and wine – and recently also other alcoholic drinks, including beer, spirits, rice wines and even cocktails.
Chefs, sommeliers, bartenders and food critics have all weighed in on sometimes-heated debates about what goes best with what, and why. Some are keen to replace old orthodoxies with new. Others believe that there are no rules.
Dom Perignon’s chef de cave Richard Geoffroy is among the latter. The head of the winemaking team is prepared to try anything and has already matched Dom Perignon with menus from such culinary luminaries as Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Yannick Alleno and Tetsuya Wakuda. The most recent collaboration came with long-term friend and associate Alain Ducasse, who recently opened his new restaurant Rech at the Intercontinental Hong Kong.
Geoffroy visited Hong Kong on July 10 for a special dinner to launch Dom Perignon 2000 P2 – a late-release vintage, given extra time to mature. The wine has reached a stage in its evolution which Geoffroy calls a “Plenitude.” P2 stands for “Plenitude Deuxieme” – the second of three life cycles that will come from the vintage.
“We want to create a moment of extreme harmony,” said Ducasse before the dinner. “It’s about the right combination for where you are. We had a recent collaboration at Versailles, but we don’t want to re-create that because it wouldn’t be right for Hong Kong – just as this evening wouldn’t be right for Versailles.”
The 14-course menu was heavily influenced by Cantonese cuisine, with Ducasse’s interpretations of such local specialties as crispy suckling pig, har gao (dumplings) and fried rice, and was paired exclusively with the P2.
Some dishes certainly came closer to “extreme harmony” than others, but for Geoffroy, the experience was less about Ducasse’s sublime moments of communion between the wine and a particular dish, and more about the different light that each dish cast on the wine.
“More and more I like the idea of a single vintage of Dom Perignon throughout a meal,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been figuring out in Japan with the kaiseki (traditional multicourse dinner) that has one wine from start to finish. With one dish it might not go so great; with the next, it can be terrific. In the end, you look at the ensemble and most of the time it’s harmonious enough because there are so many sensations. It’s practical and sensible.”
This singular approach to wine pairing is the polar opposite to the prevailing trend of matching a different glass to each dish – an idea introduced in 1985 by influential French chef Alain Senderens.
So with traditional wisdom on matching food and wine in doubt, how do we go about finding successful new combinations?
The short answer, according to Geoffroy, is trial and error, and not being too worried about the occasional misstep; an apparently obvious combination may disappoint while an improbable one may turn out to be a triumph.
In pairing food and wine the objective is usually to find either the harmony of which Ducasse spoke – in aroma, flavor, and texture – or a contrast, sweetness to balance saltiness for example, or acidity to cut through fat.
Brewing New Ideas
But a question increasingly being asked is whether wine is the right choice of partner for some produce at all.
“Cheese has long been associated with wine, but usually, really
pairs better with beer,” advises Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program – the beer world’s equivalent to a sommelier qualification. “Its roots lie in grasses that feed the cows and goats – similar to the barley and wheat used to make beer. So there’s a natural companionship there,” Daniels says.
“But beer is also better able to balance the richness of cheese both with carbonation and with varying levels of bitterness. And perhaps best of all, the wide range of flavor intensities available from beer allow us to pick a good partner for any cheese. Try a Hefeweizen or Witbier with a burrata, an IPA with an aged cheddar, or a stronger stout with a blue cheese.”
A growing interest in food and beer pairing partly stems from the success of the craft beer movement, and the growing number of interesting flavor profiles.
The Dickens Bar at Hong Kong’s Excelsior Hotel, surrounded by Causeway Bay, recently introduced a new beer pairing menu, featuring dishes such as Guinness beef ribs cooked with Sichuan spices, paired, unsurprisingly, with Guinness; and crispy pork knuckle paired with Erdinger Dunkel.
According to executive sous chef Julian Man, Guinness has a bittersweet maltiness, which can enhance the flavor of beef, but he counsels against pairing it with the more assertive flavor of lamb. The pork knuckle he considers a natural match for a wheat beer.
“We picked Erdinger Dunkel for its delicate roasting aroma which balances the flavor of this hearty favorite of many. The full-bodied, strong character of this German beer does not cover the meat itself, but rather, brings out the equally strong aroma of the veggie-stock-braised knuckle. All in all, it’s about balancing the flavor of the drink and the dish,” says Man.
Growing interest in fine whiskies and boutique artisanal spirits has also led to some interesting pairing experiments, with a particular affinity being discovered between single malt or deluxe blended scotch and chocolate.
According to whisky and food pairing consultant Ewan Henderson, whisky will also generally partner food that has been subject to the “Maillard reaction,” a chemical change in food subjected to high-temperature cooking, so grilled meats such as steaks and yakitori chicken.
“BBQ flavors work very well with things that have been in charred casks,” says Henderson. “From heavily charred bourbon casks there are lactones [chemical compounds that contribute to the flavor in whisky] and there are lactones in foods.”
Whisky also partners well with many cheeses, and the salty tang of an Islay single malt pairs beautifully with oysters.
Against the Grain
Asia of course has a longstanding tradition of matching cuisine to rice wines and spirits. In Japan, even wine connoisseurs tend to prefer sake with Japanese food – partly perhaps because chefs cook with it, and alcohol that has been used in the preparation of food is often the best accompaniment.
According to Su-Zie Chew, director of food and beverage at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, sake pairing is also increasingly fashionable in Singapore, and recently debuted at the hotel’s Casserole restaurant.
“With our new Japanese chef de cuisine Seki Takuma and an increased interest in sake among Singaporeans, we thought what a wonderful opportunity to introduce a sake pairing menu, using ingredients and sake from chef’s hometown, Niigata,” she says.
Outside China baijiu has historically been less highly regarded than sake, but it is beginning to emerge as a product for export. Hong Kong Elite Concepts’ Deng G pairs Sichuan food with baijius from a list organized according to fragrance, and also offers baijiu cocktails to pair with snacks in its bar.
New World Wines
Even traditional wine pairing is also starting to chart new territory, moving into areas where beer has been a traditional choice – spicy Indian and Thai cuisine for example.
“Indian cuisine comes with a complex flavor profile primarily due to the diverse spice elements being used. This makes it an exciting challenge when pairing with wines,” says sommelier Inthran Ramasamy of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Singapore.
Ramasamy recommends looking at wines such as Gewurztraminer with a sweetness to balance the spice, or pinot noirs with silky tannins.
Now that several Asian countries are emerging as producers of wine there is also a natural interest in matching those to local cuisine. “In our Thai restaurant, Thiptara, we offer Thai wines paired with a set dinner,” says Patty Lerdwittayaskul, director of public relations at the Peninsula Bangkok.
“Every month, the hotel organizes ‘Vine & Dine – a communal table,’ which is a wine dinner, but at one long table offering diners an opportunity to share their feedback and passion with other diners.”
For those interested in learning more about wine pairing, the sommeliers of triple-Michelin-starred Caprice at the Four Seasons Hong Kong are holding monthly cheese and wine pairing classes, priced from HK$935 ($120; fourseasons.com).
But remember, if at first you don’t succeed, it doesn’t matter. Food and drink pairing is, as Richard Geoffroy points out, more a matter of traveling hopefully than of arriving at a destination; it’s about being willing to test parameters.
“I believe in positive productive tensions,” he says. “Harmony is the fruit of tensions. Harmony is not static. It is the opposite. It is duality, yin yang, and it keeps moving.”