One of the toughest problems when planning a meal is appropriately matching its dishes with wines. Just as bad wine can completely ruin a good meal, good wine can make an otherwise fairly ordinary one into something memorable.
Years of wine tasting and a recent WSET advanced certificate have opened my eyes to this complex area. As with many food and wine related topics, it is also a rather subjective matter. There are however a few principles one should bear in mind. One of the greatest misconceptions is that fish and chicken should always be served with white wines while red meats, particularly beef, should be paired with red wines. The main issue is not the colour but the body of the wine. Whether light, medium or full, the body or weight of both food and wine should be carefully matched. So a Provençal chicken stew could go nicely with a bottle of red Grenache, much as a lightly chilled Pinot Noir might go with a seafood platter.
Other considerations are the acidity of the food (for example tomato dishes are high in acidity, and match acidic reds such as Sangiovese, and fish dishes served with lemon go well with acidic whites like Sauvignon Blanc). Partnering of sugar levels is also important - as with sweet sherries like Pedro Ximenez, or naturally sweet wines like Sauternes or Saussignac matching with sweet desserts like ice cream or apple tart respectively. If you are stuck for a match, remember that wines are usually made to complement the local food, so regional wines will match their cuisines 9 times out of 10.
To help us with this task, Richard Corrigan's Mayfair has teamed up with Les Caves de Pyrènes for a series of tutored masterclasses in which some of his signature dishes are matched with accompanying wines. At £120 per person, a fine glass of Grand Cru Champagne is offered, with canapés followed by a tutored four-course tasting menu. For most courses, two different wines are matched and thoroughly discussed.
I was fortunate to attend one of these tutored meals recently, at Richard Corrigan's private dining room in Mayfair. The restaurant feels plush, with a grand piano dominating the entrance, and a restful colour scheme of beige, brown, red and gold. The bar is marble-topped, with large flower displays, leather armchairs, and the whole feel is discreetly elegant and expensive.
The lunch was tutored by Les Caves de Pyrènes, an independent wine importer based in Guildford, Surrey which is a supporter of wines that are hand-made and naturally expressive of their origins. On this occasion, the tasting was about natural wines from the New World. Natural wines are made with minimal chemical and technological intervention in growing the grapes and turning them into wine. They can be organically or biodynamically grown, are hand-picked, and have no added sugars, foreign yeasts or adjustments for acidity. They have minimal or no fining and filtration or added sulphites. My experience of natural wines has been mixed, and some have not been successes.
At Corrigan's Mayfair, we kicked off with a delectable platter of canapés served with a glass of Paul Dethune Grand Cru Champagne - a fine biscuit nose making for a very good start indeed. This was followed by an excellent starter of lobster raviolo with shellfish broth, served with sea purslane. The broth was intensely flavoured yet delicate, and the pasta generously filled with chunks of lobster that were well matched with the salty, crunchy sea purslane.
To match, we had 2009 Testalonga El Bandito Cortez from Swartland, South Africa - a wine made from old Chenin bush vines, and made the old-fashioned way by foot pressing! It was a delightful wine, but in my opinion the better match with the food was the 2009 Pyramid Valley, Fields of Fire, Chardonnay from New Zealand. With a wonderful nose of nuts, green figs and vegetal notes, this wine had a lovely richness and minerality with good acidity and texture.
Our next course was a red wine braised brill served with confit cabbage, celeriac & razor clam. I loved the presentation of this dish, and the artistry and flavour combinations resulting from braising white fish with red wine, and the two types of shell fish.
To accompany this dish, we were served a glass of 2010 Carignan Reserva from Villalobos, Colchagua, Chile (served slightly chilled). This was a pleasingly light red almost like a dark rosé, aged in French oak, with clean fruit flavours. The better match, however, was the 2010 Pinot Noir from Louis-Antoine Luyt, Maule, Chile. A tiny winery in the Maule Valley, the French wine maker Luyt is the only significant wine maker in Chile following the rigorously anti-industrial approach to wine making implicit in natural wine. His efforts have paid off, with his 2010 Pinot Noir showing a lovely depth of redcurrant fruit with light tannins - it was a perfect match to the brill.
The Goosnargh chicken with wild mushrooms and English leeks was next - a very succulent piece of corn-fed chicken from Goosnargh in Lancashire (championed by Gordon Ramsay), served with an intensely creamy mushroom sauce. This was the Rolls Royce of chicken dishes, served with a glass of 2010 Burnt Cottage Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand. Central Otago is highly prized for its pinots, and this one did not disappoint, with aromas of red fruit and orange peel, and a pleasing natural acidity. Equally good was the 2010 Wildman Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills, Australia - complex and refined, it had a velvety richness while remaining bone-dry.
For dessert, we had rhubarb crumble soufflé, served with a delicious stem-ginger ice cream. This was a light and refreshing dessert with a good balance of tart and sweet, but how to partner a wine with this combination? Once again, the tutor came up with the goods, proposing a glass of 2010 Framingham Noble Riesling from Marlborough, New Zealand. A botrytised sweet wine, it had the high acidity characteristic of Riesling, giving a refreshing quality that perfectly matched the astringency of the soufflé.
If you would like to learn more about the subject of matching food and wine, Corrigan's Mayfair will be holding further masterclasses on this theme on Friday 2nd March (dinner), Saturday 21st April (lunch), and Friday 4th May (dinner). To learn more about these events, which can also be purchased as a gift, click here www.corrigansmayfair.com/classes, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cost: £120 per person for champagne & canapés followed by a tutored four course tasting menu including all wines.
Likes: Some of the best natural wines I have ever tried. Having a tutored event makes for a very special gastronomic and educational occasion. Very elegant restaurant, friendly service.
Verdict: Top notch food matched with excellent natural wines, in very elegant surroundings. Although at £120 per person it cannot be regarded as inexpensive, for cutting edge wine and food with an expert to teach about natural wines and how to partner them with food, I think this is excellent value. Very highly recommended.