South African Wine Pairing Meets Italian Pasta

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So we all know the rule of thumb when it comes to pairing food and wine right? White wine with fish, red wine with meat.  Now this theoretically works for most dishes and in general satisfies everyone, but it’s not always that simple.  If I have a fish which white wine should I use, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier?

What if the fish is pink such as salmon? What if there’s a creamy mushroom and blue cheese sauce on top of the beef fillet, surely a red would clash?

When it comes to pairing wine with food, there really is no rule of thumb, just a few general guidelines which should be considered on how food changes the wine:

Sweetness in food:

  • Increases bitterness, acidity and the burning effect of alcohol;
  • Decreases body of wine, sweetness and fruitiness;

If you are serving chocolate brownies, a Sauvignon Blanc which is already an acidic wine would not work, but a sweet dessert wine such as a Noble Late Harvest would bring down the cloying sweetness of the wine and wonderfully complement the brownies. I highly recommend the Jordan Mellifera Noble Late Harvest made from 100% Riesling grapes.

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Umami (savoury taste) in food:

  • Increases bitterness, acidity and alcohol burn;
  • Decreases body, sweetness and fruitiness;

Umami is hard to isolate as it tends to be present with other flavours, the easiest way to experience it is to eat a raw button mushroom and compare it to a cooked one; cooking the mushroom greatly increases the umami effect.  Salt counters the hardening effect of umami on wine but on its own it is rather hard to pair with.  Ie, asparagus, eggs, mushrooms and soft ripe cheeses, in general, these dishes should be paired with wines that are more fruity than tannic, such as a light bodied red wine like Pinot Noir. One of my favourites being the Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

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Acidity in food:

  • Increases body, sweetness and fruitiness;
  • Decreases acidity;

A good example here would be a tomato soup.  A full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with a lot of tannin would not go well with this acidic dish, but an acidic Sauvignon Blanc is a match made in heaven.  The soup will lower the acidity of the wine and bring out its fruitiness, a great one to try is the Strandveld Sauvignon Blanc from Elim.

Salt in food:

  • Increases body;
  • Decreases bitterness and acidity;

Salt is very wine-friendly and helps to soften the harder elements of wine.  A lovely piece of beef fillet with rock salt and mustards would further increase the body of a Cabernet Sauvignon and bring down the potential bitterness experienced from the tannins in the wine. Waterford Wine Estate in Stellenbosch makes a great Cabernet Sauvignon.

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A lovely piece of beef fillet with rock salt and mustards would further increase the body of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Photograph courtesy of Google Images.

Bitterness in food:

  • Increases bitterness in wine;

While the bitterness in a dish may be at a pleasant level, adding to it is not ideal. Consider white wines or low tannin reds.  Examples of bitter foods would be rocket, asparagus, sautéed broccoli and olives.

Chili in food:

  • Increases bitterness, acidity and alcohol burn;
  • Decreases body, richness, sweetness and fruitiness;

With a hot dish such as a Cape Malay chicken curry, I’d pair a fruity, off-dry white wine with low alcohol.  As the chili effect increases the alcohol burn, the lower the alcohol percentage the better.  The curry will bring down the sweetness and fruitiness of the wine, which can make some wines, which some people normally wouldn’t drink on its own, such as Gewürztraminer or Bukettraube rather delicious. I recommend the Paul Cluver Gewürztraminer from Elgin or the Cederberg Bukettraube from Cederberg.

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When pairing wine to food always think about the flavours of the dish and the wine and how they could complement each other.  Remember to take the weight of the wine (how full and rounded the wine feels in your mouth) and the food into account. Consider the flavour intensities so that neither the food nor wine overpowers one another.  Always remember that food and wine pairing is about the food, one must pair the wine to the food and not the other way round.

But first and foremost, remember there really aren’t any rules, just guidelines.  If you enjoy drinking a Sauvignon Blanc while eating lamb rack with mint jus then that is ok, there’s nothing wrong with it.  Experiment to find your best match, it’s really the only way one finds that “oh my” moment, and when you find it, it’s magic!

So what would I pair with (Italian accent) Spaghetti Bolognaise? I’d naturally choose an Italian grape.  Sangiovese, Barbera or Nebbiolo all go well with this tomatoey meat sauce.  My recommendation is the Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal from the Hemel-&-Aarde Valley (translated from Afrikaans – Heaven & Earth) of South Africa, a blend of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Shiraz, Barbera and Mourvedre.

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Spaghetti Bolognaise – photograph courtesy of Google Images