I’ve just spent the past two days at What Food What Wine? tasting wine alongside dishes as disparate as smoked salmon and apple crumble, Stilton and steak and lasagne and lamb - a bit of an assault on the palate (and stomach!) but one of the best ways to work out what wine really works with your favourite recipes
It’s the second year of this groundbreaking competition which is fronted by popular TV presenters (and husband and wife) Susie and Peter of Saturday Kitchen. The big difference is that while the food may not be exactly the same as you’d serve it at home (roast turkey without sprouts and spuds? You must be joking!) the dishes have been devised by a proper home cook (TV chef Jo Pratt).
You’ll have to wait until the end of next month to find out which bottles we voted the trophy winners but in the meantime here are a few general observations and tips you might find useful:
* More expensive wines don’t necessarily make better food matches. Our judging categories were divided into under £10 and over £10 wines and sometimes the under £10 pairings were just as good
* Some classic wine matches stand the test of time, for instance roast lamb with Bordeaux-style reds and sweet or fortified wines with Stilton. On the other hand there are always new discoveries to be made - for instance how well Sauvignon Blanc pairs with smoked salmon. As good as champagne!
* Steak is not the breeze that everyone thinks it is. You really need to think about how it’s cooked. Serving it rare will smooth the rough edges off a rustic red or a very full-bodied tannic young wine which might taste a bit overpowering with a medium to well-done piece of meat. Lay off the ketchup if you don’t want to complicate things further - or at least leave it until you’ve tasted the wine with the steak
* In fact it always pays to taste a dish with a wine before you add extra seasoning or sauces. A citrussy white can do the same job as a squeeze of lemon, as we discovered with the fish and chips category.
* “You don’t want tannin with turkey” - a good observation from wine consultant Angela Mount. Think fruit, not oak when you come to buy your Christmas red - though an oaky white can conversely work quite well
* Wine pairings can have a different effect. Some will echo flavours and textures in a wine like the orangey dessert wine we tried with the Christmas pudding (yes, we had that too!). Others may provide a lighter, more refreshing contrast. It depends how adventurous you - and your guests - are. Complementary pairings tend to be less challenging than contrasting ones.
*There are always fascinating new discoveries to be made such as this year’s discovery that umami-rich parmesan can make some wines - whites in particular - taste almost sweet
* A home-made dish may need a slightly different wine from a shop-bought one. For example Jo’s delicious mushroom risotto had a strong flavour of porcini that proved a great match for Pinot Noir. A lighter, creamier one might pair better with a Chardonnay. If you want to get the best out of the award-winning wines use the recipes on the site (no great hardship there!)
I should make clear that I am a senior (paid) judge on What Food What Wine and that we have reciprocal links so obviously have an interest in its success. But I honestly think they're doing a terrific job in taking food and wine matching forward.