I have been surrounded by wine my entire life, from my mum’s collection of rarities to my uncle’s home-brewed sparkling.
Growing up in Italy, there was wine in nearly every recipe and a bottle on every table. But that doesn’t mean pairing wine with food comes naturally – it’s a process of trial and error that’s been a work in progress for at least 2,000 years. I have a vivid memory of the first time I was handed a glass of champagne – New Year’s Eve, 1995. It was a non-vintage Mumm and I can still recall the signature red band on the label; I felt like I was taking my first steps into adulthood.
This extraordinary drink was paired with, I’m ashamed to admit, a black forest gateau (don’t judge, German patisserie was fashionable in the 90s). I had a bite of the cake and downed most of the champagne. It was dreadful, sour with an overwhelming tartness. I remember screwing my face up and wondering what on earth makes people treasure such a horrible wine.
It was only when I eventually dedicated my life to grapes that I learned why this was such an unpleasant experience. The first thing you learn at wine school is flavour profiles and how to combine them; never forget that wine and food are best consumed together. But like a perfect marriage, they must be well suited, one complementing the other.
Champagne and gateau is not a desirable combination – the sweetness in the chocolate cake meant all I could taste in the wine was crisp acidity, making the usually complex flavours of champagne taste like an Amalfi lemon. If you must opt for cake, pair it with something sweeter like a moscato or a prosecco, which can revive a sugar-tainted palate.
I’ve learned the hard way, through much practice, how to get the best from champagne, and it might not be what you think. It’s the perfect pairing for fish and chips, for instance, with the acidity complementing the stodgy richness of the food, with the bubbles helping to break down the starch, making it seem like a lighter lunch than it really is.
There are some simple rules that should guide you into the world of pairing: sweet wine with sweet food, as mentioned above; acidic wines with acidic food, such as Alabarino with a vinaigrette salad; sweet wines with salty food, such as port with cheese; bitter wine with fatty food, such as Barolo with steak; bitter with bitter is definite no-no, so chocolate and red wine should immediately set alarm bells ringing.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and nothing will improve your grasp of pairing like making all the mistakes I’ve made for yourself.
But if you’re hosting a big dinner party, sticking to the above should help to avoid any Champagne-gateau type disasters.