Fine Living

Food and wine pairings

Four opinion makers talk to John Stimpfig about their particular consuming combinations.

November 14 2010
John Stimpfig

Rowley Leigh

Widely regarded as one of the founders of modern English cooking, Rowley Leigh is chef proprietor of Le Café Anglais in west London.

“I am quite selective about what I drink with what’s on my plate. More often than not, I take an intuitive ‘terroir’ approach. If I’m having wild boar pappardelle, I’ll always have a chianti classico rather than a Spanish tempranillo. It just feels right – culturally and geographically. Almost invariably, it tastes right too.

Sometimes, I choose the wine before the food, simply because I have a craving to drink a particular wine from my relatively small cellar, most of which is kept at Le Café Anglais. But usually I pick the dish first and then the wine – especially if I am eating in a restaurant. That’s mainly because the choice of food will inevitably be much more restricted. In contrast, a good wine list should provide plenty of enticing alternatives.

I don’t have a very gourmet lifestyle at home, for obvious reasons, but even if I am eating one of my favourite comfort foods, such as a humble pork pie, I’d still want a beaujolais or light Italian red rather than an overpowering Barossan shiraz.

Some matches are just plain wrong. For instance, I could never get over Richard Olney recommending Yquem with fish. It was just bizarre. The other one I loathe is champagne with food. I despise those meals that try to prove that champagne can be drunk throughout. They end up proving the exact opposite.

However, I don’t think that deciding what food and wine you are going to put down your throat can be called art, and it certainly isn’t science. And a lot of what people tell you is quite contradictory. Some people say that a wine should cut through a dish, whereas others say the richness of the wine and food is complementary. There’s a lot of guff written on the subject.

As for my favourite matches, I’d certainly include smoked fish with Alsace riesling, and grouse with a good Morey-Saint-Denis or Chambolle-Musigny. Another would be salt-washed rind cheese with a top-class chenin blanc from the Loire Valley. Or a really old Clos Sainte Hune with some munster or cheddar. And for pudding, I’d pick wild strawberries (in season, of course) with a nice German auslese. In other words, keep it simple – and sublime.

Rowley Leigh’s cookery column appears weekly in FT Weekend.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss owns and runs The Weiss Gallery in Jermyn Street, which specialises in British and northern European Old Master portraiture.

“I have a very big collection of burgundy, which tends to influence what I eat and drink 80 per cent of the time. But that certainly doesn’t stop me drinking some nice claret or a top super-Tuscan every now and again.

I’m a serious foodie too, and I love to cook. At breakfast, I’m thinking about what to have for lunch, and at lunch, I’m thinking about what to eat for dinner. And I’m always thinking about what wines I’m going to open. It drives my family insane.

We often use the gallery for business entertaining, which is why I’ve put in a fairly substantial cellar there, as well as a kitchen. So I often host dinners for about 12 people. People love the venue and they know they’re going to eat and drink something really special.

To that extent, I do take food and wine matching quite seriously, because you can destroy a meal if you don’t get both components right. It’s pointless drinking wonderful wine with sub-par food – and vice versa.

There are some experts who say that either the food or the wine has to be the star of the meal, otherwise they almost cancel each other out. Personally, though, I am ambivalent about that approach. Like Winston Churchill, I am easily satisfied with the best, and there’s no reason why you can’t drink great wine with great food. However, as I’ve become older, I have learnt that profoundly complex wine tends to work best with simpler dishes. What you need is exquisite cooking and the best ingredients, not culinary fireworks. Then you can enjoy the combination without any distractions. If I’m going to crack open a 1990 Rousseau Chambertin, all I want is a veal chop grilled over a wood fire – and some nice chips. There’s nothing better.

Generally, I stick to the ‘red wine with meat and white wine with fish’ mantra. But the other day, I had Domaine de L’Arlot’s 2002 Nuits Saint Georges with sea bass at Franco’s restaurant, which is next door to the Gallery in Jermyn Street. Although a little unconventional, it was a fantastic match. I like to go off piste every now and then, but only within certain parameters. You have to know where the limits are.

Julia Neuberger

Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer, social commentator and writer. One of the UK’s first two female rabbis, she is also chair of the One Housing Group.

“Food and wine have always been two of my greatest pleasures in life, so I’m genuinely interested in bringing the two together. Because if you do it well, it creates more than the sum of the parts. Although, not always. In my experience, no wine goes well with curry or kedgeree.

If we’re having people to dinner, I pick versatile wines that go with two dishes, then I don’t have to keep chopping and changing. I often start with champagne for the apéritif and then keep serving it for a smoked-salmon starter. I particularly like Gosset, or a small, good-value grower such as Chauvet, which I buy from Amanda Skinner at Private Cellar.

Similarly, I stick with a red that works for the main course and the cheese. I’ve always adored claret and would like to drink better than I can afford. However, I am perfectly content to drink my beloved (and hugely underrated) Château Cissac, especially with a crown roast of lamb. We’re drinking the 1990 at the moment and it’s simply delicious.

At university, I had my first glass of Yquem and ever since I’ve been addicted to pudding wines. My favourites are sauternes, Tokaji and German eisweins. So for a smart dinner party, we would end the meal with a meringue or a tart and a really good glass of something sweet. Obviously, there are occasions when you don’t serve your best wines. At Passover, we often have 40 people to dinner, not all of whom are great wine lovers. Also, it’s a very ritualistic meal where you drink four glasses of wine separately from the food. Even so, we’ll always have something good, but not too extravagant,such as an inexpensive white burgundy from JJ Vincent.

At the moment, I’m into a Middle Eastern phase of cooking and invariably turn to Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest cookbook, which is a blend of Israeli and Palestinian cuisines. My favourite dish is baked chicken with spinach, lemon and coriander, which goes incredibly well with a robust red wine. My favourite match is the great Lebanese wine Château Musar, which I discovered in the 1980s. It’s inspirational how Serge Hochar has continued to make a wine every single vintage despite invasions and civil wars. But perhaps what is most remarkable of all is just how good it is, year in year out.”

David Spreng

Venture capitalist David Spreng is the founder of Crescendo Venture in San Francisco and co-founder of The Wine Forum, a philanthropic fine-wine society.

“Good wine and good food have always been important to me. But having collected some of the greatest labels of Bordeaux and California since the early 1990s, my interest has always focused on the wine first and foremost.

In the past few years, however, I’ve become much more interested in the art of food and wine matching. One reason for this is the amount of business and social entertaining I do. Another is because I recently set up The Wine Forum, which evolved out of several fine-wine tastings with Jancis Robinson. We’re a not-for-profit organisation whose high-profile members have a passion for fine wine and philanthropy. This summer, 30 of us went to Bordeaux for a series of tastings, lunches and dinners, which more than proved that great bordeaux is made for food – especially when you’re drinking 1986 Margaux and dining at the Château.

Matching food and wine is largely about balance, so that each component brings out the best in the other. Of course, the other trick is picking wines that fit the occasion as well as the food.

Occasionally, some people’s approaches can be too extreme. Matching wine and food isn’t an intellectual exercise – it’s about pleasure and personal taste. I seriously doubt whether the perfect food and wine match exists. There are too many variables.

And yet there are certain things that always seem to work in tandem – such as seared foie gras and sauternes. Another is a great steak with a big Napa cab or top-flight bordeaux (Harlan, Araujo Pahlmeyer, Lewis or Colgin for the former; Léoville-las-Cases, Cos d’Estournel or Pavie for the latter). Conversely, certain things just don’t work at all. Opening a decent bottle with spicy food is a waste of good wine. I’d rather have a beer.

If my wife and I are entertaining at home, we tend to choose the food first, because there is usually a good match in the cellar. But in a restaurant, I’m very happy to take advice from a sommelier and occasionally try something I’ve never had before, especially when I’m out with the family rather than business associates. What I like about dining in world-class restaurants, such as The French Laundry or Le Chapon Fin, is the way a really talented sommelier can transform a meal into a culinary adventure.”

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Wines