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Students of the sommeliers
When choosing a wine to drink with dinner, most of us have no idea what we’re doing. We take refuge in that old refrain, “I may not know art, but I know what I like.” Pleased with a particular wine, we remain loyal.
People shopping next to me at the LCBO will often select the same bottle I do. Maybe because I wear glasses, they think that I know something. Not so.
Eating in restaurants, I defer to the good sense of sommeliers.
Sommeliers are an endangered species in the restaurant kingdom. Since 2008’s stock market collapse, diners have been spending less money on wine. Restaurants, in turn, have spent less money on sommeliers.
It’s too bad, because these people know some useful stuff. Not some arcane witchcraft, penetrable only to those who read wine critic Robert Parker’s newsletter. But real, concrete understanding, based on noticeable aspects of a wine’s character and its capacity to balance the flavours of our meal.
In an effort to learn some of these basic truths about wine pairing, I’ve invited sommeliers Anton Potvin (owner of Niagara Street Café) and Jamie Drummond (late of JK Wine Bar, now director of programs for Good Food Media) to my table.
I have challenged them not just to pair wines with four dishes – spicy, salty, sour and sweet – but also to explain the choices in words that even I can understand.
Showing up at my place, the two friends are giddy as they unload a bag of seven wines. They’re tough to read. Potvin’s default tempo is placid, though he’s so much taller than I am that I can’t quite see his face. Drummond’s wild curls of red hair give him the appearance of always having a wonderful time, as if he’s just stepped off Willy Wonka’s boat, sailing down a river of wine.
The pals set about shifting the bottles around, nit-picking each pairing decision.
For the spicy dish, mildly curried sunchokes with braised goat leg, they select an Ontario Gewürztraminer.
Sugar and starch being antidotes to spice, the off-dry wine really sings out. In the way that a dish might have different elements to balance its flavours, for example how chutney complements the spice of a curry, the wine completes the dish. The wine acts as the chutney.
Sweet and sour is another yin and yang that most of us respond well to. A pair of markedly different Alsatian rieslings divide the crowd on which one goes better with olives, pickled onions and salty feta marinated in mustard and roasted garlic. Yes, the drier Heissenberg may be a more interesting wine but the versatile Hartenberg gives better balance to the admittedly one-sided dish.
For tacos filled with sour tomatillo and crab salsa, we go with something more tart. Or, rather, a wine that balances acidity with fruitiness.
I am unmoved by the rosé. But I’m disappointed in my own work as well. The crab doesn’t benefit the salsa. And the tortillas ought to have been steamed rather than reheated in the oven.
The sweetness of Boston baked beans, slow cooked with chunks of pork belly and shallots, allows Potvin and Drummond to present a more tannic cabernet sauvignon from Australia. Tannins, to keep it simple, give a wine complexity but also astringency. The rendered fat in the dish coats the mouth, negating the astringent quality of the wine.
The salving effect of the unctuous fat allows us to appreciate the subtleties of the red wine. They would have been lost to the sour salsa or salty cheese. The tannins and curry would have irritated each other in the mouth like Pop Rocks and soda.
It’s like balancing flavours and textures to compose a dish. A spicy sauce can be countered by rice. Too much starch? Add vegetables. A wine might be chosen that way, as complement or opposition to elements that our tongues are already juggling.
Yes, these subtleties can be trumped by the preference of the diner. If we enjoy one particularly versatile wine, why not pair it with everything? The answer is variety. It’s what keeps life interesting.
When I walk into my local, I love that they reach for the scotch. But they enjoy it more when I ask them to recommend a new wine. Trust is part of the host/guest relationship.