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Food for fine wine

OK. Youíve got a special bottle that youíve been saving for some time. You want to drink it with a meal. But what do you cook? Or youíve come into some money and you can actually afford to venture into the northern reaches of the winelist at an upmarket restaurant (despite the punishing mark-ups that mean for a wine on the list for £90 the restaurants profit will usually be in excess of £60): what do you choose off the menu?

Choosing food to match with fine wines is a challenge, whether it is at home or in a restaurant. Here are some of my thoughts.

First, fine wines are usually complex. Especially when they are aged. They donít shout about how good they are, but whisper their glories. You have to make sure that what you serve with them isnít going to overpower them, and doesnít contain any flavours likely to clash. This rules out a good deal of modern cooking. Chefs like to show their inventiveness (sometimes forgetting that thereís a difference between novelty and innovation), and are quite keen on combining strong pairings of flavours, or using ingredients that clash with wine. Fusion cuisine, for example, is not really for fine old wines.

I like modern cooking, but often it calls for robust young wines that have the power of flavour to equal strong flavours in food. For fine wines my preference is for good quality, pure ingredients Ė such as a rare fillet steak, game, or very fresh fish Ė simply prepared without any flashy embellishment. It sounds boring to advocate it, but traditional French cooking acts as a good backdrop for fine wine. 

Hereís another potentially controversial statement. Fine wine is sensitive to the environment it is served in. If the conditions arenít right it suffers. Restaurants that are noisy, smelly, overly dark or too warm donít work very well. You need somewhere where a degree of quiet contemplation is possible Ė just a little will do, but subtle, complex wines deserve a bit of thought. This might sound overly fussy, but it really is a waste of money if you are drinking wine in an environment where even a hardened professional would have difficulty telling the difference between a Montrachet and a Chilean Chardonnay. Such conditions do exist!

Itís barmy how some people serve fine Sauternes and other complex sweet wines with desserts. They may be known as dessert wines, but unless the dessert is very well mannered and preferably fruit based (e.g. fruit tart, tarte tatin), then itís going to mask the subtleties and complexities of the sweet wine. Serve complex sweet wines and decent Ports on their own. Preferably, before everyone is solidly drunk. 

As for the exact match between a particular wine and a dish, I would be less worried. I think the food needs to be wine friendly, but it doesnít have to be perfectly aligned. Yes, the odd fantastic synergy does occur at times, but this is rare and probably happens more by chance than careful planning. Instead, itís good to concentrate on eliminating flavours that will cause problems for wine appreciation, and then begin thinking about possible alliances between the wine and food.

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