It wasn’t a scientific experiment by any means, but it was enlightening nonetheless to pair a series of the same wines with different sets of food exemplifying the different seasons.
Of course it helped that the man doing the cooking was none other than our friend and fellow author/broadcaster Paul Merrett, of the excellent Victoria in East Sheen. (We’ll be posting one of Paul’s brilliant autumnal recipes, creamy garlic rabbit casserole, in due course.)
The event was set up and sponsored by Chilean winery Cono Sur, one of those producers consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to tapping into the zeitgeist. Hence its laudable initiatives including environmental sustainability (organic farming, Carbon Neutral projects, light-weighting), ethical working practices, alternative closures – even, lately, an App.
And of course addressing the trendy subject of seasonality.
In my view, Cono Sur (and its parent company Concha y Toro) makes some of the best value wines available on the UK high street. So it was always going to be interesting to try their range against some pretty fine cooking, arranged specifically to chime with the seasons.
You can see a very professional video of the event below. I was selected to represent autumn – which I was very happy with, given it’s my favourite season: glorious golden scenery, harvest time and game season are just a few reasons why. (Susie, incidentally, finds autumn less agreeable, given that it signals the end of summer sun, she being a person for whom there are two seasons in the year: summer, and waiting for summer.)
To summarise our conclusions, there were few shock results from the event. Sauvignon Blanc came through as a favourite with the crunchy, zesty flavours of spring while Pinot Noir not only confirmed its identity as an autumnal favourite but also a supremely versatile variety whatever the season (eg as a chilled summer red, for example).
It’s also fair to observe that we drink seasonally instinctively but also in an equivocal way. So we may well end up choosing a crisp, refreshing, chilled white in the summer and a richer, heartier red for the perishing winter months.
But equally, in this era of central heating and fusion food, these rules are often cast by the wayside as we tuck into a wonderfully summery Beaujolais in the depths of winter – who knows, perhaps deliberately going off the seasonal piste to get a taste of what we want but can’t have.
As ever, the key to matching the wine to the food was the ingredients and dominant flavours rather than any particular seasonal bent.
Thus the Pinot Noir, a great autumn wine, went brilliantly well with spring lamb, while many thought the heart-warming Carmenère went well with the mackerel on tomato bruschetta (a summer dish).
Below are details on the dishes and successful (and not so successful) wine matches. As so often (but not always) with these things, the better the wine, the more versatile and rewarding it was with food.
Plain steamed asparagus with hollandaise and char grilled asparagus with herb dressing … The char-grilled version is a deceptive dish. You think it’s simple, but that in fact makes it harder to find a really incisive wine match. None of the cheap-and-cheerful wines worked. So I traded up – and found that the 20 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc worked very well. A dish that needs a bit of class from its wine accompaniment.
Roasted rack of lamb with garlic and rosemary and a jug of lamb jus … Lovely with Pinot Noir – really brings out the best in both. A classic spring match.
Cauliflower in a tempura batter, plain steamed cauliflower and cauliflower cous cous … OK, so so it’s not exactly a midweek British staple, but still a fascinating challenge of a dish for the wine. The best matches are Riesling, which is pure and crisp, and fizz (Cono Sur Sparkling Brut NV, Bío Bío), whose frothy apple flavours meld extremely well with the tempura’s lightness.
Crunchy baby leek vinaigrette and buttered leeks and leeks in a garlic cream – the leeks are actually quite creamy in texture (even the non-buttered ones) so Chardonnay actually comes into its own. It can’t be too buttery and soft, though, as you need the appley acid to cut through the creaminess. But Riesling, by contrast, is just too tart and punchy.
Tomato and mozzarella platter with basil and rigatoni pasta with a fresh tomato sauce … such direct flavours, especially of the dominant tomato, that like the char-grilled asparagus, it’s very difficult to match well. It needs lightness in a red (Pinot Noir works best in this sense) or fuller flavours in a white. In end the count, it actually works best with the 20 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc (think: tomato leaf tanginess).
Char-grilled courgettes with mint and garlic courgette frit with red pepper rouille dip … the succulent, gently spicy Viognier comes into its own here; the reds are all disappointing.
Char-grilled mackerel on a tomato bruschetta and a smoked mackerel paté … many liked the surprise combination of Carmenère with this dish, citing its smokiness chiming with the char-grilling, a classic summer cooking method. But I wasn’t so taken with this. For me, the whites worked best, especially those which picked up on the smokiness but cut through the fattiness of the fish. Again, 20 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier did well.
Strawberries with clotted cream and home-made strawberry sorbet … we really needed a sweet wine here – or at least a wine with some richness. Yes, the tanginess of the strawberry may tempt you into a dry wine but it inevitably clashes. Riesling makes the best stab (strawberry has quite a ‘green/tangy’ flavour profile for me).
Mashed potato and thrice cooked chips and boiled Vivaldi potatoes … as we discovered tasting fish’n’chips for our What Food What Wine competition, chips (and potatoes) really can be a forceful flavour. Chardonnay works well here, as does the fizz. But when do you ever eat potatoes just on their own..?
Wild mushroom risotto and char-grilled field mushrooms on toast … Chardonnay, Chardonnay, Chardonnay. And Pinot Noir.
Roasted squash with honey & thyme and a butternut soup with coconut … the soup is actually quite fruity, so Gewurztraminer works well. Chardonnay is hopeless, as is Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon is a complete surprise in its relative harmony.
Rare roasted loin of venison … a duel between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir for this dish. The Cabernet’s structure and acidity stands up to the dish in brilliant fashion. But Pinot’s extra fruitiness and refreshment value means it just takes the chequered flag.
Savoy cabbage stir fried with chestnuts and garlic and sprouts in a cream sauce with bacon … Decent Chardonnay comes into its own here. The chestnuts bring out its succulence, and you need the freshness to enliven the palate between what are pretty heavy-going mouthfuls.
Parsnip soup and honey roast potatoes … seamless match with the 20 Barrels Chardonnay. No need to look further.
Roasted carrots and carrot purée … as per the autumn squash dish, both the fruity whites (Viognier) and Cabernet Sauvignon work well. Earthiness? Succulence? Who knows. It just works.
Char-grilled rib eye steak and slow braised beef in red wine … Cabernet Sauvignon works well, as does Merlot. A classic hearty-red dish – blows everything else away.