Pairing artichokes & wine: devilish duo or match made in heaven?

Monday, 13 February, 2012
Susan M. Cashin
It's funny how a seemingly simple query coming at one from out of the blue can quickly metamorphose into a quest. Robertson Wine Valley manager, Elizma Spangenberg knows this all too well.
Recently she received a request from Jonty Sacks, a partner in Sacks’ Artichokes – one of the largest artichoke producers in South Africa, for a list of wines from the Robertson Wine Valley that would pair well with his artichokes.

Realizing the difficult food and wine pairing dilemma presented to her, Elizma decided to enlist the help of food and wine writer and accredited sommelier Susan M. Cashin. Never ones to back down from a challenge both realized the necessity to bring new insights on food and wine pairing to the table. Let’s join them on their quest.

What makes artichokes and wine a potentially devilish duo?
When served with wine, artichokes have long been branded as a sensory sociopath by food and wine critics, sommeliers and chefs alike - a degustation from hell. One renowned chef went so far as to ban the perniciously perceived flower head from his restaurant’s menu! How can a food be such a malignant match with wine?

The main culprit is cynarin, an organic acid which inhibits taste receptors on the tongue. After eating an artichoke some individuals will experience the next food or drink that is tasted as sweet. Others will experience a bitter taste. Take into consideration other existing compounds, acids and umami (one of the primary tastes along with salty, sour, bitter, sweet) and as a result artichokes are armed to the teeth to wreak havoc with the compounds and flavor components found in wine. Lovely, dry refreshing wines can turn sweet; fruit forward wines can become insipid and fall flat; tannins can turn viciously bitter – a veritable whirling dervish of unpleasant tastes.

But wait ... there’s hope for this seemingly doomed pair! Science trumps assumptions and myths!

Study into the problems facing this wine and food challenge led Susan to the innovative work in taste and sensory physiology being conducted by Tim Hanni, MW (Master of Wine) and his collaborator Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, an associate professor at Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. Based on ground-breaking research, Hanni and Utermohlen have determined that each individual is endowed with a unique sensory physiology that effects taste experiences and guides taste preferences in foods and beverages (wine being the focus of their studies). Their findings have led to the formation of four distinct taste phenotypes or “vinotypes”, a term coined by Hanni. The four vinotypes are: sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive and tolerant.

Their research is shattering long held views and pronouncements in the areas of wine judging, the marketing of wines and especially in the area of food and wine pairing. So much so, that recently the Wine and Spirits Education Trust has completely done away with the old curriculum on food and wine pairing. And Hanni was appointed to revise the entire text based on his and Utermohlen’s research and findings.

Here’s a quick summary of the new thoughts on food and wine pairing:
  • Our physiology directs our sensory discernments. Our perceptions of a shared food and wine combination can vary dramatically. And there is no such thing as having a “good” or “bad” palate. We simply experience sensations such as taste differently.
  • Old rules such as “red wine with red meat”, “light wines with light dishes” are obsolete and not set in stone. They should never stand in the way of one’s personal enjoyment of their particular food and wine pairing preferences. If the pairing pleases you it is a good match. If it disagrees with you, it is not.
  • Remember, wine is less likely to be the instigator in altering the perception of food flavor. Generally, it is the composition of the food that can have considerable effect on the perception of the intensity of a wine’s flavors.
  • By utilizing the concept of Flavor Balancing in the preparation of your choice of food, it is possible to mitigate if not do away with unpleasant interactions between food and wine. Find a wine you like and practice flavor balancing as many chefs now do. Follow traditional as well as modern applications of ingredients that will enhance as well as create harmony between the food and wine. It’s easy! Most of the condiments found in the traditional foods of France and Italy will serve you well – salt and acidity (lemon, vinegar, mustard) being the keys to unlock a whole new world of food and wine enjoyment. A dash of salt and a squeeze of lemon can tame and reform a “wine killer” such as artichokes.
Now on with the Quest
Just as knights were summoned to search for the Holy Grail, Susan and Elizma began to assemble a team to join in this gastronomic quest. First order of the day was to find a venue and a chef ready to accept the challenge. When approached with the idea of this difficult food and wine tasting, Riaan and Stefane Kruger, the dynamic management team of the Robertson Small Hotel, did not blink an eye or for a moment flinch. Must be those years spend in the bush managing exotic game reserves that endowed them with such a fearless and intrepid sense of adventure of any kind!

Also, it did not hurt to have onboard one of South Africa’s pre-eminent chefs, Reuben Riffel along with Emile Fortuin, his trusted chef d’cuisine at his eponymous restaurant – Reuben’s at the Robertson Small Hotel. Reuben’s concept cuisines coupled with Emile’s careful execution presented an amazing array of four artichoke based dishes for the mission at hand. Recipes are provided on the Robertson Small Hotel website,

Though far away, yet eager to join in, Jonty Sacks graciously sent via courier a generous supply of artichokes straight from the farm to the restaurant.

Next a Tasting Team of eight was assembled along with sixteen wines from the Robertson Wine Valley. Since artichokes are at their peak from early to late spring, it was decided to showcase wines that are perfect for this time of year and into the hot summer holidays. As well, wine styles and varietals were chosen that would have the potential to tango with the artichoke offerings; not slam-dance across the tasters’ palates. The wine style categories were as follows: Bubblies and Méthod Cap Classiques, Sauvignon blancs, other Whites and Blends, Chardonnays and Rosés.

The team consisted of Elizma Spangenberg – Susan M. Cashin – Weltevrede owner and winemaker Philip Jonker and his wife Lindelize – Riaan Kruger and Gretchen Heydenrych of the Robertson Small Hotel staff. Rounding out the panel were two consumers – newcomer to Robertson Jeanette Bosman, tour guide and communications consultant and Petrus Tree, owner of Kogman and Keisie Guest Farm and co-owner of online store,

All tasters took the online Taste Budometer™ test, an abbreviated version of the Taste Sensitivity Quotient Assessment test developed by Tim Hanni, MW and researchers. Of the four defined “vinotypes” all tasters fell within the Sensitive Taster range. Note that this particular “vinotype” enjoys a broad range of wine styles so our tasting experience was bound to be interesting. Would everyone agree? Or would opinion vary greatly across the board?

With sixteen wines to try it was decided to split the group in to two groups of four. Each group would rate eight wines with each dish. The wine style categories were known to the tasters, but all the bottles were bagged to conceal the wines’ producers.

Scoring was based on a total possible score of 15 points. 1 to 5 points for the taste of the dish on its own – 1 to 5 points for wine tasted on its own – and 1 to 5 points for the match between each wine and artichoke presentation. All tasters were made aware that although the dish and the wine rated on their own could each garner a five, the important score was the match between the food and the wine! What was also stressed that it was each individual’s personal experience with the wine and the food that mattered. Scores were only to help codify the results. Each dish was tasted with the wines and only after all tasters were finished was the pairing discussed while all waited for the next dish to be presented.

And finally the results!

Marinated Artichoke Summer Salad
A bright, colorful and refreshing salad singing of spring with its medley of marinated artichoke, mixed baby greens leaves, radish, nectarine and pea shoots. Hints of the summer to come buzzed about in the slices of mango and cubes of paw paw. All brought together in harmony with a light yet lush vanilla citrus vinaigrette. A hit with the Tasting Team!

The Wine that Wowed in the pairing
Weltevrede "The Ring" a Méthod Cap Classique
Comments included: "A dance between bright sweet fruits tangy greens and lovely vinaigrette – all lifted on a floating bed of citrusy bubbly explosion!"

Wines that Wooed and Won over members of the Tasting Team
Robertson Pinot Grigio 2011, Graham Beck Waterside Chardonnay 2011, Kranskop Chardonnay 2011, Robertson Retreat Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Springfield "Life from Stone" Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Excelsior Viognier 2011, Van Loveren Blanc de Noir 2011 and Weltevrede Vanilla Chardonnay 2011.

Summer Artichoke and Vegetable Barigoule
Another favorite of the Tasting Team this salad snapped crackled and popped the flavors of spring and summer. The crunch of julienne celery, leeks, sugar snap peas, tart green apple and baby artichokes boiled in a lemon bath were infused with herbs of spring – dill, thyme and parsley. All of which were then lightly showered with the piquant flavor pops of coriander, white peppercorns, chardonnay vinegar and lemon juice that orchestrated the Barigoule vinaigrette.

Wines that Wowed (A three-way tie!)
De Wetshof Brut NV Méthod Cap Classique - "Balanced pairing" / "Bubbly and dish pair perfectly!"
Rietvallei Sauvignon Blanc 2011 - "The tastes entwine and wrap around each other!"
Weltevrede Vanilla Chardonnay 2011 - "A dreamy combo!" / "A surprisingly good match!"

Wines that Wooed and Won
Ashton Kelder Satyn Perlé 2011 and Graham Beck Rosé 2011.

Fried Artichoke with Gribiche
This dish topped the charts of the Tasting Team with its sheer yumminess! Tempura-style artichoke hearts served with a to-die-for sauce gribiche – a mayonnaise-style cold egg sauce used in French cuisine. Egg yolks, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and Dijon mustard are spun together into a silken liquid coating then studded with flavor jewels of chopped cornichons, capers, and crumbled egg yolks. Simply divine!

Wine that Wowed (Another tie)
Graham Beck Waterside Chardonnay 2011 – "Lovely! Lovely! Lovely!"
Weltevrede Vanilla Chardonnay 2011 – "A great match!"

Wines that Wooed and Won
De Wetshof Brut NV Méthod Cap Classique, Ashton Kelder Satyn Perlé, Kranskop Chardonnay 2011 and Graham Beck Rosé 2011.

Lemon and Herb Stuffed Artichokes
A close contender for the Tasting Team’s top spot! This dish was a potent pack of flavor. With fillets of anchovy pocketed in the artichoke leaves encircling a bread, herb and parmesan stuffed heart. Served on the side, a gremolata – a condiment of chopped flat-leaf parsley, garlic and finely grated lemon rind along with an extra dusting of grated parmesan sent this dish into the stratosphere of savoriness.

Wine that Wowed!
Graham Beck Rosé – "Love the combination!" / "A thrilling tango on the tongue!"

Wines that Wooed and Won
Danie de Wet Rosé 2011

Here the rosés had the strongest showing overall. Although other wines fared well, there always seemed to be a caveat that they were just not able to match the intensity and weight of the dish. Could this be an artichoke dish whose destiny lies with a red wine? Possibly a frolic with a Cab Franc, a mellow Merlot or a smooth Shiraz? Another wine and food quest ahead!

Here’s another tip on serving artichokes with wine. Grilling artichokes seems to reduce the cynarin and its effects. This can open the door to a myriad of additional wine pairing possibilities.

In the end, remember you are your own arbiter of taste! Be adventurous and playful when it comes to pairing wine and food. Try new foods! “Think outside the bottle”! And remember a dash of salt, a splash of lemon can turn many a devilish food and wine duo into a match made in heaven!

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*Photos courtesy of Petrus Jansen.