The art & science of food and wine

Monday, 4 February, 2013
Graham Howe

Graham Howe reports on one of the most extraordinary food and wine tastings he has attended in two decades which took place at Backsberg in late January.

“The pairing of food and wine is a complex and highly inexact science. It is fraught with outmoded rules and a propensity for generalisations.”
- Sid Golstein, The Wine Lover's Cookbook

An impressive cross-section of wine writers showed up for a recent tasting on Monday at Backsberg. We're pondering on the meaning of an unusual tasting platter in front of us - raw ingredients of apple, coriander, mint, lemongrass, nectarines, salt and star anise - as well as brie, coconut cream, soy cream and saté. All the herbs, spices and sauces are going up against Backsberg’s Black Label wines. I get the feeling this is going to be decidedly different to the usual food and wine pairings.

“We’re going to explore a playground of flavours” declares Nancy Gilchrist, a visiting master of wine and independent wine educator from the UK. “Firstly there are no rules - only tried and tested observations and generalisations. We should feel free to experiment with joy, delight and individual freedom. Secondly, one is attempting to achieve a balance in the combined structural components of food - the acidity, saltiness, sweetness, spiciness and bitterness (tannin) - and their effect on alcohol.”

The charming guest speaker soon had the audience eating out of her hand - as well as out of the spice bowl. An experienced wine lecturer and consultant - it says “independent wine and chocolate educator” on her business card - Nancy developed the pairing for Prue Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London. First, she outlines a few basic principles - that acidity (and salt) in food reduces the perceived acidity of wine but increases perceived tannin; that protein reduces perceived tannin; and that pepper increases the perception of alcohol, spice and fruit flavours in wine.

Now for the “touchy-feely” part of the tasting. Over a dozen pairings, Simon Back and Nancy do a double-hander, telling the story behind the wines while highlighting the flavours. Moving from the theoretical “structural components” of the wines, we explore the practical side, pairing a nibble of acidic apple (with and without salt) to the wooded John Martin Sauvignon Blanc 2012 - to demonstrate how salt plus acidity makes Sauvignon Blanc much more approachable and builds flavours. Salt, as any chef knows, reduces our perception of acidity like nothing in the kitchen - which is why champagne (high in acidity) makes a great match with caviar (high in salt).

“Sell on cheese; buy on apple” is the old vintner’s adage. While the protein in cheese reduces perceived tannins in young reds, apple and wine achieves the inverse effect.

By now we’re on to a “Mary Poppins” nibble of coriander with the wooded Hillside Viognier 2009. It is a deliberate mismatch. Nancy comments, “Oak plays an important role in food and wine matching. Dill reduces oaked Chardonnay to the taste of grass!” But the next nibble of lemongrass does the trick, bringing out the citrus zest of Viognier - and demonstrating the grape’s compatibility with Thai cuisine. Viognier with a bite of nectarine plus mint also builds a great flavour platform. Who said we shouldn’t play with our food? Now there’s one childhood rule right out the window.

Looking back at my notes, Pinot Noir seems to be the most versatile of wines. The acidity of apple again bumps up the perceived tannins while reducing the lovely raspberry fruit of the maiden Beyond Borders Pinot Noir 2010; but a bite of brie (protein) softens the tannins and highlights the fruit. And Pinot Noir with lemongrass and lime is the surprising match of the morning. Nancy points out that the lemony terpenes and floral linalool oil of lemongrass in Thai cuisine is especially compatible with new-world Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

This is turning out to be quite a learning curve first thing on a Monday morning. We’re onto the zeitgeist of modern cuisine by now - umami (meaning delicious taste). “We have to treat umami ingredients with caution” warns Nancy. Wine tasted with food high in umami (and therefore glutamic acids) - tomatoes, soy sauce, nori (seaweed), smoked/oily fish, parmesan, yeasts and Asian mushrooms - often produces an unpleasant metallic taste. Slow cooking or salt and lemon “denatures” umami ingredients, sweetening tomatoes in Italian cuisine for a good match for robust reds. An off-dry wine (say Chenin Blanc) also gets around metallic asparagus or artichokes.

“It’s so easy to ruin red wine with acidic food which reduces the fruit and bumps up the tannin” concludes Nancy. We progressed onto a vertical flight of the flagship Klein Babylons Toren (2003, 2005 and 2007) - pairing the herbal aromas and earthy forest floor flavours of the Bordeaux blend with a sweet, savoury soy sauce. The tasting ended on a decadent note, matching the peppery and spicy Backsberg Pumphouse Shiraz 2003 with a sublime combination of star anise, spicy saté and coconut cream. The pepper and spice in the match of the morning tantalised our tastebuds, increasing the perceived fruit, alcohol and spice flavours of the wine.     

“Be bold and adventurous. The whole should prove greater than the sum of the parts. Balance is everything” is Nancy’s mantra - i.e. the balance of structural components of acidity, salt, sweet, sour, bitterness (tannin) and savoury (umami) in food and wine.

Over lunch we tasted a superb trio of rare vintages of Backsberg’s finest from Michael Back’s cellar - Backsberg Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Pinot Noir 1985 and Shiraz 1988. I left thinking about the old “tongue map” we learned long ago at school - the sweet receptors on the tip of our tongue, salt (front) and sour (back) at the sides and bitterness at the back. It all made sense after learning today how we taste the physiological ripeness of wine on the tip of our tongue, the acidity at the sides and the alcohol at the back of our throat. You’re never too old to learn a new trick.


Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."

Nancy Gilchrist and Simon Back
Nancy Gilchrist and Simon Back

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