Anything's possible – simplifying wine and food matches

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Tim Hanni, Master of Wine, wants you to throw away the rule book when it comes to food and wine matching. Not that there ever was one but everybody in the trade has their own ideas as to what goes with what and what doesn't.

'We wine professionals should not tell consumers that they have to change their eating and drinking habits if they want to conform to what the gate-keepers of the wine industry have pre-determined is best for them,' says Napa-based Hanni.

'If you love white Zinfandel you'll find that it'll be delicious with your lobster or steak. The problem the experts have with this is that we think white Zinfandel is too sweet for our palates and therefore it's too sweet for everybody.'

During a Toronto seminar for restauranteurs Hanni explained to them what his company WineQuest calls the 'Progressive Wine List.' The concept is a non-judgmental assessment of wines organised by their taste characteristics (rather than by regions or grape variety). His panel of tasters assess wines for sweetness, intensity, fruit character, oak, tannin and acidity, giving a numeric value to each.

The wines are then ranked in order of primary flavour attributes from mildest to strongest flavour in any given category (say, Chardonnay) and listed under sub-headings as to style and taste. This, he contends, allows the consumer to make informed choices and for restaurants to offer a wider spectrum of choice within a shorter list.

Tim Hanni's iconoclastic approach to wine is not merely an exercise in nose-thumbing at an industry notorious for its arrogance and elitism. He was also a chef in a former life and his theories on food preparation allow for such wines as the very popular white Zinfandel - the latter day Baby Duck - to taste good with whatever you want to eat.

To prove his point he cooked dinner for my wife Deborah and I in our kitchen. First he asked me to choose the wines I thought would be least complementary to the menu he had in mind: Scallops done Thai-style (coconut milk, mango, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, green chilli paste, fish sauce, lime juice and cilantro - probably the least wine-friendly ingredients on the planet), followed by pan seared steak with steamed asparagus.

The worst matches I could think of were a Portuguese dry red wine Quinta do Carmo 1997 for the scallop dish and an off-dry Riesling (actually from the then only winery in Vermont) Snow Farm Winery Riesling 1999 with the steak.

While Hanni was preparing the sauce for the scallops he asked us to taste the red wine and then taste the sauce. The overpowering taste of bitterness from the cilantro filled my mouth accentuating the wine's tannins. But when he put in the fish sauce and lime juice and asked us to retaste the combination the wine harmonised well with the sauce.

The off-dry Riesling we knew would marry very well with the scallop dish but with rare steak and asparagus! Not good for my palate. The mildness of the wine and its residual sugar got lost in the iron-like taste of rare meat although it worked with the asparagus.

The red wine with the asparagus had a bitter finish initially but when Tim Hanni suggested that I squeezed a few drops of lemon juice over the steak and vegetable and salted both (thank goodness, I love salt) the tannins magically disappeared and the match was perfect.

So basically, Hanni's contention is that you can engineer your food to suit any wine.

Taking another whack at the food and wine marriage counsellors, he offered this insight: 'We asked groups of people around the world to consciously create bad food and wine combinations, to purposely order the wrong thing and see what happens. The results we're getting back are that consciously ordering bad combinations are equally as successful as consciously trying to order a good combination.'

What about the notion that as we progress in our wine appreciation our palates dry out? According to Tim Hanni this is not necessarily so. 'Wine professionals have a number of assumptions that no-one has taken the time to challenge.

Your palate doesn't change that much even late in life. What's changing is your psychological interpretation. As kids we all love sugar but it's drummed into us sweet is bad for you, it's going to rot your teeth, it's going to make you fat. After a while we take on that value. It doesn't mean we like the sensation of sugar any the less but there's now a psychological barrier.

Conversely, we're introduced to things like coffee, Scotch and strong tasting wines which most humans around the world, regardless of age, would completely reject as not having delicious qualities. But as you associate certain aspects of the world and of your emotions with these sensations you acquire the taste.

For example, with your first shot of coffee you put some cream and sugar in it and make a milkshake out of it - suppress the bitterness and put in the sweetness. Some people drink it that way their entire life and typically these are the people we find who have a greater sensitivity to bitterness.

A lot of men have a very high tolerance to bitterness and an inability to even detect a lot of bitter compounds. So we're off drinking our manly red wines thinking that's the thing to do and making these emotional relationships like the steak. It's a big red piece of meat, you need a big red wine. That's a complete emotional package we're buying into; there's no sensory validity to it.'

Moral: have lemon and salt on your dinner table for your guests - and I guess I'm out of a job.

Republished from Winepros Archives. First published May 01 2001, by Tony  Aspler © Global Encyclopedia of Wine

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