The Novice On Wine : Pairing Revelations An invitation to a wine tasting comes with the exciting possibility of good food and good wine. But as a novice you always tend to worry about sounding like an idiot in front of people who know their grapes. “I smell grass...” one might say after stuffing their nose into their wine glass as though hoping to breathe in all the liquid. “I smell lemons,” another may add with a triumphant smile. “Ah... Apples!”
“There’s definitely a floral hint to it,” chimes another while you sit wondering why it is that you can smell nothing but fermented grape in your glass. A particularly cheeky retort may be to say, “Notes of alcohol!” but you might look around to find that no one is laughing at your attempt at a joke. Not even you.
It’s not easy being the novice at wine tastings. But I haven’t seen that stopping my peers from attending. In fact, I find most people quite open to the world of wine, especially if it makes for a promising evening with food and good company. A formal tasting is a good place to start, if you ask me, because even if you can’t smell the peaches and pears just yet, you’re definitely going to come away with a revelation or two. I came away with quite a few lessons recently at an informal tasting at Aurus, Juhu with Chef Vicky Ratnani and The Wine Kart. The key is to keep an open mind to new experiences and contribute your impressions with confidence.
We dove right into it as we opened the first bottle, the 2010 Thelema, Sutherland, Sauvignon Blancfrom Stellenbosch, South Africa. “I’ve decided to start the evening with a round of scallops,” said Chef Vicky after taking a sip of the crisp white. “The sweetness of the scallops will cut into the acidity of this wine beautifully.” Simple logic, isn't it? But imagine my surprise when I saw this demonstrated! When the scallops came around with spring onion coulis, the acidity I had tasted with a fresh palette turned into a – wait for it – very pronounced grassy flavour. For the first time, I actually noticed the shift in taste!
The second course we tried with this white was a riot of ingredients with grilled salmon. These included Israeli couscous, cardamom raita, harisa power and salsa. “Cut a piece of salmon and add each of the items on the plate before taking a bite,” Chef advised. We did as we were told and suddenly, as if by magic, the wine turned fruity. A bit of reasoning applied to this pairing would reveal to the most nascent wine drinker that the acidity from the salsa matched that of the wine thus cutting through it entirely on the palette so you’d only notice the fruity character.
The next bottle we delved into was the 2010 Saint Clair, Pioneer Block 15, a Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand. This we tried first with Teriyaki Glazed Tofu with soba noodles which turned the wine spicy, thanks to the hints of sweetness from the teriyaki sauce matching the fruit character of the wine. This was followed by a chop of lamb and jerk spiced pork which accentuated the spicy character of the wine even further, with hints of oak and vanilla.
There are many revelations to be had at wine and food pairing sessions. The idea, however, is to remember that wine is about a lot more than just picking notes and flavours. It’s also about testing it with your sense of taste. An enthusiast just starting off won’t be able to (or even interested in) playing the wine game of shouting out one flavour at a time. That takes time, practice and sometimes I suspect, a whole lot of guesswork. But the right pairings of wine and food give you a demonstration of the potential and versatility of wine and do not overpower each other but create a balance of flavours. You may even walk away with an honest opinion you can actually articulate as, “The Sauvignon Blanc wine was an excellent aperitif and great with delicately flavoured foods,” rather than, “That white wine really rocked my socks.”
Afsha Khan has been a food and culture journalist with The Indian Express, GQ and Hindustan Times. She is currently the editor of Bombil Times, a social publication dedicated to events, activities and experiences across Mumbai.