Food & Drink: Try your venison with Champagne

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The Independent Culture
IN A LIFE that has embraced more dinner parties than most people have hot dinners, I have been lucky enough to encounter some of the great minds of our time, whose knives and forks have been set next to mine.

I have dined with artists whose merest flick of paint on a canvas would fetch pounds 100,000 at Sotheby's. I have discussed politics with heads of state, the future of the novel with writers who have done much to destroy it, and the ethics of uranium mining with a nuclear physicist. Yet these people, geniuses in their own fields, were dodos when it came to the table. They had absolutely no idea what wine to drink with the food they were eating.

Some just drank what was put in front of them, while others stuck to the "I like Bordeaux so I'm going to drink it with everything" approach. One gave up altogether and drank 7-Up throughout the meal.

But if they're so smart, how come they don't know that the right wine will make your food taste better, and the right food can make your wine taste better?

The problem is that there is no trick to matching one's food and wine, no secret formula and no hidden pathway. It is merely a matter of taste, not unlike other forms of matchmaking. You have two ways to go: you can put two likes together, or you can put two opposites together, sometimes with devastating effect.

It's the peculiar, cut-grass, asparagus tone that makes Sauvignon blanc work with asparagus dishes. The peppery undercurrent of shiraz makes it a natural with steak au poivre or game, while the rich deep flavour of Cabernet is made for rich gravies and meat sauces.

But put a sweet and syrupy port with a salty, aged, vein-riddled Stilton, or combine the honey sweetness of a Sauternes with a lush, rich, gamey terrine and stand back and watch the fireworks.

As with most things in life, the first thing to do is to learn the rules, and the second thing is to forget them. (Drinking a lot of different wines is a sure-fire way of making sure this comes about.)

It's absolute rubbish, for example, that Chinese food can only be matched with Rieslings and Gewurztraminer. Whoever came up with that one is someone who only orders ghastly Chinese-Anglo dishes like sweet-and-sour pork. One of the Great Moments In Dining is that first mouthful of smooth Burgundy after a bite of crisp-skinned, pancake-wrapped Peking duck.

The main thing is to find out what works for you. Don't consult an expert. Most oenophiles agree that combinations such as Brie and Burgundy, Manchego and Rioja, Munster and Gewurztraminer and Parmigiano and Barolo rank among the most perfect marriages, but wine personage Hugh Johnson is not convinced. "It is a matter of faith among the wine lovers that cheese is the perfect accompaniment to any wine," he once wrote. "All except the milder cheeses, I find, have too strong a flavour for any except the strongest-tasting red wines." And while Chateau d'Yquem and foie gras make such a tempestuous rich-bitch-meets-spoilt-brat match that they are thinking of pirating videos of the two together, no less an authority than the Comte de Lur Saluces preferred his Yquem with caviar. Weirdo.

Purists and Spectator readers may refuse to believe that anything less than a 30-year-old Bordeaux is allowable with game, but I once shared a lunch with Henri Krug in Rheims at which he successfully paired a bottle of his rose Champagne with venison.

I've found five perfect matches: roast Cantonese duck and plum sauce with Romanee-Conti Echezeaux; a lightly poached peach with Chateau d'Yquem; seared kangaroo and baby beetroot with Rockford Basket Press Shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley; pappardelle con lepre (thick ribbon pasta with hare sauce) with Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino; chou croute garni with Trimbach Hunawihr Riesling Clos Ste-Hune.

The point is, you don't have to be a nuclear physicist to have a good time matching food and wine. In fact, it rather helps if you're not.