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Oak and smoke: the perfect partners

Toasty, oaky wines rarely go well with food - except smoked, says Kathryn McWhirter
Smoked foods and oaked wines are often especially suited to each other; charred wood plays a character-forming part in the making of both. In the cooperage, oak wine barrels are heated over open fires to bend their staves. The longer it takes, the greater the inner charring, and winemakers now order their barrels with precise degrees of "toast" for the flavour they want to impart.

Those "toasty" oak flavours, plus the strong vanilla flavour of some oak, rarely help wines to match well with food. It's quite hard to find good matches for strongly oaky wines.But for many smoked foods, oaky flavours in accompanying wines are a real advantage. (This is a trick George Dorgan has missed in his new book Simply Smoked - see main story opposite.) Big red wines clash with smoked flavour. Occasionally a light red, such as Beaujolais or a light Cotes-du-Rhone, might work (with oak-smoked ham, for instance), but whites tend to make the best matches with smoked foods.

Try it out with smoked salmon. After much lip-smacking experimentation, I've come down in favour of two grape varieties for smoked salmonACOaaaaaceeeeiiinoouuupounds Oo... --""'': Chardonnay and Burgundy's second-string white variety, the Aligote. Unoaked versions of both go quite well with smoked salmon. But the right oaked Chardonnay or Aligote can make a perfect pairing. The best oaked Chardonnays to go for are not the very fruity style from Australia, but the more subtle style from Burgundy, Chablis or California. Smoked salmon goes particularly well with the buttery character these Chardonnays get from the malolactic fermentation favoured by winemakers in these regions. (Benign bacteria are allowed to re-ferment the wine after the alcoholic fermentation, making the wines less sharp and more buttery.) There's a good chance that any wines (over pounds 5.99) from California or Burgundy will give you oak and good malolactic flavours, though only the California labels will tell you so.

Trout, cold-smoked to look like smoked salmon, is harder to match well. Aligote and California Chardonnay go quite well, but a Chablis Permier Cru may be better, or a Champagne Blanc de Blancs (which is made only from Chardonnay, and also goes well with smoked salmon). Aligote is the best bet for (cooked) hot-smoked trout.You can get halibut cold-smoked and thin-sliced like smoked salmon, too (Sainsbury's do a good one).Try that with oaked white Rioja - Chardonnay is the wrong flavour for this one.

Of the smoked fishes sold for cooking, cod is the most wine-friendly. Oak works again, and Chardonnay is particularly good, even in fruitier styles. Australian oaked Semillon-Chardonnay or Chardonnay-Semillon is another good choice, while oaked white Rioja is the answer for the smokiest smoked cod. Smoked cod's roe clashes with most wines, but makes a lovely match with oaked white Rioja. Smoked cod's roe is the main ingredient in taramasalata, which is quite hard to match with wine because of its acidity as well as the muted smoked cod flavour. Dry vinho verde works quite well with a sharp bought one, but gentler, much yummier, home-made versions might be best served with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or even Retsina.

Kippers are one of those foods (like chocolate) that have been traditionally proscribed by wine-writers as wine spoilers. In fact they go pleasantly with the right wines - blander, not-too-acid whites such as Soave, Frascati or southern French Terret. (Chardonnay really does clash.) A few smoked fishes are best suited to water: haddock is a difficult one, and the smokier it gets, the harder it is to match with wine. Finnan haddock is a hopeless case. Diluted in kedgeree, however, it goes well with simple Sauvignon Blanc such as a vin de pays or Bordeaux or Duras Blanc, or Aligote from Burgundy. Smoked mackerel overcomes most wines. Dry vinho verde is the only star. Eels are hard to please with wine, too, though they go fairly well with Chablis, not-too-expensive white Burgundy, and some other (not too pineappley) Chardonnays.

And smoked alligator? Well, that goes well with oaked Chardonnay. If you want to try that combination (or smoked ostrich or kangaroo, or, tamely, some of the best smoked salmon), contact the mail-order department of McDonalds Smoked Produce in Glennig, Lochailort, Invernesshire (01687 470266).

OAK FOR SMOKE: 1993 CUNE Monopole Barrel-fermented Rioja (pounds 5.99 Safeway) is a real star amongst oaked white Riojas, rich, soft and seductive. Good Aligote is not easy to find. There's a lovely subtly oaked 1994 Bourgoine Aligote Verget (pounds 7.19 Lay & Wheeler of Colchester also mail order), made from old vines planted in the smart Bourgoine villages in Meursault and Puligny. For a budget Chardonnay with oak and buttery malolactic flavour, try the underpriced, deliciously toasty and buttery 1995 Fiuza Barrel Fermented Chardonnay (pounds 4.49 Asda) from central Portugal, made by Australian Peter Bright and the Fiuza family.

Equally delicious, with subtle fruit and toasty oak, is the 1995 Rowan Brook Chardonnay Reserve (pounds 4.99 Asda) from the Canepa winery in Chile. California Chardonnay is often expensively overpriced. Not so the superlative 1994 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay (pounds 11.99 Oddbins), which could earn a much higher price for its rich, buttery, toasty-oaky flavours. Equally, if not slightly more wonderful is the 1994 Petaluma Chardonnay (pounds 10.99 Oddbins) - Australian but subtle and complex. Good alternatives from Burgundy are the rich, attractively oaky 1992 Meursault Premier Cru Les Chalumeaux, Paul Dugenais (pounds l5.95 selected Sainsbury's), or perhaps the 1990 Chablis Premier Cru, Grande Cuvee, La Chablisienne (pounds 1l.99 Marks & Spencer), an intense and honeyed wine with nicely balanced oak.