"I HOPE the wine doesn't make a mockery of the meal" is what a friend of mine always says before pouring the wine for dinner. Since he's a good cook, his concern is as charming as it is misplaced. But his comment raises the question of how to choose an 'unassuming wine' that won't make a mockery of the meal - that will, in fact, complement it.
Yet, for all their efforts, identifying aromas remains difficult for many wine-lovers: like picking out a suspect, while blindfold, from a line-up wearing masks. You can't see what you're looking for (the mystery fruit) and what you're looking for is disguised (as wine).
And what's the point of elaborate lists with precise advise on what complements nettle bavarois with smoked eel when most people don't eat that sort of thing everyday, anyway?
No wonder a supermarket survey recently reported 74% of shoppers buy wine for its price, 44% choose it for its label, but only 3% describe the pairing issue as “essential”.
Wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuck caused a hoo-ha recently when he paired wine with breakfast cereal on his Wine Library TV internet show. He describes the Cap't Crunch 'n Spätlese Riesling a pinnacle pairing; the Chardonnay 'n Cinnamon Toast Crunch is almost as good; though he's disappointed with demi-sec Champagne 'n Lucky Charms.
It's impressive and intimidating to hear Vaynerchuck gush about the 23 aromas he's getting but, unless you're a wine-loving infant who can't get through breakfast without a glass of something, his advice is of little utility. And what should one make of gastronomic tips from a man whose favourite food is chemically-processed cereal?
Does he really believe wine goes with anything? Chewing gum? Toothpaste? And the traditional enemies of wine: eggs, artichokes, smoked salmon, vinaigrette, fresh fruit salads, chocolate, ice-cream and emulsified sauces?
Watching wacky Vaynerchuck chomp on spoonfuls of Cap't Crunch, it occurs to me: this isn't really a food pairing, this is a wrestling match. The cereal's papaya notes pummelling the wine's guava hints on the mid-palate. What he needs is a cleansing cup of tea to wash the sickly, blue lucky-horseshoe and soggy Champagne cookie-dough carnage off his palate.
But a cup of what? White, green, red or black? I asked Japanese tea lady Madame Kiyoko for advice at her boutique 'Cipango' (Marco Polo's word for Japan) in Perpignan.
“Maddeningly,” she says, wringing her hands, “wine critics influence how tea people talk about pairing. Lists match tea with food too precisely. And questionable inherited wisdom prevails. Why would you match smoky Lapsang Souchong with smoked salmon?” (The tea equivalent of the curiously popular pairing of unctuous Sauternes with fatty foie gras).
And yet, on one list, Darjeeling goes with almost anything – it's the Merlot of teas. How can that be?
“You can regulate the intensity and complexity of tea with infusion time,” she advises. That's why Darjeeling goes shamelessly with almost any dish. Make it strong and it's perfect with fish 'n chips, the tannins in the tea cavorting with the vinegar's acidity without strangling the tongue.
Similarly, you can modify a wine's 'amusing presumption' by changing its temperature. Chill a wine to tame bold flavours, or subdue tannins. To accentuate a wine's acidity, again, chill it. Even a Merlot can be tricked into complementing spicy Indian food by chilling.
Kiyoko became beetle-browed when I asked her to try Cap't Crunch 'n Spätlese. Not her cup of tea. She recommends English Breakfast – or a tea from the same region as the cereal. But where on earth is Cap't Crunch from?