GRAPE VARIETIES – a brief guide on what style of food to eat with each grape variety

GRAPE VARIETIES & FOOD

A brief guide to what goes with what?

I could launch into a rant about not being a “red wine with meat” and “white wine with fish” kind-of-guy, but I won’t.  Suffice to say that it is totally up to you what you want to drink with your dinner, but I have some combinations that set the wine and food partnerships off perfectly.  Unusually, in this article, instead of listing dishes and their corresponding ideal wines, I have organised this list by grape variety rather than food items.  This might make you choose your wine first and then see what food is available at the market, in order to design your menu.  Backwards you say?  Not at all, this is the way I think of things and you might well be doing this soon, too.  A different perspective will open up a broader understanding of flavour in both wine and food.  Remember that wine and food are designed to go together.  Very few wines are genuinely aperitif styles only.

RED GRAPE VARIETIES

BARBERA and PINOTAGE

Both sharing a ripe fruit character but an element of rusticity and acidity, they need meaty dishes like rabbit, duck or perhaps good quality sausages.  Both can cope with red wine gravy and various roast vegetables or pasta.  They also both like full-bodied Indian and Chinese meaty dishes and it doesn’t matter what level of spice you go for either.

CABERNET FRANC, DOLCETTO and FREISA

An unlikely trio, these grapes all share a high acidity thing.  They are all relatively aromatic but not usually overly alcoholic.  Cheeses like Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Ticklemore, Brightwell Ash or Port-Salut would work well, as would moussaka or classic roast chicken.  My favourite combination with a young Cabernet Franc from the Loire is cauliflower cheese.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Cabernet Sauvignon is a versatile variety and bearing in mind it comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on the country or region, it can handle almost anything.  Traditionally roast beef, Beef Wellington or roast lamb and claret (red Bordeaux) is a guaranteed success, making it a Sunday lunch regular.  Game of all sorts could make a nice match, however, do avoid anything that smells too “gamey”, as there are other varieties that do the job better.  Cabernet Sauvignon loves cheese, a young claret with Waterloo or Saint-Paulin, any “Old World” Cabernet Sauvignon with Cheddar, Caerphilly, Lincolnshire Poacher, Tunworth, Camembert and Saint-Nectaire.  I say this because the juicier and fruitier the wine becomes in hot climates, the less suitable for cheese and the more classically “meaty” it becomes.  Toad in the hole, beef burgers and rare steak are New World Cabernet winners.

GAMAY

Extraordinarily versatile, no wonder this grape is sold in practically every bar and brasserie in Paris.  Beaujolais and Gamay de Touraine from the Loire have pure berry fruit and refreshing acidity making food matching relatively straightforward.  Coq au vin, chilled for a curry, roast duck, roast chicken or turkey, ratatouille, steak and chips, croque monsieur and “meaty” fish like cod or hake, all work well with Gamay.  Cheese-wise, Vacherin du Mont d’Or or Baron Bigod are both unbeatable combinations.

GRENACHE, CARIGNAN, CINSAULT, MALBEC and MOURVÈDRE

The Rhône team, missing only a few members, are all on the spicy, firm side save for a few pale coloured Grenache wines that more than make up for it on hidden alcoholic power.  Oxtail, toad in the hole, cassoulet, goulash, shepherd’s pie, Cornish pasty, steak and kidney pudding, casserole and any other beef options all work in this company.  But things get exciting when cheese is mentioned.  Cheeses like Rollright, Saint-Marcellin and Chaumes love Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Gigondas or at the cheaper end, reds from the Côtes de Ventoux.  Don’t forget that Grenache has another side to its character that of the sweet Vin Doux Naturel style.  Blue cheeses like Roquefort, Fourme d’Ambert and Crozier and hard cheeses like Mimolette work well with both VDNs, Banyuls and Maury.  These two wines also help out the age-old problem of chocolate.  Rich chocolate puddings like Saint-Emilion au Chocolat, chocolate truffles or chocolate cake can all breathe a collective sigh of relief.  Finally, Grenache is the most important grape in the finest rosé wines in the world and this style is epic with all manner of Chinese, South-East Asian and Indian food!

MERLOT

The inbuilt fruitiness of Merlot cannot be ignored when matching it to food.  Beef burgers, roast duck, even chilli con carne, wallow in the richness of fruity Merlot.  But watch out when buying Merlots that you don’t end up with a thin, green style, as it will not stand up to food as well as, say a Chilean Merlot would.  Cheeses like Brillat-Savarin, Baron Bigod and Gratte-Paille are Right Bank Bordeaux favourites.

NEBBIOLO

With a taut, acidic and often rather tannic grape like Nebbiolo, there are very few dishes that can really talk the talk, unless you are dining in Piemonte in which case everything is road-tested to work like a dream.  Cassoulet, venison, steak and wild boar would get through unscathed but if you have an older bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco, the fruit will have tamed down and then you can follow the Pinot Noir section below.

PINOT NOIR

Like Gamay this grape variety loves food, and rarely enjoys being drunk without. Inexpensive red Burgundy with raclette, light Chalonnais red wine with roast chicken and coq au vin, bigger New World offerings and Côte d’Or village wines with game (well hung), beef (Boeuf à la Bourguignonne – Burgundy Beef!) and duck.  Don’t forget rosé Champagne or red Sancerre with cheeses like Chaource.  Back to the minerally Mâconnais and Chalonnais for Gubbeen, Comté, Emmental, Tomme de Savoie, Brie de Meaux and Reblochon.

SANGIOVESE

What could be better than classic Italian cooking with the Chianti variety? Lasagne,  Spaghetti Bolognese or pizza, as long as it is not a seafood selection.  Once again this variety has two sides to its character – that of the angry young rebel, needing big red meat dishes, and as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino mellow, the other side emerges, the harmonious middle-aged gent that compliments mushroom risottos and veal as well as Parmesan and Pecorino.

SYRAH / SHIRAZ

Another totally foody grape variety that can, this time, take on much heavier dishes.  Best end of lamb, steak au poivre, cassoulet, Stroganoff, a traditional mixed grill, venison and old game birds, you name it this grape is not scared.  Brie de Meaux is the best cheese for the match.

TOURIGA NACIONAL

As this is the port variety, the classic winter combination is Stilton.  But if you are drinking a bottle of red wine, as opposed to a Port, then follow the Syrah recommendations above.

TEMPRANILLO

The Rioja variety behaves much like Pinot Noir when matching to food, so beef and lamb are the best places to start.  The good thing about this grape is that it tends to have lower acidity than its Burgundian pal, so this time it doesn’t need to be matched up to such demanding dishes.

ZINFANDEL

Chocolate once again finds a friend with dense fruit-packed styles of Zin.  If you are feeling less ambitious duck, casseroles and any beef dish will work well.  Interestingly, spicier Asian beef dishes love this grape, too.  Follow the Sangiovese guidelines if you feel the need for a challenge.

 WHITE GRAPE VARIETIES

CHARDONNAY

This is another grape that has so many guises that it can just about cover the whole menu single-handedly.  Fish and chips, what a great start – look no further than a crisp unoaked style to work with this favourite.  On the fish theme, fish cakes, all white fish like halibut and sea bass, but also poached salmon are perfect matches for this versatile variety.  Finer white Burgundies love lobster, but don’t we all.  Chablis and unoaked New World Chardonnays enjoy roast chicken and oaked wines, albeit not too dominant, like roast pork.  The unlikely match is to cheese.  Cheeses such as the stinky Epoisses like white Mâconnais wines, Vacherin du Mont d’Or of Baron Bigod can go for Champagne and Beaufort and Gubbeen love a glass of Chablis.  New World Chardonnays are often a little fuller flavoured so make sure that the fish dish has enough sauce or at least some rice, pasta or potato to soak up some of this weight.  Most chicken dishes enjoy a bit more power so oaked Chardonnays pose no problem.

CHENIN BLANC

In its dry, Old World form, the acidity is perfect for cutting through any fish dish.  Though New World Chenins, particularly South African versions, can range in power from lighter, inexpensive numbers which are only up to light seafood or salads up to serious wines which follow the Chardonnay recommendations.  When sweet, Chenin Blanc is honeyed and tropical and favours fresh fruit tarts, pastries and the unexpected classic French combination of a decadent liver pâté with toasted brioche.

GEWÜRZTRAMINER

The lychee, spicy grape was tailor-made to take on the might of the Far East.  Chinese food, unless it is too “chilli-hot”, is well served with this refreshingly fruity, but beguilingly weighty variety.  Dry Gewürztraminer is a good match with Pacific Rim and South-East Asian dishes, and back home in Alsace, it is matched up to all manner of fish dishes, terrines and savoury tarts.  Gewurz also find a natural partner in cheeses like Munster and Wigmore.

MANSENG

Warranting a special mention for these highly individual oddities.  Both Gros and Petit Manseng are stunning with fish dishes, fresh seafood and with local cheeses like Wigmore, Tourmalet and Brebis.

MELON DE BOURGOGNE

The Muscadet variety would get the sack if it didn’t complement its local industry – fishing.  Oysters and “plateau de fruits de mer” including, crab, langoustines, clams, prawns, crevettes, lobster, winkles and whelks are luckily complemented by this relatively inexpensive white wine that also, thankfully, takes the sting out of the bill.

MUSCAT and MUSCADELLE

Strawberries with freezing cold Moscato d’Asti, Orange Muscat with chocolate mousse, pear and almond tart with Muscat de Rivesaltes, liqueur Muscats for Christmas Pudding and sticky toffee pudding.  The huge Muscat family covers a load of bases on the pudding front.

PALOMINO & PEDRO XIMÉNEZ

The two sherry varieties are real loners.  Purists will tell you that dry sherry is a good match for various soups and, of course, every single type of tapas.  While PX can only really be poured over ice cream or sipped with a caffeine-laden espresso.  I favour a bowl of really nice cashews or roasted almonds for the former and a stretcher for the latter.

PINOT BLANC / PINOT BIANCO

In the spirit of fair play, the PB family does get some recommendations.  Scallops and pork are my ambitious calls of the day but they have to be twinned with good examples of the wines otherwise it just wouldn’t work.  If you can only find the light fresh styles then stick to salads and thin air.

RIESLING and ALBARIÑO / ALVARINHO

Putting these two together will cause a stir, but Riesling at its lightest and driest is not dissimilar to Albariño and therefore is a good seafood and fish match.  Beyond that, the similarity stops and Riesling gets into its stride collecting dishes as it goes.  Chicken liver terrine, onion tart, duck pâté, Chinese food (although not quite as well as Gewurz), any creamy chicken dishes, chicken Kiev and an all-time favourite Assiette de Charcuterie (plate of meat doesn’t sound half as nice).  Pork and veal are easily manageable.  Sweet Rieslings like fruity puddings as well as, curiously, pâté again.  But for my favourite, rhubarb crumble would win the award.

ROUSSANNE and MARSANNE

The weighty, ponderous whites Rhône varieties can handle a surprisingly wide range of food.  Following the footsteps of Chardonnay, but not quite as keen on the palate, these are main course wines that flounder a little.  Chicken, pork and veal as well as a large range of fish dishes, including fish and chips, are all within their grasp.  But lacking the fruit definition of Sauvignon Blanc, they are not particularly refreshing unless Viognier is in the blend in which case they can match up to a cold chicken salad or a goat cheese salad well.  Speaking of cheese, they love Maroilles.

SAUVIGNON BLANC and ALIGOTÉ

Sauvignon Blanc makes great food wine, that revels in the chance to expose its acidic zip and fresh citrusy flavours.  Aligoté lacks the varietal extremes of its friend but can almost keep up with the dishes.  Prawn cocktail, Caesar salad, deep-fried Calamari, fresh asparagus and corn on the cob are all too easy.  Chinese dishes, oysters, crab salad and milder Asian cooking with ginger and spices are perfect combinations.  New World Sauvignon Blancs, particularly from New Zealand, can amaze the palate in their effortless handling of complex dishes.  Sauvignon Blancs like Sancerre, Quincy, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon and Cheverny are the benchmark combinations for goat’s cheeses, like Sinodun Hill, Golden Cross, Crottin de Chavignol, Selles-sur-Cher and the good old favourite – a trusty cheese soufflé.

SEMILLON

In dry, Old World form this grape behaves like Chardonnay and so covers much the same ground, although perhaps not quite as competently.  New World Sémillon is a very different kettle of fish as it is far more tropical and lime-juicy and works well with kettles of fish amongst other things.  The increased power and ripeness that the New World can offer particularly as it is often blended with Chardonnay means that Sémillon is a useful and good value versatile grape.  In sweet form Sémillon eclipses all others.  Sauternes and the like from Bordeaux are spectacular pudding wines that can cope with everything from foie gras (the expensive goose liver pâté), through terrines of all sorts, to every pudding under the sun (except belligerent chocolate).  Another surprise is that botrytised Sémillon is a magical partner for blue cheese such as Roquefort or Fourme d’Ambert.

SYLVANER

This refreshingly dull grape variety doesn’t like to be troubled with anything too testing on the food front, preferring to have lightweight opposition.  Waxy cheeses or barely whiffy offerings like Penard Ridge and Tomme de Montagne will work otherwise you are banished to a life of salad obscurity.

TOKAY-PINOT GRIS / PINOT GRIS / TOKAY D’ALSACE/ PINOT GRIGIO

Think Gewürztraminer meets Riesling, gangs up on Chardonnay and has a fling with Sémillon.  Well, that is what the first three grapes listed above can do in the food department (as they are all different names for the same thing).  Pinot Grigio, a different prospect altogether, falls into the same category as Pinot Bianco (see above), in that it rarely has the texture or dominance to combat strong flavours.  Whereas T-PG / PG / Td’A, the Alsatian cruiser-weight, loves smoked salmon, almost all starters, chicken, Thai food, creamy sauces, cheeses like Munster, all pâtés and countless other delights.  In sweet form, “Vendange Tardive”, it relishes the opportunity to work with cheeses like Livarot, and fresh fruit puddings.

UGNI BLANC / TREBBIANO / VIURA

The ‘boring grapes’ of the wine world still manage to crack a smile with some dishes as, the dryness and zingy character of both French Ugni Blancs, Italian Trebbiano and Spanish Viura are the mainstay café house wines in their respective countries.  Good combos are asparagus, tomato salads, cold chicken, goat’s cheese, and anything fresh and vegetable dependent.

VIOGNIER

The sultry diva, Viognier, despite an actively aromatic nose, likes Asian influenced dishes if not quite the genuine article, cheeses like Pont-l’Evêque and Appleby Cheshire and fish dishes that don’t test it too hard.  An all-round lunchtime winner, this grape can only start to cope with bigger and more flavoursome dishes when it reaches its upper end of the price scale.  Condrieu and the like, from the Northern Rhône, are fiendishly expensive but are sublime with fish dishes.  In the New World Viognier is sometimes blended with Chardonnay, or Marsanne and Roussanne when the weight of these three make it a bit more of an all-rounder.