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  • Fred Siggins

Match Maker

Learn how to pair drinks with food, beyond the obvious choices. By Fred Siggins. Illustrations by Chloe walker

Pinot noir and duck, fish and white wine, burgers and beer. Most people who love good food and drink know these classic combinations. But why do they work? And how do sommeliers, bartenders and other beverage professionals pair less obvious drinks with food? Here are some examples of how drinks can be turned into a whole new experience when matched properly. 


Wine & cheese

This one may seem obvious, but there are some deep cuts here that can really up your cheese board game. Cheese shop Maker & Monger at Melbourne’s Prahran Market recently launched a “Cheese your own adventure” dine-in offering where you can build your own cheese board from its huge selection of dairy delights paired with carefully curated wines. 


A truly great wine and cheese pairing, says Maker & Monger owner Anthony Femia, is one that brings out the best aspects of both. A recent pairing of nutty alpine cheeses such as gruyere and comté with a piquant Jura red is a case in point. On its own, the wine is a touch astringent, but paired with the rich fat of the cheese it explodes with delicate fruit. 


A few of Femia’s other favourite matches include big, tannic reds like cabernet franc and shiraz with traditional English cheddars (not the Aussie supermarket ones), while the same wines are terrible with funky washed-rind cheeses, he says. Instead, opt for an Alsatian riesling with a bit of residual sugar. To go with blue cheeses, “you need to contrast the acid and spice with high alcohol and sweetness”, Femia says, so choose something like a Sauternes or a botrytis riesling. And if more modern orange wines are your jam, the softer sheep and goat cheeses from Italy’s Piemonte region love the high acid from something like a pét-nat. 


To learn more, sign up for one of Maker & Monger’s cheese pairing workshops (makerandmonger.com.au), or pop by the market and let them take you on an incredibly enjoyable journey of discovery. 



Cocktails

At face value, cocktails aren’t intended to go with food. Generally, a cocktail is a complete flavour experience on its own — pairing it with food would muddy the waters. They are also often too sweet, too alcoholic, too acidic and generally just too intense in flavour to match well with complex food. So the basic rule here is keep it simple. 


Martinis and oysters? You betcha. An oily, spicy taco paired with a simple sour/sweet/salty margarita? For sure. A straightforward manhattan or old fashioned paired with some nice cheese or a bit of choccy? Definitely. But for the most part, either the food or the drink will have to take a back seat and play more of a supporting role. Think about the kind of food served at classic cocktail parties: simple canapés with one or two dominant flavours. 


When it’s time for the main meal, generally this is when you move from cocktails to beer or wine. The complexity of naturally occurring fermentation, plus generally lower levels of acid, sugar and alcohol, allow the intricacy of the food to take centrestage. Pairing complex and intense cocktails with complicated and full-on food can be a bit like mixing too many colours of paint: eventually you just end up with brown. 


Non-alcoholic drinks

Pairing non-alcoholic drinks with food can be a real challenge, and it’s often done poorly, even in great restaurants. “A lot of people think of highly sugared mocktails when it comes to non-alcoholic pairings,” says the head sommelier at Sydney’s three-hatted Quay restaurant. “But at Quay we tend to steer away from this approach and look more at interesting flavours and textures for the perfect combination. A good wine has acidity, complexity and length,” they explain. “In our non-alcoholic pairings we always look at acidity and tannins first. Tannins, for instance, can come from tea, which we use a lot in our drinks. Acidity can come from verjuice or unripe fruits.”


From Quay’s current menu, the sommelier says they’re most proud of the first course: abalone, raw scallops and virgin soy with grapeseed oil. “In our wine pairing we look for a high-acidic, fresh wine like a semillon,” they say. “The grapeseed oil in this dish gives a coating feel in your mouth where the acidity cuts through and elevates all the flavours. So for our ‘temperance’ pairing we created a cucumber, lime and verjuice non-alcoholic cocktail. The verjuice provides the acid, while the green flavours of the cucumber lend a refreshing kick. It’s a perfect match to start your meal.”


Beer & cider

Beer educator and certified cicerone (beer sommelier) Briony Liebich says beer and cider are perfect for matching with all sorts of food because “carbonation is the ultimate palate cleanser, especially with anything oily or fatty”, she says. “The awesome thing about beer in particular is the amazing malt profile. Most food is going to be grilled, roasted, fried, et cetera, so you have those beautiful Maillard reactions,” she adds, referring to the chemical process that gives browned food its distinctive taste and aroma. “The malt used to make beer has those same qualities, so dark beers in particular will pair with anything.”


Asked for some more left-field recommendations, Liebich says the delicate, bready flavour of wheat beer goes perfectly with sushi, while hoppy IPAs are a great match for the spicy, oily intensity of tacos. “Another thing I’ve tried recently and really loved was a Flanders red ale with dal,” she says. “The soft acidity is a perfect contrast for the savoury, salty lentils, just like a raita. The lactic acid you find in sour beers is softer than the acid in wine, so it balances really well with umami flavours like mushrooms or a miso-based ramen soup.”

Find out more about the wonderful world of beer at Briony’s website, flavourlogic.com.


The last word

Every beverage professional consulted for this article shared one sentiment: first and foremost, match intensity. A big, oaky red wine will obliterate the delicacy of kingfish crudo, as would an espresso martini or a super-hoppy West Coast IPA. In the same vein, a hearty beef stew or a spicy curry will override the nuances of a green tea or a fine champagne. Always think about the power of the flavours being matched, and where there’s a lot of salt, fat, acid, spice, alcohol or sugar, make sure you have something that can stand up to the challenge. 



This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 74 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Match Maker”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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