When you imagine a sensory experience combining the finer points of food and drink, chances are it involves a glass of wine. And with such a broad palette of cultivars and flavour profiles to work with, it’s little wonder chefs and sommeliers alike love pairing food and wine together.
Amongst South Africa’s leading restaurants there’s certainly no shortage of fine wine experiences, with the likes of La Colombe, The Test Kitchen and The Saxon all offering stellar food and wine offerings.
But it’s out beyond Joburg’s city limits, at Restaurant Mosaic at The Orient, where you’ll find one of the country’s most memorable gourmet adventures.
Here Paris-trained sommelier Germain Lehodey conjures his wine pairings from a cellar home to a staggering 75 000 bottles across 6000 labels from around the world.
“The perfect pairing is this: the wine must enhance the food and the food must enhance the wine,” says Lehodey, who spent his last years in Paris as Head Sommelier of the 400-year-old Michelin-starred restaurant La Tour d'Argent. “The wine must become the second sauce of the dish so that the saltiness of the food will enhance the flavours of the wine, and the acidity of the wine will lift the flavours of the food.”
On that score Lehody works hand-in-hand with award-winning chef Chantel Dartnall. Dishes are deconstructed and the building blocks tasted against individual wines. Contenders for the pairing are then tasted against the completed dish, which is often fine-tuned to ensure the perfect match.
“The wine is made, we can’t change the wine. But we can tune the dish,” says Lehody. “I’m very lucky in that Chantel is a very smart chef, and she understands that if the pairing is superb it gives more credit to the dish.”
A stellar example of that collaboration is Dartnall’s ‘Tidal Pool’: salmon ceviche with verbena aspic and a seaweed salad, paired with an unusual Aligoté from French winemaker Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of the iconic Romanée-Conti.
Another standout pairing is the Soupe de Jour alongside the Naudé Old Vines Cinsault.
“Cinsault is coming back,” says Lehody emphatically. “More people are producing dry, light and elegant cinsault, and it’s a cultivar that fits very well with Chantel’s style of cuisine.”
While formal food-and-wine pairings may have their roots in the world of fine dining, estates and cellars across the Cape winelands are proving innovative at exploring the interplay between food and wine.
But estates do it as well as Creation Wines in the scenic Hemel-en-Aarde valley. Established in 2002 by Jean-Claude and Carolyn Martin, the estate recently picked up Wine Tourism South Africa’s prestigious Klink Award for ‘Great Pairings’, the fourth time it has won the award. The estate has also been recognised by the Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism Awards, winning a gong for ‘Innovative Wine Tourism Experiences’ for the third time.
While chocolate and brunch pairings are popular options in the airy tasting room amid the vineyards, at the heart of the tasting experience is a menu dubbed ‘The Story of Creation’.
The story consists of seven ‘chapters’ where each course comes paired with a wine from the estate. Think smoked duck breast with local goat’s milk cheese, beetroot and pomegranate paired alongside the Creation Reserve Pinot Noir; or the Creation Reserve Chardonnay against a taster portion of boerenkaas drizzled with fynbos honey and truffle oil.
Sound overwhelming? Happily the expert staff, and often Carolyn or JC themselves, are adept at talking you through the nuances of each pairing.
If wine estates are diverging into food-pairings, perhaps little wonder that one of South Africa’s leading restaurants is dabbling in pairings other than wine.
Luke Dale-Roberts has put Cape Town on the global culinary map with his flagship restaurant The Test Kitchen, and the wine pairings from respected sommelier Tinashe Nyamudoka are undoubtedly superb. But the restaurant is also grabbing attention in pairing Luke’s adventurous fine-dining cuisine with a range of premium leaf teas.
Nyamudoka works closely with upscale tea merchants The Tea Chest, which creates their own blends from tealeaf sourced worldwide.
“They then come into the restaurant and we play around with the various teas and the dishes to see what works.”
A dash of agave syrup is offered to mask any tannins that emerge during brewing, and the principles of wine pairing certainly don’t apply to loose leaf tea, says Nyamudoka: “On the palate there may be some astringency or some sweetness, but with pairing tea it’s all about the aromas. So we particularly look for a tea where the perfume matches the dish, and we can match the intensity of the nose to the intensity of the food.”
On the menu, that could mean a heady Imperial Lapsang Souchong matched with Dale-Roberts’ unique take on niçoise salad, or char-grilled scallop with the cheekily-named ‘Weekend In Shanghai’ blend. Nyamudoka’s favourite though, is the Indian Nights tea poured with veal sweetbreads wrapped in lamb bacon with licorice jus.
“This red tea is infused with cinnamon, so it’s warm, quite earthy and there’s some spice on the nose. It works perfectly with the dish,” he says.
While The Test Kitchen pushes the boundaries of fine-dining pairings with tea, up the road at The Taproom of the Devil’s Peak Brewing Company, chef Jacques Fourie is ably showing how craft beer and a hearty bite play nicely together.
Whether you’re pairing wine, whisky or grappa, “the essence of it is the same: taste the drink, identify the main and underlying flavours, and pair them with flavours and textures that will complement them,” says Fourie. “With beer you have the added factor of the carbonisation, which aids in the pairing process.”
Incorporating brewer JC Steyn’s award-winning beers into some dishes also aids in the pairing process, a flavour thread linking plate and pint.
A great example is the comforting Mac-and-Cheese, made with a beer-cheese sauce that incorporates the Devils Peak Lager.
“ The delicate malt notes and the low bitterness works great with the aged cheddar used in the dish,” says Fourie. “High carbonation levels help to cut through the slight oiliness of the dish and brings to light the creamy richness of the cheese.”
Across the new menu the pairings stack up neatly: bold hop aromas on the Pale Ale tame the spiciness of the lamb burger, caramel and bitterness in the Alpha Lager cut through the rich fried chicken with corn bread, while the bitterness of the India Pale Ale balances the spice of a beef and black bean chilli.
In a sense, the opportunities for conscious pairings of food and drink are all but limitless. Tequila, brandy, whisky, gin, cordials… you name it, a sommelier somewhere in the world has done it.
But what about a humble glass of water? Perhaps it’s not so humble though, when that refreshing glass could set you back R250. That’s what a bottle of Del’Aubier Maple Sap Water from Canada will set you back at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast.
Say hello then to – perhaps – the next new trend in food pairing: water.
The Merchant Hotel, a grand edifice in the city’s charming Cathedral Quarter, made waves in 2015 when it launched its flagship water menu. Featuring more than a dozen waters from across the northern hemisphere, they include water melted from ice off Newfoundland to digestif waters from glacial flows in Georgia. Carbonation, dissolved salts and mouth-feel all come in to play as the wait-staff recommend which will pair best with the modern Irish cuisine of Head Chef John Paul Leake.
“Water has a significant impact on the way we taste food, just as with wine and spirits,” enthuses Martin Riese, water sommelier at Ray & Stark’s Bar in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “We are already accustomed to pairing food with wine or beer, but many people don’t know that water is just as important to the entire dining experience.”
Certified as a water expert by the German Mineral Water Trade Association, Riese oversees the restaurant’s 20-strong collection of fine waters, each listed with tasting notes, mineral content and country of origin. Waters are flown in from 10 countries, including Badoit from France and the mineral-laden Vichy Catalan from Spain.
On local shores the trend has, unsurprisingly, yet to catch on. Although a handful of hotels have dabbled in eye-wateringly expensive water, for now you’ll have to make do without your glass of melted iceberg. Happily, there’s a sommelier standing by with an innovative wine, beer or cup of tea to take its place.