There’s a whole microcosm to the world of wine, and I’m only beginning to scratch the surface.
I’m no wine connoisseur, that’s for sure. To put on any pretensions that I’ve any knowledge about it would be an utter insult to the collectors and professionals who’ve, through years and years of cultivation, earned their place. However, after this afternoon’s session at The Quayside for the Cape Mentelle lunch, I think I’ve a better insight to this intricate and intriguing world of gastronomy.
From the rich to the poor, wine has long been an essential component in western cuisine, not because it projects an air of pretentiousness or superiority. Rather, it fulfills a need – an inadequacy of sorts in the cooking – to refocus the attention back to the natural flavors. While many Eastern cuisines are composed primarily of conjuring up aromatic and alternate flavors to mask undesirable cuts, whose main intention is to feed the masses, the West has had the luxury of time, history and civilization to be more discerning and refined with theirs. Each step and style, no matter how sophisticated, has only had one purpose – to restore the food’s natural flavors, and wine helps chefs inch closer to that dream, aside from having it raw.
So what do you need to know about wine? Excuse your French, but terms like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Germay and Merlot are members of a European species of grape known as Vitis vinifera, or in layman terms, the “wine grapes”. Each, when fermented boast distinct flavors that’s unlike the other. It isn’t uncommon to blend one or more types of grape into the same bottle, and aren’t necessarily inferior. Hybrids can be created by crossing one’s genetics with the other – Cabernet Sauvignon (red) itself is the product of the crossing of a Cabernet Franc (red) with a Sauvignon Blanc (white). Aside from the plant, elevation, vineyard shape, type and chemistry of soil, climate changes and local yeast cultures also affect the wine’s taste, quality and flavor. So basically, wine need really good fengshui, literally. The art of wine pairing is marvelously difficult, because while the selection is an arduous task, the effect is simple – the wine needs to be that decisive “snap” that sends the diner back to the natural flavor of that meat. To put it in a local context, the perfect wine for chicken rice would be one that enhances the flavor of the chicken and the rice, all while balancing the flavors just enough so that the garlic, ginger and soy elements of the chicken is neutralized for the natural flavor of the chicken to come through. That’s why, wine pairing with French or Japanese cuisine, where the emphasis is on fresh and natural ingredients, is infinitely better than say, Singapore hawker food or Cantonese-style tze-char where the intention of the spices is to intentionally mask the taste of the ingredients.
This afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon which pairs illustrious Australian fine dining with Cape Mentelle wines, a winery from Western Australia whose wine is sooo exclusive and sooo good, it’s owned by the Louis Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy Group. To start, we had a House-Cured Salmon Gravlax on Sourdough Toast paired with a Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2011. Sauvignon Blanc is the “go-to” wine for fish, particularly sushi and sashimi, but the chef explained that because they decided to cure the salmon, it has a heavier taste, so Semillon, known for its “mildness” (and sometimes, blandness) helps neutralize the Salmon Gravlax more effectively, a.k.a. make it less saltier to eat. Similarly, our second course, a Fresh Mozzarella with Petite Ratatouille, was paired with Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 2010. For many beginners, Chardonnay is perhaps the most familiar and easily recognized of all grapes, even if they don’t know that’s what it is. For starters, the flavor is lean, crisp and pleasing to most palates, and pairs well with most things. Chardonnay’s responsible for everything from white sparkling wine to even champagne, so much so that it’s considered very “commercialized”. So naturally, it came as a perfect fit for the very simply-done mozzarella and ratatouille.
This one is where the upped the ante. Seared Scallop with Sticky Oxtail and Parmesan Wafer’s a very complex dish, with so many layers, that it’s made for wine pairing. Certainly, when I paired it with water, there was a very sharp bitter contrast that came through. It was really only through the pairing with Cape Mentelle Cabernet Merlot that I truly “got” wine pairing. That sharp bitter sensation I had when water touched my mouth had literally, disappeared, and instead went through very smoothly – was this the magic, and reason for wine pairing? Whatever it is, I’m sold.
I was really wowed by the Lamb Cutlet on Soba with Tobiko. Not only was the steak tender, it was nearly completely void of this slightly pungent, rich flavor that’s usually present when you have mutton curry, or say, kambing soup. I love soba, so it was just the icing on the cake. But while the Cape Mentelle Shiraz, which boasts obvious notes of blackcurrant and smoked meat, didn’t quite complement as well as I’d think. Is it because Asian cuisine is just too different from the characteristics of wine?
Almost as to validate it, the final course, Beef Cheek with Anchovy and Roasted Carrots, which had a decidedly Asian “oyster-sauce” flavor, was, in my opinion, the poorest pairing. The Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, despite its dense, dark and tannic flavor, remained jarring when paired up.