Article written by wine writer, Mike Bennie.
Wine and food matching is no exacting science. Common wisdom suggests that ‘like with like’ is the best course of action hence we get white wine with lighter proteins like chicken, fish and vegetables, and red wine with heartier stuff like red meat, stews and things charred on barbecues. All that is well and good, often tried and tested, but I like to challenge the norm. When asked “what’s the best rule with food and wine matching?”, I say “drink what you like with whatever you like” and try and breakdown some of wines loftier pretensions.
We’ve been well served by experts, however, so when reaching out to sommeliers the rule of ‘white with white, red with red’ is switched up, generally to the idiom of ‘focus on how textures work together’. That sounds a little lofty, but in essence the ‘sommelier rule’ is to pair the feel of a wine with the weight of dish. Hence, oysters or raw seafood, let’s call that delicate, is best with very light, aromatic white wines, while slow cooked lamb shanks, all hearty and rich, finds harmony with bold, big, hefty reds. Or something along those lines.
More than anything, though, I like to look at what the inherent produce of a place is and synchronise that with local wines. When I think about Margaret River and its proximity to water, it’s hard not to imagine plates of wonderful, fresh seafood with the ubiquitous ‘classic dry white’ wines made there. Hence, a plate of simply cooked Margaret River abalone (sustainably) taken from local waters matched to, say, Cullen Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, is a marriage entirely local and totally superb. Feast on the sweet richness of that beautiful abalone with the textural crunch and citrusy freshness of that wine, and streamers fall from the ceiling and fireworks go off.
While that is an easy match, per se, there are others that my mind wanders to that are less classic. Again, in Margaret River, I think of the wonderful resource of beautifully farmed venison. While purists will reach for light reds to meet the gamey richness of the meat, I challenge this and head to chardonnay. Margaret River’s chardonnay ranks are some of the best in Australia, quietly powerful wines of elegance and seamlessness, with enough flavour to counter the sweet-gamey meat, and enough acidity to freshen the palate to reset it for the next mouthful. Of course, it’s hard to miss the decadence stakes of Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay in this dalliance between plate and glass. Arguably Australia’s most prestigious chardonnay, it’s place on a table alongside local venison is an indulgence I want in on.
Amongst the ranks of white wine and food matching there are some more esoteric matches too. My mind wanders to Swan Valley and the frisky, brightly flavoured white wines made from tropical-fruity verdelho and its more saline and citrusy regional staple, chenin blanc. These are wines for matching with causal barbecues, picnics in parks, seaside snacking and lavish brunches. They are, for want of better expression, Swiss Army Knife wines that do a lot of things very well, but simply.
Sandalford in Swan Valley does both to high regional standards, with Sandalford Estate Reserve Verdelho a tightly wound, ultra-refreshing style that delivers ultimate freshness for that roast chicken and salad spread you have in mind for a day in a park on a blanket. Chenin blanc can be a more serious white wine, bright in youth but mellow with some time in cellar, and the Sandalford 1840 Chenin Blanc is ideal for sundowners, or for combatting the charry deliciousness of casual barbecues where everything gets a turn on the grill.
Of course, white wine grapes are malleable, and a growing sect of Western Australian wine producers are working within the genre of orange wines. These are white wines made like red wines, where the skins of the white grapes are steeped in their juices to create textural, intriguing wines of complexity, deeper colour and intriguing character.
Orange wines, made by producers as far ranging as Brave New Wines in Great Southern to Blind Corner, Si Vintners and Dormilona in Margaret River, or the avant garde producers Swan Valley Wines in Swan Valley, are amazing for dishes with lots of flavour, acting like an Control-Alt-Delete for your mouth, resetting your palate with tannins and acidity inherent in the wines. Each mouthful comes alive with these curious, delicious and quixotic wine styles.
Diversity and experimentation are rewarded greatly with your food and wine matching. White wines versatility go way beyond the expectations of the standard pairings, and Western Australia’s bounty of amazing local produce is ripe for matching to the inherent, classic and emerging wine styles.