Hospo pairings – off the beaten track

Assorted food from Unsplash

A round-up of the unusual in this latest instalment of wine and food matches proposed by our hospitality professionals. See more in this guide.

There is real beauty in classic pairings, in the way that skiing down a perfect powder run has the power, grace and elegance that off-piste skiing quite often lacks. But off-piste pairing can make your heart beat faster. It challenges both the pairer and the taster, it pushes boundaries and pioneers new territories. It teaches us.

Some of these pairings I’ve chosen because the wines were so unusual, some because the dishes were weird and wonderful, and some because the combination of wine and food is simply unexpected.

It’s not easy to decide how to group a bunch of off-the-wall pairings, but I’ve taken the following approach and divided them up, roughly, by food type.

  • garden (veg)
  • water (fish)
  • air (poultry and eggs)
  • pasture (meat and cheese)

Someone pointed out to me that champagne and popcorn is a huge thing – a combo that has clearly passed me by! So I apologise in advance if you find some of these pairings old hat. They all made me stop and take five steps to the right, to see the world from a slightly different angle.

Come, take five steps to the right with me…

Garden

Please don’t be shocked, but I had never heard of tomates farcies before. This gorgeously simple Provençal stuffed-tomato dish sings of summer, so you’d naturally think you’d plonk a bottle of rosé on the table to go with it. But Justin Wee from The Raffles Hotel in Singapore dodges the obvious and opts for ‘a beautiful Brunello di Montalcino from Il Marroneto’. French Med and Italian mountains – could this be the most unexpected love affair?

We’re staying with the tomato theme and, this time, going intensely seasonal (for those of us in the northern hemisphere, anyway). Michal Drozdowski from Atelier Amaro in Cracow, Poland, suggested something so quirky-sounding that I’ve made a note to try it when my tiny alpine strawberries ripen in the next few weeks: ‘Wild strawberries with dried San Marzano [tomatoes] and tomato reduction with Commando G, La Bruja de Rozas.’ Nothing less than Jancis’s wine of the week just over a year ago, she describes it as ‘ethereal, sweet in a Pinot Noir-like way … a fine, sandy texture’. Strawberries and tomatoes and Garnacha? Crazy wonderful.

More tomatoes coming up (apologies for those of your in southern hemisphere winter: we’re just so stoked to be eating real tomatoes after months of tins…).

‘Enjoyed a nice little Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir [which one? Give the producer a shout-out!] with burrata, heirloom tomato salad and prosciutto the other day. Delicious! Why not a Sangiovese, you ask? Well, we're living off current stock at the moment.’ This from Chris Ihm of Cafe Lyon in Sydney. Burrata, tomato and Aussie Pinot would never have been my go-to pairing, but I can actually imagine it works.

If we were five steps to the right with tomato pairings, we’re going to shimmy just a little more towards the edge with Angélique Van Bommel from London’s Vagabond (it's about time we had some British input). ‘On our menu we have fresh burrata with heirloom tomatoes and wild rocket salad, which I like to pair with a glass of Weninger Vom Kalk red blend 2016 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sankt Laurent).’ Again, with burrata, I’d head straight for white or rosé. Cab Sav/Merlot blend? Never in a million years. But here we are. Tell me, people, does it work? I’m dying to know!

Erin Dawson of Ki Modern Japanese & Bar Dining Room suggests heirloom tomato salad, roasted bone marrow and Pinot Noir. Again, just a little different but a combination that explodes with umami and savoury-tangy sweetness. Clever.

But the craziest tomato match comes from Russia. The Great Kraken Restaurant. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Andrew Bibik suggests the weirdest combination of marinated tomatoes and Sauternes. Surely not. And then I pulled my head out of its little box and thought: when do you ever make a tomato sandwich without a sprinkling of sugar? When do you make a tomato sauce without a teaspoon of sugar? Tomatoes and sugar are like tamari and lime. Childhood sweethearts. So why would Sauternes not work with tomatoes? It just never crossed my mind.

Everyone: go try it! Let us know! (Although Andrew, tell us what we’re marinating our tomatoes in…)

Red to purple. Pinot Noir often has a beetroot earthy-sweet flavour so it’s not an unusual match but I liked Patrick Aichlseder’s angle of a beetroot tarte Tatin (mmmmmm… maybe with whipped goat’s cheese?) and Nuits-St-Georges. Reporting in from Das Edelweiss, Salzburg.

Hiroki Ikeda plays with green and gold: Guigal Condrieu with green asparagus and hollandaise. OK, read all the asparagus advice from all the foodie experts and you will not see Viognier on the list. Sémillon, Riesling, Sauvignon. Not Viognier. But maybe, maybe, you throw in that rich sauce, and suddenly you’re playing a different game. Someone, give it a go, report back and let us know.

Ratatouille. What would you pair this with? Common wisdom says southern French reds, Chianti, Greek reds. Sagie Kleinlerer from Covenant Wines, a kosher urban winery in Berkeley, California, rides over all that and goes with skin-contact Chenin Blanc. Love that. Oil and acid, slick food and grippy wine, herbs-sweetness-sun with herbs-spice-depth.

Then Heine Johansen from Don Pippo wine bar in Bergen, Norway, writes in with ‘Dal makhni and Puglia Negroamaro with some oak. Sounds terrible. Is nice.’ Dal makhani, I’ve learnt, is like the Christmas version of a fruit cake. It’s calorific and creamy and rich and deep and buttery and dark. You don’t eat it as a part of a weight-loss diet, but oh my, you should eat it. I love the idea of a southern Italian rustic red with an Indian luxury lentil dish (from a Norwegian sommelier…).

If we’re in the middle of the summer glut and thinking ahead towards winter veg, then Hiroshi Sadakane from Hotel New Otani Osaka in Japan says that fermented food goes beautifully with amber (orange) wine. Annie Godsman from London’s Humble Grape agrees: ‘Orange wine and Korean food, notably Gönc, Harvest Moon (a skin-contact Pinot Grigio) and a spicy bibimbap with lots of kimchi... heaven!’ Mariya Ivankina from Moscow makes the startlingly radical pairing of Tempranillo with pickles. ‘The tannins start low and you feel all the bucket of red fruits’, she writes. I’m scared to try it.

Water

There is nothing radical about fish and white wine. But the more confident food-wine pairers among us will sometimes throw in a red wine with white fish. These guys have given us fizz, white, orange, pink and red. You’ve got the whole gamut to run. Brace yourselves.

There is nothing radical about fish and fizz, but I liked the little non-conformist jabs these hospos threw in here:

No 1 Family Estate Cuvee Méthode Traditionnelle with whitebait fritters drizzled with a soy reduction’, writes Cameron Douglas MS from Auckland. Soy reduction and whitebait fritters is a new one for me. Pair that with the acidity and autolysis of sparkling wine and you’re on to something interesting…

Elliott Ashton-Konig of Fordwich Arms in Canterbury suggests a really interesting dish of confit trout with cucumber, blood orange, and a trout and dashi sauce, and then pairs it with an equally unusual wine – the Simpsons Derringstone Pinot Meunier Blanc. This still blanc de noirs was very much admired by Jancis last year.

Chasselas is normally associated with Switzerland and fondue, but Adriaan Visser of Michelin-starred Restaurant Tribeca in The Netherlands pairs it with turbot, Jerusalem artichoke, onion and truffle and then goes one step further, choosing the 2015 Chasselas from Ziereisen in Baden, Germany. ‘Rich dish with a mineral, acid-driven and non-aromatic wine to support this very rich dish’, he explains.

Yellowfin tuna belly with burned reduced grape molasses, pickled watermelon rind and soy is pretty wild in itself, but Afshin Molavi from Salis Restaurant in Greece takes it a step further and pairs it with the unusual Nykteri wine from Santorini. Nykteri means ‘working the night’ and the grapes are picked at night, the wine has to be an Assyrtiko blend that spends a minimum of three months in oak. Afshin suggests that producers Sigalas or Hatzidakis would be ideal.

Trevor Volpe from The Bruce Hotel in New York also goes for an off-beat Greek wine, taking retsina to New England with raw Nantucket Bay scallops and hemlock vinaigrette. I am assuming that the deadly sounding dressing is made from the tips of the hemlock spruce rather than the highly poisonous Conium maculatum!

Swedish pickled herring must surely be the most challenging food ever to pair with wine. But Adam Wirdahl from The Sugar Club in Auckland fearlessly pairs it with a young off-dry Mosel Riesling such as 2018 J J Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, serving it alongside boiled new potatoes with crème fraiche and chives.

‘Let's go crazy! Perfect raw tuna steak (not thick piece) with Maldon salt and black garlic sauce and unfruity and wild Trenzado made by Suertes del Marqués from Tenerife’, writes Roman Remeiev from Kyiv in Ukraine. Brilliant pairing with a wine Julia describes as ‘wild, smoky and long’.

Grilled eel with hay-syrup glaze, smoked consommé and chive oil’ is Anna Mayr’s unusual dish (which makes more sense once you know she’s assistant head sommelier at St Hubertus, the three-Michelin-star restaurant in the Italian Dolomites). She pairs it with 2002 Vin Jaune Château d'Arlay, a rich, intense, umami wine loaded with golden fruit, grilled nuts and sweet spices. Very clever.

Jonathan Ramm from Copenhagen’s Ravnsborg Vinbar chooses a very complex, challenging fusion of ‘raw marinated halibut (in salt, tangerine juice, lemon juice and lemon peel) with chinkiang emulsion, crushed dehydrated blackcurrant, fresh fennel crudité and cress’ and – daringly, I think – pairs it with Rhône Viognier. I’d be scared to pair that with anything!

Strawberry pop rocks with sushi sounds about as weird as it gets. Add raw jalapeño and your tongue is exploding along with the candy. Add ponzu sauce and you’re now just confused. Carl Lane from Houston’s Guard and Grace steakhouses calmly passes you a glass of Lucien Albrecht Crémant d'Alsace rosé. That should sort it.

Tiziano Mancini from Way Bakery and Wine Bar in Helsinki presents an interesting dish of poached cod, galangal beurre blanc, bacon and pea hummus and then, when I would have gone with a Riesling, he pairs it with Yohan Lardy Moulin-a-Vent Vieilles Vignes 2016.

And while I wouldn’t pair salted herring with anything but ice-cold vodka, Dmytro Saprykin from Ukraine thinks nothing works better than Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile! Equally brave is Canadian (from Bar Bistro L’Entracte) Sophie Carbonneau’s pairing of grilled salmon with sweet and sour miso sauce and the Bekaa Valley Ch St Thomas Merlot/Syrah blend from Clos St Thomas.

You wouldn’t instinctively pour Côte Rôtie with sea urchin. But Luis Baselga from Roostiq in Madrid does a good job of explaining why he does. ‘I feel amused with fresh sea urchin with a typical north Rhône blend with a majority of Syrah in it when it’s very well aged. 30+ years. Example, Atlantic sea urchins (colder water gives more depth in iodine feeling) with Guigal 1982 Côte Rôtie (better to be served in a Mark Thomas burgundy glass with no previous decantation). Both iodines with the richness and the structure and lift of clay and limestone makes it an amazing and unusual wine pairing. Give it a try.’

Rioja, salmon and passion fruit?! Oscar Andres Marulanda from Columbia thinks so. ‘Grilled salmon with roasted carrots and small potatoes, the sauce is a reduction of passion fruit with rosemary, with Marqués de Riscal Arienzo Crianza 2016.’

Easier to get your head around is Errol Manly Smick’s well-explained pairing: ‘At our restaurant [Monsoon in Seattle] we are known for the Catfish Claypot. Because of the caramelized onions and soy sauce the dish boasts sweet and savory notes. From our wine list, I would recommend Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Either Domaine Drouhin Roserock or Toil Oregon would be great pairings.’

Air

Egg yolk and black truffle would have me reaching for champagne or Nebbiolo, but Machado Silvia from Asador Etxebarri in Basque Country pairs it with Bénédicte et Stéphane Tissot Vin Jaune 2011 Arbois.

Egg yolk and asparagus would also send me to the fizz but this classic Restaurant Gordon Ramsay dish, Jérôme Galis asparagus served with confit egg yolk, morels cooked with butter and a wild garlic and asparagus sauce, is paired by their sommelier Valentin Picon with Miles Mossop, Saskia 2016. This is a rich, concentrated oaked blend of Chenin, Viognier, Clairette Blanche and Verdelho, so it’s interesting that it doesn’t overwhelm this dainty spring plate.

Hurel Thibault at Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin is also playing with huge flavours in his ‘pan-roast duck foie gras, pineapple, dark rum caramel, tonka’ dish, so I was surprised by his choice of a rather delicate wine: Peter Lauer’s Ayler Kupp Stirn Fass 15 is a feinherb Riesling distinguished by its gentleness, but perhaps as one of the sweeter feinherbs it might tuck in and allow the dish to have the limelight. I'd have reached for madeira.

Duck of any sort is so predictably paired with Pinot Noir that it was a pleasure to see two people (both chefs!) pair it with something else. Christopher Emery of London’s Pollen Street Social matches duck, poached rhubarb, burnt leek, pistachio brittle, duck and foie gras sauce with the Garnacha, Cariñena and Syrah blend of Torres Purgatori 2016 Costers del Segre. Keri Fuller of Petersham Nurseries in Richmond pairs a singularly glamorous smoked duck, kale and walnut pesto pizza with Réthoré Davy, Pertinence Malbec 2018 IGP Val de Loire

Alexzandra Shepherd of The Sugar Club in Auckland chooses Ant Mackenzie’s Theory & Practice Merlot from Hawke's Bay to go with Cambridge duck breast, macadamia cream, leek and puffed beef tendon. Polina Podbelskaia (Twins Garden Restaurant, Moscow) goes for rosé! Sure, it’s Bruno Clair’s 2017 Marsannay Rosé, so it’s Pinot Noir, but it’s an unusual rosé and a clever match for duck breast backed in a Russian stove with ceps and kohlrabi.

Most unusual of all was from the head sommelier of Domaine des Étangs in Massignac. Alexis Jamin pairs duck breast, tangerine and lavender sauce with ‘the amazing Manzoni Bianco from Foradori. One week of maceration for a fantastic wine, intense. The pairing is amazing.’

I also like the sound of Canadian Spencer Buck’s ‘blueberry smoked-duck prosciutto, confit tomato panzanella, rustic tapenade with the Austin Hope Grenache from Paso Robles’.

Gustavo Castano from London’s La Dame de Pic also sidesteps the predictable Pinot pairing for his ‘whisky-marinated pigeon and forms of beetroot’ and chooses instead another wine from this Canary Islands producer Suertes del Marqués 7 Fuentes 2016 from Tenerife  – described by Julia as smoky, peppery and tangy red fruit, this could well be a perfect, if totally unexpected, match.

Pasture

Starting with cheese and charcuterie, and then picking our way through from pork to game, the global pastures have elicited some divergent creativity and playful ideas.

I can already guarantee that when I said cheese, it wasn’t palak paneer that came to mind. And when I said palak paneer, the last thing you’d come up with was a Greek riff on that. But here we are…

Palak paneer with savoury and salty halloumi cheese instead of paneer cheese, served together with a demi-sec Vouvray from a vintage with lots of ripe, yellow apples. One of the best combos I ever tried.’ Cristian Lundin, Tak Rooftop Restaurant, Stockholm.

Triple-cream cheese is usually paired with Chardonnay or champagne, so I was interested in Brian O’Connor’s suggestion of pairing it with Oregon Pinot Noir. Cherries and cream…? Not something I imagine would be on the menu at his restaurant, Fonda La Catrina Mexican in Seattle.

From Taste Café in Canterbury, New Zealand, comes Matt Anstey’s suggestion of ‘Fried Wairiri buffalo mozzarella with fennel salad and grissini with a glass of Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Dry Riesling (just up the road from the buffalo, Waipara, North Canterbury). Fried seems an unusual way of serving mozzarella, and I was expecting a Sauvignon with that. But this striking Riesling with some botrytised grapes and some oak contact is also bending the rules.

Gorgonzola is a hospo favourite. Rachel Ford of Crú Food & Wine Bar in Atlanta wistfully writes, ‘A fig and gorgonzola bruschetta and balsamic drizzle paired with a Chianti Classico. Because that is what I'm craving in quarantine.’ Fig and gorgonzola would probably have had me reaching for a sweet wine. Has anyone else tried this combo with a high-acid tannic red? Jenni Malmberg from Turku, Finland, pairs beetroot and gorgonzola arancinis dipped in aioli with Martin Müllen Riesling 2000. Mosel and arancini, gorgonzola and garlic. Life is full of contradictions.

Peter Van de Reep of Campagnolo Restaurant in Vancouver, however, also finds the gorgonzola/Mosel thing works magic. ‘This might be a little outside the box, but a local restaurant, Burdock and Co, made an incredible gorgonzola cheesecake with peaches and walnuts. It cried out for a bottle of Mosel Auslese Riesling. I'd probably reach for a bottle of Dr Loosen Erdener Prälat Auslese 2007 if I had any. The texture and viscosity of the wine and its ripe, honeyed stone fruit would be an impeccable pairing.’

Chinese dim sum is a food I’d pair with off-dry German Riesling (or sparkling wine). The last thing I’d even try is a full-throttle Cannonau (Grenache) from Sardinia. But Matthew Kohatsu of Parc Detroit totally disagrees, and tells us why:

‘A humble yet tasty combo that I've enjoyed is Sardinian Cannonau with rich Chinese dim sum. The difficulty with pairing with dim sum is that the meal usually contains a variety of small dishes meant for the guest to have a single, or sometimes double, bite of. The dishes are usually rich, fatty, served with hot mustard, and sometimes fried. I've found that the Cannonau, especially the well-made riservas, will have a sufficient level of acidity to cut the fattiness and will not overly accentuate the spice. The flavors of the wine, Chinese five spice, allspice, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, also match the seasonings regularly associated with dim sum. Cheers!’

While bacon-wrapped dates are a party canapé that you’re mostly likely to find yourself eating while you clutch a glass of nameless fizz in the other hand, Chuck Nix from Table 100 in Mississippi advocates Primitivo. Sweet and rich and salt and dark. Ten times better than that cheap prosecco you just put down.

Bacon and Brussels sprouts are a winter (Christmas) classic and Fiona Beckett recommends a hearty Rhône or Languedoc red on her useful website www.matchingfoodandwine.com. Our hospos are not so conventional. ‘Brussels sprouts, bacon, Hasselback potatoes with Breitenbach Furmint from Tokaj. The Hungarian white wine has salty-mineral for Brussels sprouts, is heavy enough for bacon, crispy enough for spicy potatoes, and brilliant also alone if dinner is already over 😊.’ So says Andrea Takacs from Budapest. Joshua Robinson from Enoteca in Winnipeg also chooses white but a wine at the opposite end of the scale, pairing his brown-butter roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, Cambozola, and fig agrodolce with 2019 Aizpurua Txakoli.

In Kazakhstan, Dayana Nassyrova cleverly suggests ‘grilled pork chops with pineapple-turmeric glaze and Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva 2004’, a popular wine among professionals.

While lamb seems to go with almost any red wine you could throw at it as well as Assyrtiko and other salty whites, Gregory Hartofelis in Chicago has paired it with the one wine I would not have expected! ‘Feinherb Mosel Riesling with honey-lavender-glazed lamb ribs’. That is something I have to try! Nervously.

It’s Rheinhessen Riesling that features next with a dish that would have had me instinctively reaching for a Chablis. Carolina Seibel of Comptoir Café in London writes, ‘Moio's veal tartare with oyster, oyster leaf and scallop roe emulsion with a bottle of Peth Wetz Riesling.’

When it comes to beef tartare, no one would blink an eye at matching it with sparkling wine or a lemony white. But Moscato passito?! Now that’s a startling pairing! Tell us how that works, Nicolette Anctil of Husk, Nashville, Tennessee.

This is one of the weirdest dishes I’ve ever come across, let alone in this competition: ‘Lacquered English veal, lobster, strawberry and cabbage cake’. Strawberry and cabbage cake. The mind boggles. But I googled it, and sure enough, it not only exists but there is a picture of it. Its creator suggests Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuissé, but our hospo, Jacek Trytko, pairs it with biodynamic champagne David Léclapart L'Astre Blanc de Noirs. I think champagne might be the only wine that could cope with the shock of this.

While braised beef cheeks might send most of us to the Big New World Red corner of the wine rack, Mark Redman of Midfield Wine Bar in Toronto opts for a little-known, light, peppery red from the Loire: ‘Pineau d'Aunis with braised beef cheek, fermented potato and wild plum catsup.’

Tickets in Barcelona does some pretty exciting food, but their sommelier, Miguel Angel Navarro Flor, has kept the food simple and focused instead on a very unusual, exciting wine: cured and spiced Rubia Gallega veal with Esmeralda García’s Michiko – Verdejo from a 130-year-old vineyard in Castilla y León, fermented and aged in Spanish amphora, then aged in a sherry butt under flor. No sulphur dioxide added. It sounds like a stunning wine – and there’s a winemaker we should be watching out for.

Now, if only we could get one of you faithfully delivering merchants to import her wines.

Although it’s not remotely unusual to pair red wine with lamb or beef, Laura Lythall from The Ship Inn, London, caught my attention with her pairing of Ch Musar 2011 with The Palomar's 'Shakshukit'. What was Shakshukit?! It’s a deconstructed kebab with a great little story behind it and it looks absolutely mouth-watering! Plus you now have the recipe and can make it at home until you get a chance to visit The Palomar and have the real deal. A clever pairing, too, with the complexity of the spices, lamb and beef, and it’s Middle Eastern heritage tying in beautiful with the spice and roses and red fruit of Musar.

Much more unusual is Casey McKaig’s (Seastar, Seattle) suggestion of ‘braised rabbit, cheap, sustainable and ethical, and Roero Arneis, rich texture with elegant aromatics’.  And then it all gets even weirder from there…

Pinot Noir with kudu steak. That could only come from a South African – and indeed, it’s the suggestion from Simbarashe Chiduku, sommelier at Lemon Butta in Cape Town. I’d love to know which Pinot he had in mind.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’, is Geoff Lindsay’s perfectly normal wine offering. Until he mentions the food… ‘Savoury elk sausage cheesecake’. A what? I googled his restaurant, The Shore Club, Ottawa. Is that what they serve? Nope. Perfectly normal seafood served there. I googled ‘elk-sausage cheesecake’. Elk sausages, yes. And (new one for me) sausage cheesecake, yes. But elk-sausage cheesecake was eclipsed by what Google did find for me: alligator-sausage cheesecake! I wonder if Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc would go with that too?

But the most off-beat pairing of all has been saved for last.

Civet stew with Pansal del Calàs 2013 by Celler de Capçanes DO Montsant is the pairing from Cristian Sanchez from Caelis in Barcelona. This is a sweet red fortified wine made up of 70% Grenache and 30% Carignan with an alcohol of about 16.5% and residual sugar around 70 g/l. Having never tasted civet, I have absolutely no idea whether this slightly insane-sounding pairing would work. But I’m tantalised by the idea...