Let’s face it, we foodies have never had it so good. 20 years ago, most of us had to rely on the likes of the late Keith Floyd to travel the world for us in search of culinary adventure. But nowadays, for a few quid we can hop on a flight and hours later be merrily sipping and munching away in our gastronomic location of choice. And what more, through the globalisation of the produce market, we don’t even need to leave British shores to experience exciting and exotic flavours and ingredients, as many of them are now widely available in our supermarkets and restaurants.
Whilst I support the current trend to “buy local” and support local growers and producers, one has to admit that the arrival in the mainstream over the past few years of exotic ingredients such as galangal, wasabi and holy basil has signalled exciting times for chefs and domestic cooks. In addition, the arrival of these new and exciting ingredients – many from Asia and the Indian Subcontinent – has also created huge potential for unusual and innovative food and wine pairings.
Admittedly, finding the right wine to match a dish is not always an easy task. There are, of course, certain old favourites such as Roquefort and Sauternes, Chablis and oysters, Port and Stilton which have stood the test of time. But as we become more creative with our ingredients so we need to rethink our wine choices – a bottle of claret may go well with your roast lamb but what about when faced with a fragrant and spicy beef Thai salad?
It’s fair to say that some wines suit certain types of food better than others but if there is one grape variety that stands out from the pack in terms of its versatility and food-friendliness, it has to be Riesling. Many people think of Riesling as a sweet German wine but this is not always the case. In fact, Riesling is a wonderfully versatile grape and is produced in many parts of the world in many different styles ranging from the bone dry to the lusciously sweet. It is this range of sweetness levels and diversity of flavours that makes Riesling uniquely placed to compliment not only traditional cuisine but also more exotic flavours.
For example, Australian Rieslings are usually very dry and often exhibit intense citrus notes which make them excellent partners to seafood, shellfish in particular. But they can also pair very well with sushi and sashimi. Look for a Riesling from the Clare Valley or Eden Valley which are particularly good growing regions for Riesling in Australia. Top producers include Jim Barry, Grosset, Mount Horrocks and Pewsey Vale, to name but a few.
The Rieslings of Alsace in France tend also to be dry but are fuller bodied and richer than their Aussie counterparts. This weightiness together with their high acidity makes them particularly good companions to fatty foods such as pork belly or roast goose. There are many excellent producers of Riesling in Alsace but look for the likes of Trimbach, Hugel, Zind Humbrecht and Schlumberger which are widely available in the UK.
And then there are the German Rieslings. German Rieslings can range from the bone dry to medium sweet to very sweet which makes them food-friendly across the board. The drier Rieslings go particularly well with fish and white meats (think Coq au Riesling!) but, for me, it is the off-dry category which is hugely underrated. An off-dry German Riesling (or one from New Zealand for that matter) is the perfect partner for hot and spicy foods. These wines, often only 7% or 8% alcohol by volume, tend to be jam-packed with aromatic fruit which allows them to stand up impressively to spicy and fragrant flavours, whilst a good hit of residual sugar has the effect of soothing the heat of the chilli. Recommended German producers making both dry and off-dry Rieslings which are available in the UK include Ernst Loosen, Josef Leitz, Dönnhoff, Franz Künstler, JJ Prüm.
Riesling may not have the greatest reputation here in the UK but I urge you to cast aside the stereotypes and give it a go – it is a true food-friendly wine and really has the potential to make a worthy companion to your next meal!