Grape Vs Grain, Pick a Side

© Cape Times Thursday 17th April 2014

In days gone by, people didn’t move around very much. They stayed in their little corner of Bordeaux or Piedmont, ate the food that they grew or caught and made wine to go with that food. Personally, I think wine is much better with food and I’m not talking about grease-laden plates of junk food used to soak up excess alcohol, I’m talking about proper food matches where the combination of wine and food is far greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve recently discovered that beer-drinkers think exactly the same way about their beverage as well, but the question is, which goes best? Is it wine as countless generations of sommeliers would have us believe, or actually, is it the currently less-regarded but coming-through-fast-on-the-rails craft beer?

Along with beer aficionado Lucy Corne, I’ve set out to see if we can the answer to which beverage is best with food and to give a wider audience the chance to try it for themselves as well. Our ‘Grape vs Grain’ debate debuted last weekend at the Taste of Cape Town Festival and gave consumers three canapés, each one paired to a wine from the Stellenbosch Vineyards range by me and by Lucy to a craft beer . The results were extremely interesting, and obviously very satisfying for those who believe wine is better with food since the wines won overall with people preferring it on two out of the three matches.

But the voting was much closer than anyone had expected and what we realised was that both Lucy and I had a ‘Super-matcher’ amongst the drinks we’d chosen, one that we could actually have served with pretty much any food and which would have worked brilliantly. Lucy’s was the Pumpkin Ale from Boston Breweries which is flavoured with genuine pumpkin as well as cinnamon and a few other spices. It garnered overwhelming support as a match with a spicy veggie samosa and converted many a surprised wine-lover over to the idea that actually, beer and food are rather good together. I saved my Super-matcher of Credo Chenin Blanc for the Goats Cheese tart and it proved a winning combination with the acidity of the wine cutting nicely through the cloying richness of the cheese.

What exactly makes a Super-matcher then? When it comes to wine, I think that the best ones with food are understated wines, with a little bit of oak but not too much, a decent amount of acidity but not too much and often as not, a tiny amount of residual sugar, but again, only a very tiny amount. I also think it is generally better for a wine to have a bit of age on it – a youthful wine tends to be packed with upfront, fresh fruit flavours which can be too unsubtle with a lot of foods. And finally, I think the best wines with food are generally blends which often have more complexity and cover a wider gamut of flavours. The Credo Chenin misses out on the last point, but is so complex within its own right, I don’t think it much matters.

And that is probably the key to successful food and wine or beer-matching – there are no hard and fast rules and don’t take it too seriously. Lucy and I certainly don’t, as you can see for yourselves if you join us for the next round of Grape vs Grain at the Cheese Festival which runs from 26th April at Sandringham in Stellenbosch. Will my Super-matcher Chenin continue to carry the day or does the ‘Beer-is-best’ brigade have something fiendish up their sleeves? Only time – and the audience – will tell.