Food Pairing With A Little Botrytis On The Side
- By Jeff Harding
- 06 Dec 2020
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
I’ve always said that the sweet wines of Bordeaux make time stop. Like a jazz riff that demands your attention, or soaking in a hot bathtub, the sensory overload is momentarily overwhelming and often nostalgic from the wine’s sweet fruit flavours. The overflow and intensity of fruit, acid, and spice combine elegantly with the concentrations of flavours and sweetness produced by Botrytis. Too many people immediately rule out sweet wines, but forget how much sugar is in a margarita (a lovely balance of sugar, fruit, and acid as well). I’m here to tell you to take a chance on these affordable wines, and discover their ability to pair with much more than cheese and dessert. A world of pairing options and flavour combinations will open up before you.
What Makes Sweet Bordeaux So Unique?
Botrytis, or “noble rot,” occurs in the regions around the Garonne river because these areas are home to the perfect combination of moisture and sunshine. The consistent production of fog produces moisture which encourages the fungus, and the region’s abundant sunshine dries out the Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle grapes. This process concentrates their natural sugars, and intensifies their flavours. The desiccation of fruit and metabolic activity of the Botrytis cinerea fungus modifies the acids and natural sugars of the grape, intensifying its flavours and ultimately the complexity of the wine.
Not Just For Special Occasions
These wines are far too often held in reserve for special occasions, when they might just be the perfect wine to pair with a myriad of dishes. Usually relegated to the “dessert wine” category, they will often be a friendlier match with savoury plates. I find these pairings can be generally categorized as complementary or contrasting, but my favorite method is to think of them as a condiment.
A complementary pairing is when the wine adds something to the meal, enhancing spice or fruit notes in roast chicken, or scallops and other lighter seafood. They support the flavours of the dish, adding layers of flavour, but not overshadowing it. Another complementary classic pairing is with a cheese platter. Rather than try to find one cheese that is perfect with one wine, it is a safe bet that almost any golden Bordeaux will be a fantastic complement to most cheeses available.
Contrasting pairings consist of opposites, like sweet and salty, or hot and sweet. One of my favorite go-togethers is salt and vinegar potato chips. Salt, fat, and sugar can all trigger satiety in the brain when consumed on their own, but when paired together (eg. salt with sugar) the brain experiences a layering of flavours and doesn’t trigger the sensory satiety.
A forgotten classic Bordeaux sweet wine pairing of the 19th century is Atlantic oysters, whose saltiness is countered by the sweetness of the wine, and the fruit flavours accentuate the fresh and fruity flavours in the oyster. Another contrast is with spicy food, because alcohol is a solvent that breaks up capsaicin (the heat in the chilies), which makes it burn less. Additionally, the flavours of intense fruit can match the intensity of the heat while adding a layer of fruit to the complexity of the dish. Many cuisines from Asia and Latin America use chilies as seasoning and to amplify flavour components; these are well-suited for a sweet Bordeaux matching.
Pairing Thinking Of Sweet Bordeaux As A Condiment
Now I want to suggest we think of sweet Bordeaux as a condiment. Duck confit will often be served with a splash of sweet and acidic fruit like a kumquat marmalade, pork chops with a mango chutney, barbecue meats with a pineapple salsa. All these flavours can be found in the sweet wines of Bordeaux, so imagine them in a glass, rather than on the plate. Very often a wine pairing will refresh the palate, rinse the flavours from the tongue and stimulate the taste buds to prepare for the next bite. Sweet wines, like those from Bordeaux, do this as well, but the amplification of flavour intensity will make you slow down and really savour these flavours, and enjoy your experience just a little bit more.