“(Def.) Masterclass noun – a class, especially in music, given by an expert to highly talented students”
I chuckled when I looked up the above definition in a first attempt to recap a Food and Wine Pairings Masterclass with expert sommelier Douglas Blyde as part of Sopexa‘s very aptly named Absolutely Cracking Wines series.
But before I delve into that, a little background:
I guess you could say I’ve grown up surrounded by wine. One of the first work trips I can remember my Dad going on was a tour of Australian vineyards in the Barossa Valley. As a college student, we visited Saint-Emilion (Dad jokingly disowned me because I made it before he did.) My college boyfriend grew up close to the fantastic wine region surrounding Geneva (Switzerland has stunning wines, just doesn’t export much.) I’ve coerced friends to drink Pinotage in Stellenbosch and my parents now live in Washington State’s up and coming wine region. And that’s not touching on years of “home study,” but I digress…
Despite having wine all around me, most of the time, I only pretend I understand what is going on. I love drinking it. But do I really understand it?
There are two particular moments that have given me pause to remember it is fun to get caught up in the hype of wine but not be intimidated by it. The first was when my Dad told me US wine expert Robert Parker has joked he is only “one nose” (I’m paraphrasing…but basically he said something to the effect of “everyone’s tastes are and should be different – mine is but one highly educated opinion”). And the second was Douglas Blyde’s Masterclass.
I do not say this lightly or because I was invited. I say it because I honestly didn’t feel out of my depth and I didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t scribble down notes on Douglas’ unique banter quickly enough or savor the wines long enough.
The evening – held at Paramount high above London’s Tottenham Court Road – was titled the “Grand Tour of L’Hexagone”. L’Hexagone is a commonly used description of France’s shape (if you squint, it looks like it has 6 sides).
We were to sample wines from across the country – paired alongside a complimenting dish and dryly amusing anecdotes from Douglas that made the wines sparkle independently of one another.
Pairing 1 (in which we embrace coriander and learn about “scarf wines”)
We started with two lovely spoonfuls of Ceviche paired with AOP Alsace Morrison’s Signature (Cave de Turckheim) Gewurztraminer 2013 and AOP Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Plaimont Producteurs, Saint Albert 2011. Douglas explained that many consider ceviche to be a light weight dish, but that it is actually quite bold when you think about the sugar, salt, coriander and chili added to the fish. The “white wines of pedigree” from completely opposite ends of France – Alsace and the Pyrenees – gave off two distinctly different tastes and yet both brought out fresh flavors from the fish.
And this is where Douglas hooked me with his descriptions: The Alsatian Gewurztraminer tasted of rose, lychee and chalk – “much like you might find in the sweetest grandmother’s drawers”. The Pacherenc was “a good scarf wine” with flavors of honey and marmalade.
Pairing 2 (in which we sample Provence, hear of taxidermy & mention tabasco)
Thai Crab Cakes were paired with AOP Savennières, Domaine des Beaumard, Clos du Papillon 2006 and AOP Côtes de Provence, Château Miraval, Rosé 2013. I personally preferred the delicacy of the Rosé, and not only because Douglas threw out that the vineyard’s nearest neighbor is a lady who does taxidermy (these asides are thrown out so casually you have to listen closely just to catch them.)
Douglas also made a statement that years of eating in France hadn’t made me realise: “if there wasn’t wine in France, I’d need a bottle of Tabasco.” And he has a point. French food needs help. Its not the boldest. It thrives on its sauces. It gets support and is boosted by wine.
Pairing 3 (in which we learn about abbreviations and politics)
Mushroom Risotto was accompanied by AOP Cote Roannaise, Domaine Sérol, Vielles Vignes 2013 and AOP Alsace, Domaine l’Agapé, Hélios 2012. Here is where I have to apologise to Douglas because just as he mentioned “this is where we get into the soil”, I got involved in a delightful side conversation with one of the organisers, Chris, on why “AOP” (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) was put in front of the wines we were tasting instead of “AOC” (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) I’d known in the past. (The most commonly recognized “appellation” is probably Champagne. It can’t be called Champagne unless it comes from France’s Champagne region.)
The evolution from AOC to AOP comes as the result of EU regulations passed in 2009 in an effort to keep European wines competitive faced with New World wines. AOC doesn’t go away. A producer who is unable to get an AOP will lose its AOC, but a wine can be both AOC and AOP. (Is that like the ‘a square is a rectangle but a rectangle isn’t a square’ equivalent in wine? You can read more about it here. Just don’t believe Douglas if he tells you AOP stands for the Association of Otters of Provence.)
Pairing 4 (in which we talk about the importance of acidity and make a tannins vs Dracula comparison)
Feeling guilty from being distracted, I snapped back to attention at the mention of a 2009 Saint-Julien from the Domaine Henry Martin, Château Haut-Beychevelle Gloria, accompanied by Roast Beef with Yorkshire Puds and a (mouthwatering) Horseradish Sauce. I am a red wine fiend and the Saint-Julien tasted of cigar smoke and pheasant in the best kind of way, though it was actually a bit too young to drink. This was followed by a Corsican Vin de France, Domaine Comte Abbatucci, Faustine Rouge Vielles Vignes 2011 which was quite possibly the star of the evening. Douglas explained that while the AOP wines get a lot of the attention, wines classed as “Vins de France” are attracting many “maverick producers” and this wine was no exception.
He told us that “acidity is a sommelier’s greatest weapon” as it can cut right through the fat in a pork belly and is a reason why wine is so often perfectly paired with the food it is. Then he pulled out a gem about tannins (the molecular compounds that bring out an astringency in red wine that can leave your mouth feeling dry and rough) “the tannins in this wine are like Dracula has been on a binge.”
The finale (cheese. and maple syrup in a glass. enough said.)
This pairing surprised me. Douglas explained that red tannins can actually get in the way of cheese and that sometimes dessert wines can be more complementary. Being endlessly found of red wine, I scoffed at this idea. And was proven wrong. The AOP Rivesaltes, Domaine Cazes, Ambré 2000 tasted like maple syrup or, as my delightful companion for the evening, Emma sweetly put it: “this wine is me in a glass”. It was like the first time I’d paired a French melty cheese with jam all over again.
For many of the night who were experts, this was a regular occasion and likely part of a work outing. But for me, it was simply one of my favorite Mondays in London thus far.
It is a rare thing to be able to engage experts and novices simultaneously like Douglas did, with just the right blend of knowledge, detail and humor to keep everyone’s attention through the evening. I would highly recommend a tasting spent in his company (made all the sweeter with a handful of great French wines).
Full disclosure: I was kindly invited by Douglas to participate in his tasting, would delightfully take part in one again and almost kept this to myself in an attempt not to share him with others. If I had to pick two wines I’d recommend you try, they would be the AOP Rivesaltes, Domaine Cazes, Ambré 2000 which you can find here for £13.04 (37.5cl) and the Vin de France, Domaine Comte Abbatucci, Faustine Rouge Vielles Vignes 2011 which you can find here for £25.50. I have a reference book if anyone wants more recommendations!