Q&A – Food matches for Madeira


Here’s a question I received recently from my Ask me a wine question page:

Hello, I received Madeira wines : 1) Tinta negra de madeira “Natal” 1946 by artur de barros e sousa and 2) special madeira 1988 by cossart gordon and 3) malmsey madeira 1994 by cossart gordon. Can you tell me with what kind of food I can drink them, please ? Regards, Bobo.

It sounds like you have some nice wines, there, Bobo – I presume your “special” Madeira is actually an auto-correct glitch, and it is really a Sercial.

Tinta Negra, Sercial and Malmsey (also called Malvasia) are the names of grape varieties, and also indicate the style of the wine when used for Madeira. Of the four principal varieties in terms of quality and availability, Sercial is used to produce the driest style, though there is usually a little sweetness to take the edge off the acidity, and Malmsey is very sweet indeed. The grape Tinta Negra, also called Tinta Negra Mole,  is not one of those four varieties. It is not so highly regarded, and these days is used to make cheaper Madeiras of any style. Don’t let that put you off – I am sure a 1946 Tinta Negra from ABSL will be good, and quite possibly the best wine of the three – but I have no idea about how sweet it will be.

My honest answer to your question is that I think Madeira is best drunk a glass at a time without food, or possibly with nuts and dried fruit. Madeira also lends itself to drinking like that because open bottles will last for several months. You could even have all three bottles on the go at the same time. If offering to guests, I would choose Malmsey as an after-dinner drink, and the drier Sercial as an aperitif, when it would also work with olives. But if I were the drinker, the Sercial would be liable to be sampled at almost any time in the afternoon or evening.

If really want to try your Madeiras with food, madeirawine.nl offers some suggestions. For the Tinta Negra, you would have to open it first to check whether it is closer to the sweetness of the Sercial or the Madeira. If it is somewhere in between, follow the recommendations for Verdelho or Boal. When you have checked the wines for sweetness, you will also have a much better idea about whether you really want to drink them with food at all. I might be wrong, but the cynic in me thinks that the idea of drinking Madeira with food comes mainly from those eager to persuade punters to drink more.

I hope that helps, Bobo. If you have further questions, do get back to me. Also, if you check back here later, you might find other people have added helpful comments to this post.

More on astringent wine with meat

In a previous blog post on the subject I quoted Tim Hanni as saying “fat actually increase[s] the intensity of […] the astringent feeling of tannin”.  But as far as I could establish, Hanni has no evidence for this other than experiences from his own workshops.  In direct contradiction of Hanni,  recently published correspondence in Current Biology from Catherine Peyrot de Gachones et al  seems to show that fatty and astringent substances moderate the effect of each other.

I say “seems too”, because the source of fat in the experiment is salami, which also contains protein and salt.  It is unfortunate that they did not use a purer fat, so it is still a possibility that it is the protein or salt that reduced the astringency, as suggested by others.

On the other hand, as 3 different astringent liquids were tested, it is a lot more certain that the astgringency itself reduced the fatty sensation, rather than anything else common to each of the liquids.

Regardless, to me it intuitively seems a lot more convincing that it is fat, rather than the protein or salt, that reduces astringency in wine.  The idea that astringent wines “cut through” fatty meats is well-known and accepted.  And from a wine and food matching point of view,  I can appreciate that it is good to have alternate opposing sensations in the mouth from sipping red wine while eating meat – the astringency from the wine, and the slippery richness of the fat.

The final lesson we can take from this research concerns the assessment of the astringency of wine.  The research clearly shows that as you take multiple sips of a tannic liquid, the perceived degree of astringency increases over time.  So to fairly compare the astringency of different wines, we really need to make sure we start with a clean palate for each wine, and assess each one after the same number of sips.

Duck, Amarone and the Zeni wine museum

When scanning through the list of wines I have in my Liebherrs looking for a match for confit duck, I really had in mind a Pinot Noir, Beaujolais or Riesling.  I also fancied that a top Alsace Pinot Gris with good acidity might fit the bill, but I knew I had no such thing.  However, I stopped when I found this Amarone as I thought it would be worth a punt.  I was pleased with myself for being so imaginative – then a bit miffed to find Google telling me that Amarone is quite commonly paired with duck.  I had no idea.

What a match I thought I had discovered!  It is quite rare these days that I am so wowed by a particular wine-food combination.  The hefty body of the wine matched the weight of the duck pound for pound, the intense fruit aromas worked as a cherry sauce for the simply reheated confit duck, and the marked acidity and astringency refreshed the palate admirably.  Here’s my tasting note:

Vigne Alte, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, Zeni, Museo del Vino, 2004:  Medium garnet.  Intense deep cherries and spice, with a touch of maturity on the nose that came out even stronger on the palate.  There was also an edginess to the nose – it was not soft and round.  On the palate, medium high acidity, and sweet fruit.  More astringent than most wines I drink, but not harsh.  Excellent length, with fruity spicy finish.  The wine carries the 15% alcohol well.  Good now, but I think this might continue to improve for several years.  In all aspects this goes well with confit duck.  The Euro equivalent of £14.00 direct from the producer in 2008, and I see Tanner’s are now selling the 2007 for around £30.  *****

I am not sure why it says “Museo del Vino” on the label, but sure enough Zeni do have a museum at their premises just outside Bardolino on Lake Garda.  Here is an exciting grape drying rack in the museum.
Seriously though, I remember it as being more informative than most wine museums and it is well worth a visit if you are in the area.  They also have a large tasting area in the same building. A prior appointment is certainly not necessary, and when we were there I seem to remember the cheaper wines were free and self-service from a machine, whilst there was a modest fee for the better wines like this Amorone.

Hmm… maybe they put “Museo del Vino” on the label to get some free publicity.

Steak, wine and astringency reduction

As a rule, I am pretty laid back about matching wines with food.  I am normally happy to go with the conventional wisdom in the company I am keeping.  Not because I think that always results in the best matches, but because if people think a wine is appropriate it probably will actually be enjoyed more.  Convention also has the advantage of ruling out some horrendous food-wine clashes, like creamy desserts and dry red wine – a taboo combination I learned the hard way as a student. But I would not be prescriptive – eat and drink whatever you wish!

Having said all that, I do find it interesting to match food and wine.  I can easily imagine combinations of flavours and usually have an opinion on what will and will not work for me, usually in terms of wine structure and basic tastes rather than the details of the aromatics.  As such I was intrigued to learn that Tim Hanni, with his unconventional views, has persuaded the WSET to let him rewrite the food-wine matching chapter of Exploring the World of Wines and Spirits.  I am not going to give a blow-by-blow analysis of the chapter, but rather concentrate on this excerpt:

Many myths have originated from well-intentioned, yet inaccurate, explanations for serving a wine with a certain food. An example of this is the perception that the harsh tannins in red wine is softened when the wine is served with red meat such as beef. Conventional wisdom credits interactions between the wine with protein and fat of the meat for the softening of the tannins. It has now been proven that the bitter-suppressive quality of salt that is put on a steak is responsible for this phenomenon and that without salt, the protein and fat actually increase the intensity of bitterness and the astringent feeling of tannin.

The reason tannic wines are astringent is that the tannins react with proteins in the saliva causing solids to precipitate out.  This decreases the viscosity of the saliva causing more friction between the gums and teeth and gums, which contributes to the sensation we call astringency in wine tasting.   Additional factors could include the disruption by tannins of the production of mucus, and the constriction of blood vessels in the gums. (This is, for example, reported in Ronald S Jackson’s Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, where he refers to original research.)

It is indeed often stated that protein-rich foods tend to soften tannins.  I think the rationale is that the tannins react with the food proteins, leaving your saliva to provide lubrication unhindered.  But, as Hanni says, this could well be myth.  I have personally tested it, using Parmesan cheese, and just about convinced myself.  But for me it was far from conclusive, and anyway Parmesan is also salty.  More importantly, even if I was convinced, it would be at best anecdotal evidence.  I have not found a reference to a peer-reviewed scientific paper that demonstrates the importance of protein rich food in reducing astringency, and Hanni says it has now been proven that salt is the cause.

But hang on a sec… where is this proof?  Hanni refers to no research either, and a quick google reveals nothing.  He is very keen on demonstrating his theories, and will refer to the authority of university researchers, but offers no hard evidence.  For what it is worth (still not peer-reviewed research as fas as I know) it seems that Bruce Zoeklin thinks that salt increases astringency.

I aplaud Tim Hanni for tackling wine myths.  There are plenty around that need to be busted.  But I fear he is replacing them with a new mythology.  Do explore for yourself what foods and wines work together, but if you are going to break with convention do it with a truly open mind – don’t let yourself be prompted as to what might work or not by someone selling ideas.

And please, if you are now torn as to whether to have protein or salt with your tannic red wine, ask yourself first whether you think the astringency needs reducing at all!