Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Here Come the Judge! Here Come the Judge!

As I wrote recently, achieving a brilliant match between wine and food is the ne plus ultra for any sommelier, new or experienced.  So it's no surprise that, of the courses in the Sommelier Program at Algonquin College, the Wine and Food Matching course is the one that many students look forward to the most.

For the final exam, teams of students prepare a food dish and match it with the wine that they think works best. Coming up with a dazzling match at the end of a structured course allows students to put everything that they have learned to the test…literally. The teams submit a paper that describes why they chose the food dish, how they chose the matching wine, and why they think this match is the best.  The expectation is that, to reach a final decision, they will have tested several wines (along with the food) with cooperative friends and relations before making their choice.

The final exam isn’t just a paper exercise.  The teams must prepare the food dish, either at home beforehand or in the kitchen at Algonquin's Restaurant International, and serve it with their chosen wine for judging by recognized me.

I have fond memories of my project when I did this course.  (Getting a perfect score on the paper...ahem...contributes to that fond memory.)  I also remember how much work our team put into the project and how important the judges' opinion was to us.  So when the course instructor – Liam Doody – contacted me about being a judge, I jumped at the chance. 10 examples of good food matched systematically with interesting wines? What's not to like?

My judging partner would be fellow sommelier, fellow valedictorian, and fellow blogger, Bethany Harpur, who hangs out at 2nd Ferment.

After tasting each dish with its matching wine, we awarded "medals" based on the following criteria:
  • Gold:  The wine and food pairing adds to the enjoyment of the wine AND the cuisine.
  • Silver:  The wine and food pairing adds to either the enjoyment of the wine OR the cuisine, but not both.
  • Bronze:  The wine and food pairing does not add to, nor detract from, the enjoyment of either the wine or the cuisine.
  • No Certificate:  The wine and food pairing detracts from either, or both, the enjoyment of the wine or the cuisine.

This criteria allows for considerable latitude and subjectivity.  But as Liam teaches all his students, wine and food matching is subjective.  In his classes, where a food dish is matched to 4 different wines, students use an anonymous voting system to decide which of the 4 wines is the best match. The highest level of consensus ever on any wine and food match?  60%! Our judgments were just as subjective.  Bethany and I didn't agree on the merits of every match.  But that's not surprising; that's just the way it is.

Here are the great food and wine matches that we got to sample and upon which we rendered our verdicts.  Kudos to all the teams!

Food:  Hair of the Dog Breakfast
Wine:  Jip Jip Rocks Sparkling Shiraz (Australia) NV
The ultimate hangover medicine...a clever and very daring match!

 Food:  Hawaiian Tsunami Roll
Wine:  Chateau St Jean Pinot Noir (Sonoma County, California) 2008
Great sushi, delicious wine, made me Pacific

 Food:  Raw Food Kalamata Olive Ravioli
Wine:  Vineland Estates Sauvignon Blanc VQA Niagara 2009
Herb, meet Herb...I like it

Food:  Turnip Potato Maple Soup
Wine:  Markus Molitor Haus Klosterberg Riesling Auslese (Mosel) 2007
New World Sweet meets Old World Sweet...delicious

Food:  Caramelized Onion Bacon Tart 
Wine:  Perrin et Fils Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages Rasteau (S. Rhone) 2009
Food that needs fruit and soft tannins meets its match.  Quelle surprise.

Food:  Macaroni and Cheese
Wine:  Helfrich Pinot Gris (Alsace) 2010
Sweet Cheeses, that's comfort food

Food:  Grilled Beef on a Crostini
Wine:  Misterio Malbec (Argentina) 2011
Beef with Argentinean Malbec...a sure thing

Food:  Beef Sliders with Goat Cheese
Wine:  Cupcake Vineyards Red Velvet (California) 2011
Beef, red pepper, and goat cheese with a young wine made for grilled meats

Food:  Enc(h)iladas
Wine:  Real Sitio de Ventosilla Recorba Crianza (Ribera del Duero) 2006
Mexican food with Spanish wine...Olé, indeed 

Food:  Salmon with Tarragon Mustard Sauce
Wine:  Joseph Cattin Hatschbourg Grand Cru (Alsace) 2009
Intensely flavoured full-bodied wine w/ full-bodied fish and flavourful sauce...

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