It's always a quandary for sommeliers when confronted with a couple dining and one orders red meat while the other wants fish but they still want to share a bottle of wine. The sommelier needs to think quickly - which dish has the stronger flavour? Are there any common links between the recipes? How are they prepared? Are there any flavours that might clash?
At the restaurant where I work as a sommelier, we recently had a couple dining with us who were celebrating a special occasion, and we wanted to do our best to make the evening a memorable one.
The woman started the meal with Hokkaido sea scallops served with duck confit and spice-pickled pineapple; her partner ordered the spiced Tunisian lamb sausage. For the main course she plumped for the pan-roasted halibut with peas, smoked bacon and artichoke while he went for the head-to-tail lamb with broccoli-stuffed macaroni, olives, lemon purée and shaved almonds.
The dilemma? She only drinks white wine. But with lamb, a pairing would usually be a robust red.
I suggested a riesling, explaining that the acidity of the wine would balance nicely with the sweetness of the scallops and the spice from the lamb sausage. But she rejected the idea, saying, "No. Too sweet and it smells funny." (An impression she may have gained from drinking too much Blue Nun in college, I suspect.)
My next suggestion, pinot grigio - fresh, with nice stone fruit flavours and no oak - was met with, "No. Tastes like apple juice." Strike two. Then inspiration struck: start with a glass of champagne made from three grapes - chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. It's the only wine blended from red and white wine grapes.
"What a good idea! We can decide on the wine after our first course," she said.
I went to fetch the champagne and to have another think about what to suggest for the main course. Chardonnay? Nope - not enough body, even if it's an oaked wine from the New World.
A bordeaux blanc? Possible, but probably too lightweight for the lamb; although it would work with the halibut as it would go with the sweetness of the peas and balance the bitterness of the artichoke.
Sauvignon blanc? A New World sauvignon blanc, such as one from New Zealand, would be too lemony and grassy to go with the lamb, but would be good for the halibut as it would almost taste like a squeeze of lemon juice with every sip. Alternatively, an Old World one such as a Pouilly-Fumé, which may have had a bit of barrel ageing to soften the acidity and add more body, could be a good pairing for both dishes.
Vermentino? Ripe, voluptuous and juicy, with a nice bit of white flower on the nose. At last, the perfect wine for both dishes. After listening to my suggestions, she said, "I'd like to have a New Zealand sauvignon blanc because it's my favourite."
When I returned to see how they were enjoying the pairing, he said, "What a nice surprise! The sauvignon blanc isn't too bad with my lamb - it's great with the lemon purée."
Pleased that things had turned out better than I expected, I realised that as a sommelier it's important not to push your own opinions too much but to allow diners to enjoy what they like while, hopefully, introducing them to something new. And who knows? Maybe they can show you something you thought implausible as a pairing actually works.
Nellie Ming Lee is a freelance food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers