I have never been a fan of wine pairings. Too often, it is merely an opportunity for an ambitious sommelier to show off obscure grape varieties from Sicily or, even worse, something you have never heard of from Croatia. Most are geared to the clueless punter who can simply say: ‘Let’s have the wine pairing.’ It’s a fleeting experience because you never get to know how a wine evolves over the night. Add to that the cost, and most of the time it would be better to share two interesting bottles instead. One billionaire oenophile I know simply tells the sommelier: ‘Surprise me!’ but that is not the same as offering up a different glass with every item on a tasting menu which can stretch to 20 or more courses.
I warmed to the wine pairing concept only twice. Once at Dani Garcia in Marbella where the wines were so diverse and obscure that I was thrilled by the surprises (30-year-old sherry and Canadian Pinot?) and another at Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet in Shanghai, but that was because of the stupendous quality of the classics that were poured: Silex, Ermitage le Meal and Palmer.
I must admit that a recent dinner at Mugaritz in the Basque Country has further punctured my prejudice. Only a few years earlier, this was a bastion of ‘natural’ wine and I had one of the worst dinners of my life there. The meal began with two little envelopes — one saying ‘submit’ and the other ‘rebel’, though there were no options with either the wine or the food. It was thought interesting to offer a plate of what looked like beef tartare but was in fact deconstructed watermelon served with a flawed wine that tasted of rotten cider.
It is now an entirely different story and Mugaritz, with its inspired young sommelier Guillermo Cruz, offers the most memorable food and wine experience anywhere on the planet. The kitchen still excites and confuses, but there is a far greater emphasis on natural products such as lightly cooked razor clams or, at the other extreme, a mouldy apple with a selection of the greatest pudding wines of the 20th century.
With numerous awards, Guillermo is, officially speaking, the leading sommelier in Spain. For the past two years, he and his team of seven actively participate with chef Andoni Luis Aduriz in creating dishes that complement specific wines.
Serving the wines is a mammoth undertaking as there are 20 different food courses for 35 diners. When you include water glasses and champagne flutes, nearly 800 glasses are used for each sitting. Guillermo helps you select a base wine at the beginning and this is available to you for the rest of the meal while the other 20 or so are poured. In our case it was a crisp dry Tokaji Bohomaj Furmint ´15 from Istvan Szepsy. Inevitably, the cost of the top wine pairings is greater than the meal (€210 vs €180) but this includes anything from J.J. Prüm’s 1983 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese to Domaine Romanée-Conti’s Romanée St-Vivant 07.
The point of the experience is the way the food and the wine enhance each other. Over four hours, we tasted combinations such as lobster and toasted fern or dove and black trumpets (pigeon with mushrooms) but the finale was almost the best. The pudding was a tiny apple covered in thick white mould accompanied by ten extraordinary pudding wines — one for each decade of the past century — which also rely on rot (pourriture noble). Of course, there were the finest Tokaj and Chateau d’Yquem, but what remains in my mind is the exquisitely fresh Domaine Huet Le Haut Lieu Vouvray 1924.
It takes a huge amount of love and effort to make such an event possible — Guillermo has 1,600 wines on his list and changes a third of them every year. This is extra-ordinary in Spain, which is quite parochial when it comes to wine. He is the only resident Spanish candidate for the formidable examinations to gain London’s Master of Wine qualification.
‘We put food and wine on the same pedestal and I always joke that we are the liquid part and the food is the solid part of the meal. We do not always work inside people’s comfort zones but it is always my intention to make people happy.’ Happy? For some, paradise is having foie gras and Château d’Yquem to the sound of trumpets — I will settle for an evening at Mugaritz.