“Wine engages the mind, the stomach and the heart, unlike any other drink,” explains TheTaste’s wine expert Liam Campbell as we are seated in one of the most breath-taking dining rooms on this Isle, The Great Room Restaurant at The Merchant Hotel, Belfast.
Having gathered to raise a toast to our host city’s thriving food scene with flutes of Champagne Taittinger Brut Reserve, an interactive evening of matching fine wines curated by Febvre Wines with dishes from five Belfast restaurants lay ahead – an adventure worth toasting indeed.
At the beginning of our Febvre Food and Wine Trail, Liam laid down a simple objective for the evening – to explore some of the varied highlights of the Febvre portfolio and investigate how different varietals interact with paired dishes. To stimulate both our palates and thought processes, we would sample two wines with each course to compare and contrast.
Underneath the largest chandelier in the country, a glass of Sepp Moser Gruner Veltliner von den Terrassen teed up first to the plate – a Kilkeel Crab, Pickled Cucumber and Prawn Beignet creation by talented Head Chef John Paul Leake. Leake explains that the crab arrived fresh off the boat mere minutes earlier – plucked from the shores and presented beautifully.
Grapefruit-spiked Gruner Vetliner with this luxurious starter proved to be the good cop pairing, coaxing the subtle intricacies of the dish – particularly the vegetal notes of lightly pickled cucumber – from their hiding places.
Notable in its acidity, this Kremstal DAC example is filled with personality and roundness, a wine designed to be enjoyed alongside food generally, Liam explains before introducing our second pairing, Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Blanc.
A natural pairing for shellfish, this Sancerre displayed a distinct flinty minerality, likened by Liam to licking an oyster shell. A bold bouquet with vivacious lemon cut across the richness of the crab like a knife through soft butter – a pleasing contrast. A show of hands denotes this pairing as the winner, but narrowly.
Taking to the streets of Belfast on foot to our next destination, Salt Bistro, in the buzzing Cathedral Quarter restaurant hub of St. Anne’s Square, beckoned for the evening’s fish course. Presenting us with a Chereau Carre Muscadet La Griffe Sevre-et-Maine-Sur-Lie, Liam explains how wine is part of the local cuisine in each French region, meaning Muscadet from the Loire Valley, is a natural match for seafood dishes, the most prominent taste of the Nantes region.
An accomplished dish of Turbot, Seaweed Spaghetti and Samphire appears before us, with a generous fillet of turbot perfectly pan fried and almost butter-like, accented by salt rich samphire and seaweed. Muscadet in this instance was the squeeze of lemon on our dish, the refreshing, mouth-watering acidity cutting across the richness of turbot beautifully, with dry minerality highlighting the saline notes of the sea vegetables.
An alternative pairing of Marlborough Lawson’s Dry Hills Riesling 2014 delivered an oily mouth feel, with a subtle kerosene aroma. Riesling, like the Irish, Liam explains, likes a cooler climate and struggles in warmer weather, meaning it has adapted well to New Zealand.
In this instance, residual sugar balanced rapier-like acidity and complimented the inherent sweetness of turbot beautifully, heightening the depth of flavour of the entire dish. New Zealand: 1, Loire : 0.
Moving on to Belfast’s newest hotel, Bullitt’s stylish Taylor and Clay restaurant is home to a bespoke Asador making it a natural choice for the main meaty event of the evening. Chef Saul O’Reilly serves only the finest locally sourced beef, from Peter Hannan and in the case of our dish, Noble House Irish Wagyu Picanha – the Japanese beef widely considered the best in the world. Flax feeding produces unctuous, flavourful marbling throughout, providing unrivalled succulence.
Topped with toasted hazelnuts and buckwheat groats adding clever texture and nuttiness, this was an all out winner before our bold wine pairings of Monte del Fra Valpolicello Classico Superiore Ripasso and De Bortoli Woodfired Heathcote Shiraz, were poured. A bold dish, akin to a sumo wrestler, can’t be matched with a ballerina-like wine, Liam quips, and we brace ourselves for two powerhouse reds to square up to a dish of such delicious intensity.
First, the rip roaring Ripasso, superiore denotes the fact that it is riper than usual, and more ripeness, we learn, equals more flavour as does the ‘repeated’ fermentation characteristic of this Veronese heavyweight. A sip of this seductress, complementing the richness of this flavour grenade of a dish and pushing it over the edge. Indecently good.
The second match, a stellar example of Australian Heathcote Shiraz, sang of bold blackberry and an oaky spiciness which echoed the charred crust of the Wagyu, heavily fruit driven with hints of liquorice. Describing it as ‘subtle as a brick’ with ‘a cashmere scarf embrace on the throat’ owing to a 14% abv, this plump pour cut across the delicious depth of a perfectly balanced dish, a worthy competitor narrowly defeated by the synchronicity of Wagyu and Ripasso.
A welcome stretch of the legs led us to Coco, the aptly named venue a stone’s throw from City Hall, where we would collectively fawn over a wickedly decadent Chocolate Pavé dessert.
Paired first with Warre’s 10 year old Otima Tawny Port, a Decanter multi gold medal award winning modern port, the nutty, honeyed and caramel tones navigated the density of cocoa with sweetness and cleverly highlighted the accessory of praline ice cream – a port in the brooding cocoa storm of the pavé.
Warre’s Late Bottle Vintage vintage port on the other hand was the devout chocolate lover’s dream pairing, elegant and voluptuous, with dense black fruit notes making the accompanying cherry pop and encouraging the deep, dark cocoa’s fruitier notes to sing.
This pairing turned up the volume of an already melodious chocolate symphony – a triumph and a perfect illustration of Liam’s wisdom in assuring us that a clever wine pairing can transform a dish in different complementary or contrasting ways.
With satiated appetites but enlivened palates, we made our final trek, this time to the waterfront for a night cap paired with an expertly curated cheese board at Ox Cave, the informal and inviting little sister of Michelin starred OX. Greeted on arrival with Champagne Taittinger Nocturne, off-dry with hints of sugared almonds and a long, luxurious finish, this perfect digestif alone would have rounded out the night on a high.
However, on high stools we mulled over a trio of superb Irish cheese and all protestations of fullness yielded to
the inability to resist a pale and interesting Rose Francois Lurton Les Fumées Blanches Sauvignon Gris, matched with tangy St Tola Ash. Dispelling my fear that a delicate and blushing Gris would be drowned out by the powerful goat cheese, Liam explained that milk’s lactic acid can strip the fruit flavours in red wine, leaving it limp, meaning this softer, gently peach scented pairing was a far more insightful match.
Next, County Clare’s Cratloe Hills, a hard sheep’s milk cheese not unlike manchego, finds an encouraging playmate in potent Cantine Minini’s Tank No.32 Primitivo Appassimento
before a final pairing of Crozier Blue and De Bortoli Deen Vat Series No 5 Semillon steps up to the plate.
Oak aromas and caramel honeyed hues made this the ideal bedfellow for the mouth-enveloping richness of one of Ireland’s finest blue cheese examples. A symbiotic pairing, the intense blue transforms the Semillon to an almost beeswax-like consistency – a mouthful of sheer pleasure to bring our expedition to a close on a high.
With five near flawless dishes across some of Belfast’s finest eateries and no less than 13 intuitively paired wines, we were left feeling very lucky indeed by the time goodbyes rolled around.
Preconceptions challenged, palates awakened and horizons broadened by the passionate guidance of Liam Campbell, we were given a memorable glimpse into the vast versatility of the Febvre portfolio with plenty of treasures on display.
For more information on Febvre Wines visit www.febvrewines.ie.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.