A spicy take on food and Madeira tasting at Campton Place in San Francisco

Veal sweetbreads coated with almonds and smoked paprika on a base of onion soubise
Veal sweetbreads coated with almonds and smoked paprika on a base of onion soubise

How does one pair Madeira with savory foods?  It is a sweet fortified wine that doesn’t appear on the face of it to go well with foods.   What does make it suitable for food is the characteristic high acidity that other fortified wines like Sherry – with its low to moderate acidity – and even Port with its balanced acidity, do not have.  Also, while even “dry” Madeira has some residual sugar, they always finish dry.  Another factor that ties Madeira to a range of interesting cuisines is the range of complex flavors.  While Sherries and Ports also have the dried fruit, nuttiness and toffee-like flavors that come with age, Madeira has unique flavors such as fenugreek (curry) and lovage (think fresh cut celery) that  make it stand out.  I had the chance to appreciate these flavors at a recent food and Madeira tasting at Campton Place in San Francisco.  The luncheon was prepared by Executive Chef Srijith Gopinathan who infused a little bit of Indian spice to the dishes to achieve inspired pairings.

For example, he paired a Barbeito Historic Series Verdelho Savannah Special Reserve  – the driest of the Madeiras we had that day with about 50 grams of residual sugar (for reference, about half of a Sauternes) – with veal sweetbreads coated with an almond crust infused with a hint of smoked paprika and deggi chile, a mild red chile that he says gives more flavor sensation that heat.  The richness of the savory sweet breads contrasted well with the high acidity and and sweetness of the Madeira while the almond crust bridged the dish to the nuttiness in the wine.  The paprika and deggi chile added depth to the subtle spice of the 10-year old Madeira.

With the Henriques & Henriques Bual 15 Years Old Madeira, Chef prepared a foie gras torchon with bing cherry chutney infused with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and a brief dip of a whole red chili.  Chef Gopinathan said that the sweetness and acidity of the Madeira matched head-to-head with the richness of the foie gras, so he added spice to the chutney to provide a “kick” to the pairing and to also cut  through the density of the dish.  While its not unusual to accompany a savory food with marmalade, quince paste or honey to bridge it to a sweet wine, Chef deliberately made a fresh chutney with in-season bing cherries to match the concentrated dried fig and apricot fruit in the older Bual.  I thought the combination really brought out the fruit, toffee and chocolate milk flavors in the wine extremely well.

Adventurous diners don’t often think about pairing sweet fortified wines with savory foods, but the mark of high quality in Madeiras in particular is the seamless balance of high acidity, alcohol, and concentrated fruit, where one component never dominates the senses.  The nutty and spicy complexity of aged Madeira adds further taste dimension which helps bridge the wines to savory foods.  It wasn’t until Chef Gopinathan’s pairings though that I appreciated the role of spices in food – such as seed-based spices with their tannins and chiles with their subtle heat – to add lift and pizzazz to the tasting experience!

Campton Place, 340 Stockton Street near Union Square in San Francisco 94108.  (415) 781-5555.

The IVBAM is the official regulatory body of Madeira.  To learn more about Madeira, visit their website.