Thursday 2 February 2012

The great wine & game con trick – Les Garrigues Carignan 2010

“Goes well with game” – how often do you read that about a wine? But how often do you actually eat game? Exactly.

Most people are ignorant of game. There are many for whom a partridge will only ever be a bird that spends its Christmas in a pear tree. 

But wine merchants clearly think that, by associating a wine with game, they are somehow imbuing that wine with posh, aristocratic qualities – qualities which would not accrue from an association with, say, sausages. Suddenly, they think, that wine will appeal to people who like to imagine themselves going out on a Downton Abbey shooting party.They may not actually eat game, or even know how it tastes – but they will buy a wine which they believe might, on some stately dining table, accompany it.

Such people might visit Berry Bros & Rudd, who, with their Royal appointments, are probably the most aristocratic of what I always describe as the Ampersand wine merchants. This is clearly the place to go if you’re looking for wine to accompany game; just Search various possible main courses, and see how many wines come up. On the day I did this it suggested:

Beef 22 wines
Fish 52
Lamb 27
Pork 9
and Game…53

Are we actually supposed to believe that the aristocracy need twice as many recommendations for game suppers as they do for beef or lamb? To meet that level of consumption, they’d have to be taking to the moors with sub-machine guns.

Or take Majestic, for example, a merchant surely more representative of the wider UK wine-buying public. Their Search pairs some 45 wines with lamb, 43 with fish and 17 with sausages. But they also pair 16 wines with game. Do Majestic customers really need as many wines to match game as they do to match sausages?

And ironically, Majestic seem completely confused about the style of wine which actually pairs with game. Because according to their own style descriptions, the wines they recommend are either: medium-bodied (6); rich, spicy (5); light, elegant (3); full and fruity (1); or powerful (1). You might just as well pick a wine blindfolded.

In any case, what is this blanket term, “game”? Game ranges from the delicate flavour of partridge, through the richness of venison and the darkness of hare to, say, snipe, a bird whose flavour is described as “a woody flavour similar to sweetly rotting wild mushrooms”. (That description is from Rules, a restaurant which I adore for its game, but which clearly has problems understanding the notion of “appetising”.)

There are too many wines, of too great a variety, being recommended to pair with game, for it to be anything other than a marketing exercise. Which is really a pain, when you actually do want a wine to go with game.

Which I did. For here is my supper of pheasant breasts. Now, I realise, because of the aforementioned associations, that this will only fuel CJ’s notion that I am some aspirational Lord Snooty. But in fact this was wire-basketed from Sainsbury’s, at a meagre £4 for two. Pheasant like this lies somewhere between the texture of pork and the taste of chicken, and is quite mild in flavour. (Remember that traditionally, game is hung for a week or so to decompose and give it that “gamey” flavour; in Sainsbury’s meat department, decomposition is not actively encouraged.)

Now, happy as I am to display my skills as plating up – are you watching, John Torode? – I could not begin to pretend that this is an inherently aristocratic meal. Believe me, I am not wearing white tie. Not even black tie. Not even a tie. The closest my supper got to a shooting party is this rogue piece of lead shot, which almost cracked a tooth.

So I thought I should pair it with a wine which (a) claimed on its back label to go with game, but which (b) an aristo would not touch with a shooting stick. Or, for that matter, his woodcock.

Les Garrigues Carignan 2010 was kindly sent to me by the nice people at It’s a wine from the Mont Tauch co-operative in the Languedoc, rapidly becoming a handy imprimatur for decent cheaper wines. Les Garrigues has a light, fruity nose with a burnt edge, and tastes of sharper fruits like plums and damsons. But with its tannins resolved, the result is slightly shallow; it’s alright with my fresh, supermarket pheasant, but definitely lacks the weight I would want to accompany serious game. A reasonable buy at its French price of 5.60, but nothing special at its UK price of £8.75 – and isn’t game supposed to be special?

This wine would be unlikely to find its way onto a stately dining table. Carignan is a grape historically associated with table and country wines; unlikely to appeal to an aristo trying to impress his chums. Especially when the wine comes from a co-operative, which sounds dashed close to Communism. And most old-school toffs want their chummies to think they paid more than a tenner for their vino, so even if it’s not terribly good, they tend towards tried and trusted B&B – Bordeaux and Burgundy. 

No, this wine is more appropriate for those of you who think “beaters” are chaps who drink Stella. 

So don’t believe the merchants. There is nothing inherently posh about wine which goes well with game. It’s a pretty arcane pairing, given the small amounts of game people actually consume; and pretty pointless, given the variety of game itself. It is a description simply trading upon our notion of class.

Which may, in itself, be misplaced. Peter Jay once memorably wrote in Oxford Today, “As for the aristocracy, are they not better left where PG Wodehouse safely bestowed them, as objects of derision?”

As for me, I shall return to a social position in which snipe and grouse are merely descriptions of my behaviour. 



  1. Ever heard of venison?

    1. Would that be in any way similar to the venison mentioned in the paragraph beginning 'In any case, what is this blanket term, “game”?'?


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