How to match wine to afternoon tea?
If you want to get together with friends for a touch of luxury in the afternoon, a full English style afternoon tea is hard to beat. There are plenty of great afternoon tea ideas to make the occasion even more special….
And a glass or two of wine simply adds to the occasion.
Of course, a good afternoon tea is not limited to visits to your local tea place. Or up market hotel with snooty wait staff. With the latest buzz of excitement around baking, you might just find that you are treated to a sumptuous spread at a friend’s place too. (Thanks Great British Bake Off!!)
So, if you are in charge of choosing the wine, it is important to know what to look for. This applies whether you are seated at that five start hotel or your friend’s table. After all, with so much sugar on offer, the wine choice can either make or break the occasion.
What is afternoon tea?
Here in the UK, we are very well versed in the art of afternoon tea. Of course, we are not the only country that has constructed a cultural event around a small meal with a cup of tea. Other countries such as India, Morocco and Russia have their own versions of what to serve to accompany tea.
However, it is safe to say that the English style of tea has transformed the meal into an artform. According to Twinings, among other sources, we can thank the 7th Duchess of Bedford for the tradition from around 1840.
The Duchess had a small meal with her afternoon cuppa and, unsurprisingly, it caught on. And it grew to become ever increasingly indulgent.
Traditionally, ‘high tea’ simply means the drink served at meal times. What we now call ‘high tea’ is, in fact, a ‘full’ afternoon tea.
What is for afternoon tea?
Afternoon tea ranges from a small bite of something tasty, through to ‘full’ afternoon tea. This often involves a fully decked stand. One complete with sandwiches and small savoury morsels that join the much anticipated sweet offerings of scones, cakes and biscuits.
The sandwiches you can expect are filled with smoked salmon, delicately sliced cucumber, egg or a more exotic combination. There might even be appetiser sized quiches, tartlets or other savoury pastries.
The modern take on the sweet selection will not only include the prerequisite scones and cream and cakes. There may be cup cakes with a mountain of sweet frosting, macarons, shortbreads or other biscuits. Each delicately presented and a visual feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
Plus ….. as an added treat, you might choose to drink wine with your afternoon tea.
Did you know that the tiered plates that are traditional at tea is called a three tiered curate stand? There is a traditional sorting order for which afternoon tea dishes are served on which tier.
Because wine adds to the indulgence. It adds a sense of occasion. Chosen with care, it will also go well with all the flavours that are on the table. However, choosing the wine can be quite a trick.
The main considerations are:
- Which wine will go well with all the treats on offer?
- Does the wine suit the time of the day?
- Will this wine will add to the specialness or the indulgence of the occasion?
- Which wines do you enjoy?
Will any wine work?
In a nutshell. No.
Not all wines will work with afternoon tea. When we look at which wines will work well with the foods on the table, it is important to think about the savoury aspect as well as the sweet.
While there are guidelines for food and wine matching, it is also important to remember that personal taste is key here too. If you as a group cannot choose a wine, luckily many places will offer wines by the glass so you can get exactly what you like.
Here are some rough guidelines that will help in making that choice. There are others, but I will concentrate on those that apply to your afternoon tea:
The effect of sweet or fruity wines with low tannins
Sugar can overpower wine by making them seem more drying, acidic and bitter. It will strip some fruitiness from the wine, or all if it was not particularly fruity to start with.
Therefore, you need to have a sweet or very fruity wine to go with sweet food.
Wines with tannins, such as a red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon, will taste bitter and very drying when eaten with sugary food. It is important to get the intensity of the sweetness of food and the wine in balance. There are naturally sweet wines that are designed to be drunk with desserts, however, these might be too sweet for some things on the table. Or it may not match the savoury dishes.
This means that red wines are not going to be the best choice.
Typical sweet or fruity wines : Fruity dry or off dry white wines, dessert style white wines, sparkling wines.
A note about very sweet wines:
All wines have some residual sugar (usually fructose). Even after fermentation has finished. This may be as low as 0.2g per litre or it might be as high as 400 g per litre as in the case of some fortified sweet wines such as PX sherry or an Australian Rutherglen Muscat. Whereas a 400 g per litre wine will be less likely to match the savouries on offer, they may also overpower many of the sweet dishes. And as they are high in alcohol (fortified wines sit around 15-20% ABV), it may be that more than one small glass is not advisable if you don’t want to take a nap before dinner.
A wine such as a botrytis semillon or riesling may be a better option. Some of these at the lower sweetness scale can work well with savoury flavours too, particularly salt. Think of that classic match of Sauternes and blue cheese. It is more of a case of how much extra sugar do you wish to add to your meal.
The effect of high acid wines
As well as matching ‘sweet wines with sweet food’, it is advisable to match acidic wines with acidic food. For instance, if you have a lemon tart in the assortment you will need a wine that is fruity and high in acid. Acid in wine also cuts through the fattiness and oiliness in food and refreshes the palate. This works as well with creaminess, scones with clotted cream or mini cheesecakes, as it does with oily savoury dishes such as smoked salmon or a buttery savoury pastry.
This is, therefore, a big plus on the side of drinking a high acid wine with afternoon tea.
Typical wines with high acid: Dessert style white wines, sparkling wines.
(Note: red wines can have high acid as well but may have tannins which mean that they are not good matches for sweet sugar laden foods.)
Match flavour intensity and density of food and wine.
This is where the previous guidelines come together.
Wine overpowering flavours: Remember the thick and unctuous fortified dessert wine? It is likely to overpower anything on offer except a dense chocolatey morsel such as a dark chocolate tart or pot au chocolat, or very rich brownie.
Flavours overpowering wine: At the other end of the spectrum, a fruity but light bodied Riesling may be too light to match the flavours and if there are some richer items, it may feel like drinking water.
Don’t forget texture: A big fruity Viognier, Chardonnay or Gewurztraminer may have a oily texture, particularly if it has been matured in oak. This will then add to the overall oil and cream coating the insides of your mouth and your mouthful will take on a cloying texture.
Bubbles in wine can lighten the texture of a wine while keeping the flavours in focus. Wines with bubbles tend to have high acid as well.
It is all about balance.
Match or contrast flavours?
This is up to you. It comes down to personal choice. Some wines that have plenty of citrus, such as a Botrytis semillon or a Blanc de Blancs sparking wine, go well with cream, or other fruit flavours. Savoury spice in wine adds another dimension to food. As do nutty, yeasty and creamy flavours. Whereas, flavours of mushroom, meats, earth and such….. may not be as successful matching with afternoon tea, unless you are only going to eat little roast beef sandwiches and savoury items. (Not one of the best afternoon tea ideas in my mind… I go for the whole experience!)
So which wine?
Matching the sweet foods with red wines is going to enhance the tannins in the wine. This will unbalance the wine and then after the next sip, it will unbalance your scone or your cake. So, red wines, unless they are sweeter in style are better left for after if you decide to move to a nearby couch for a cosy chat. Even in they are sweeter though, they may overpower the more delicate flavours on your plate.
Acidic wines will work well with a wide range of the food you will find on display. From the smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches to scones with jam (do not underestimate how much acid is still in that jam). And also it will provide a palate cleanser for the cream added to the scones or in the other dishes.
Something like the lighter end of dessert wines (a sauternes style dessert wine of between 100 – 200 g per litre of residual sugar) would work. However, with the delicacy of the flavours of the savoury dishes, this may still be overpowering.
A fruity white wine can work here with careful choosing. It shouldn’t have a buttery, oily texture. The wine should be intensely flavoured though, and refreshing. A Sancerre or Pouilly Fume may work (a Marlborough sauvignon blanc may be too intense). An off-dry riesling, a malvasia or an English Bacchus may work too. I would leave all of these options and head for the refreshment of the bubbles…..
Enter the fizz!
There is a reason why bubbly wine is considered one of the most superb ideas for afternoon tea. That is, in addition to adding the excitement of a popping cork.
Sparkling wines often provide a good balance of flavours, sweet and savoury.
The texture works, the bubbles and acid are refreshing. And the sweetness of the dishes on that plate is often balanced by the fruitiness. Although, if you are worried, you can choose a slightly sweeter style. Even a lightly bubbly Moscato d’Asti or a Prosecco works well!
However, a well made Brut Champagne with lots of flavour is a good ‘all rounder’. Anyone who has eaten chocolate chip cookies with Champagne will attest to the fact that light chocolatey flavours worth all too well with the yeasty, nuts and cream characters!
Don’t just limit your choice to house Champagnes like Veuve Cliquot, Taittinger or even Moet & Chandon. Some excellent Grower Champagnes, a Franciacorta, or a well balanced new world sparkling wine, carry afternoon tea from savoury to the finish. If you need inspiration for your new world sparkling choice, wines made by the House of Arras in Australia are excellent choices. A Chandon wine from whichever country you choose is also a good choice.
Some sparkling wine and Champagne houses also make sweeter versions. Look for an Extra Dry or Demi-Sec version.
Don’t forget Prosecco!
If you are a Prosecco lover, these will work well too. Although make sure you choose one with complex flavours or you may find the flavours on the plate overwhelms the wine. One of the finer DOCG Proseccos are a good match such as the Villa Sandi Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore pictured above.. And here you can also choose an Extra Dry version. There are plenty to choose from.
So, when you are looking for ideas to make your afternoon tea more memorable. Or ,next time you are sitting down to a lush afternoon of tea, sandwiches, cake and scones do keep in mind a glass of bubbly. It certainly makes the event pop!….