Pairing Beyond the Grape

15 Jul 2021

The sommeliers pairing toolkit has long extended beyond vinous boundaries but now the choices and selections available are nearly endless. With the sommelier community embracing beer, sake, cider, spirits, cocktails, water, tea and coffee amongst other beverages there is both a wealth and pandora’s box of opportunity. We asked Paz Levinson from Argentina (Head Executive Sommelier at Groupe Pic), Kristjan Peäske (an Estonian beer sommelier) and Karl Sjöström, a Swedish sommelier and fruit winemaker to lend their insights on pairings other than wine.

Paz Levinson

Kristjan Peäske

Karl Sjöström

Paz Levinson: the first pairing rule is make it WOW!

About Paz Levinson: Paz Levinson journey began in Bariloche, Argentina, where she was born. Eighteen years later, she moved to Buenos Aires where she worked at a high-end restaurant while studying literature. Her work inspired a love of gourmet food and eventually led to the study of sommellerie at the Centro Argentino de Vinos y Espirituosos (CAVE).

In 2010 Paz won the contest of the Best sommelier of Argentina (and again in 2014). In 2015 she won the title of Best Sommelier of the Americas and fourth at the Best Sommelier of the World (2016). Paz has continued to further her studies and training under prominent sommeliers, before eventually landing in Paris. She is now the Head Executive Sommelier for the Groupe Pic of celebrated chef Anne-Sophie Pic.


ASI: Pairing food and beverages is one of the cornerstones of the sommelier education. However, many modern ‘somms’ are divided on whether the “best pairing” means matching the wine to the food; or simply choosing their favorite wine with the favorite food and enjoying them together. What do you think?

Paz: I like both positions. Depends on what we want to do, type of restaurant and If a customer comes to the restaurant and wants to have a great full experience of what we propose. We have to be very prepared to be as precise as we can. We have to be very careful to respect and enhance the flavors of the preparation. Satisfaction of the client is our main objective, and we will do everything to satisfy and exceed expectations.


ASI: What is a traditional food and wine pairing that you feel no longer applies to the modern table and why?

Paz: I like very much to play around with traditional pairings. Classics are classics and I love to embrace them and redefine them. For example, a Sauternes with foie gras is quite intense and food preferences have changed so we are choosing different pairings such as dry wines and demi-sec wines.


ASI: What is the most unusual pairing you have ever recommended, and how was it received?

Paz: The most unusual maybe was a lovely Kriek Oude Beersel with an oyster with shallots cream, vinegar and cherries. I served the beer blind and I waited to the client to discover the pairing. The acidity of the Kriek was lovely with the saltiness and acidity of the preparation. It was a wow affect and the clients loved it!


ASI: What is your one, unbreakable pairing golden rule?

Paz: The pairing needs to be ‘WOW! Remarkable.’ It is important to think about it and what gives an instant pleasure.


ASI: What factors do you consider when choosing a beverage, wine or otherwise, for a pairing menu?

It is very important to see the sequence of the menu, the list of wine and beverages. The quantity of alcohol, the textures and the countries we want to show. We also have to consider what we want to share with the client and what experience we want to give.

Kristjan Peäske: pairing in the land of hop vines

Kristjan Peäske is a sommelier and restaurateur from Tallinn, Estonia. Formerly a competitive sommelier, today he coaches the service team of his restaurants. Kristjan loves the wide spectrum of today’s beverage selection from traditional wines to more adventurous selections including everything from beers to ciders and from handmade lemonades to kombucha. To follow his passion, he is also involved in small scale gipsy brewing, cider making and whiskey distillation.


ASI: With a classic sommelier background and experience, how did you come to focus your pairing on beer and why?

Kristjan: My homeland Estonia is not really a country known for its vineyards but we do have a really cool craft beer scenery so it felt only right to have a deeper look into beer world.

After the first successful event more than 10 years ago when I presented a dinner which was paired with both wines and beers and guests were able to rate their preference it became clear that beer offers varied possibilities and also a hidden surprise to guests. After that event our restaurant has always offered both pairings- wine and beer. Happy guests have been a great confirmation that beer pairing can have the same meaningful impact on a dinner as wine.


ASI: How does pairing beer differ from pairing wine?

Kristjan: It actually does not. Sometimes beer can offer truly unexpected possibilities. For example fruity IPA to be matched with crème brûlée, where the bitterness of the hops is balanced by the sweetness of the dessert, the fruitiness of the beer matches the sweetness and the foamy texture of the beer complements the creamy texture of the brûlée. Beer is a lot of fun!


ASI: What is your favorite beer style for pairing and why?

Kristjan: I really love an IPA together with sweet and spicy Asian food.


ASI: Have you ever paired a multi-course meal with just beer? Was it a success?

Kristjan: Beer has its element of surprise and therefore it truly contributes well for the guest experience. All events we have had with beer and food pairings have been a great success. Guests are as receptive to beer pairings as they are wine.

Karl Sjöström: inspiring the world to rethink fruit wines’ place on the table

Karl Sjöström, is fruit grower and part owner of FRUKTSTEREO in Malmö, Sweden. Sjöström studied and worked as a sommelier for around ten years in the business in both restaurants and hotels before starting FRUKTSTEREO as a part time project with his friend Mikael Nypelius. The duo believed in making something different and lasting with fruits grown and processed in Sweden. The dream was (and still is) to make beverages from grapes but we also have our mind set to make wine from grapes and not ”only” from other fruits better adapted to our climate and season. We started in 2016. To make beverages is one thing, but the bigger thing is to inspire people all over the world to make wine from things that grow and shine in their surroundings. That´s the short story…


ASI: You have managed to take “fusion” viniculture to a new level. Can you please talk a bit about how you came to the co-fermentation technique you use with ‘Fruktstereo’? What makes it different from say a perry or a cider?

Karl: To have the knowledge by working thousands of hours talking and trying to understand clients/costumers/guests in the hospitality business and later getting in touch with more natural wine we had a strong belief in what you can make from fruits other than grapes. Maybe grape is the superior fruit to ferment? But is grape the only thing you can make incredible beverage from? Our answer was ‘no’ so we started to try to ferment fruits and berries we found. To ferment fruits and berries that were ripe and grown together only by themselves as single fruits didn’t match with our philosophy with how things should be grown and treated. Why do you grow grapes alone and not together with other fruits, berries, vegetables? The belief and general idea of growing was much bigger than one fruit itself, or even more varieties of grapes.

The biggest issue is our heavy connection with growers and makers from the wine world. Also in the making of a ”natural” wine there is a lot of things to consider.


ASI: The focus on hybrid grapes and local fruit presents an interesting potential solution when dealing with climate emergency. What are the disadvantages — if there are any — to working with hybrid — not vinifera — varieties?

Karl: Climate chaos is definitely one of the biggest issues on the planet at the moment (apart from Covid, of course). To work with farming in a different way than ‘normal’ is the future we believe. Almost all farmers nowadays are working non-sustainable. If not using pesticides/herbicides farmers still use metals and working systems breaking down the nature instead of helping or building it up. We believe in piwis (“hybrids”) because of the work/spraying/methods you are able to use instead. The advantages are of course all the grapes we know the qualities about, the flavors, the structure, the alcohol levels connected to that specific aromas. But that’s also their disadvantages. In 50 years, maybe even 20 years, a lot of them are not suitable for that specific region. The heat, or climate in general, will make the varieties unable to live there and already we see regions making wines far from those glory days. At the moment, the biggest disadvantages for piwis are more in people’s minds. If they don´t know about a specific variety or the word piwi/hybrid/clone is in the discussion the wine is directly abandoned.


ASI: What do you see as the future of this hybrid industry, as compared to traditional wine (and even natural wine)?

Karl: I think that the ‘industry’ is changing as we speak. As long as you believe in making something as an industry you will make it with the protection of some big brand and they will promote and make the most of that field. If you think a bit different and put quality first it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do as long as it´s real. Both me and Mikael are classic/traditionally trained sommeliers, working with and drinking the best wines of the world. We both nowadays think that there is a bigger meaning to producers, production and products. We tasted amazing hybrid grape wines, traditional wines and natural wines. The future we see is how you work in the field, the cellar and with nature. It doesn’t matter if it´s a top site in Burgundy, a hybrid, apples, plums, raspberries or even malt. We even believe that some beers are more ‘Grand Cru’ than most sites in Burgundy monocultured by Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.


ASI: How does “Fruktstereo” pair with food? Is there anything different you need to consider (texture, aroma, acidity) when finding the perfect pairing?

Karl: Surprisingly amazing!  There is a lot of differences but since we are using more than 20 fruits, berries and also within every fruit there is a couple of hundred varieties there is endless things to speak about here. Less alcohol makes it easier to pair than a lot of wines but also makes it weaker in the sense of heavier flavors. Apples are very delicate, plums are extremely vibrant and heavy. Also tannin structure, acidity levels and different tartness vary with how you process them and leave them on the lees and in bottle. And when you ferment them together the different yeasts and fermentation enhance the flavors and can even make a fruit taste more of that fruit than by itself. Maybe acidity is the biggest thing to consider. Different fruits with different acidity and different sugars fermenting creating very interesting things.