No time for wine snobs

GOOD TASTE: Nicola Belsham pictured with her 2-month-old daughter Cinzia.
GOOD TASTE: Nicola Belsham pictured with her 2-month-old daughter Cinzia.

Nicola Belsham is so determined to demystify pairing food and wine that she doesn't even flinch when recounting the "horrifying" tale of her most successful match.

Belsham, who shrinks at being labelled an expert despite knowing more about wine than most, once knocked back a costly bottle of French wine while nibbling on a packet of jaffas.

'It was a Chateau Angelus merlot from St Emilion and it cost more than [PndStlg]100 a bottle. Merlot can be quite chocolaty and it was quite mature, so the tannins were soft. The tangy acidity of the orange in the jaffas made more of the tannins and it was just wonderful. It was a really good example of how the different elements of food and wine can work together. But that story horrifies anyone who considers themselves a 'wine connoisseur'.'

But while the 42-year-old has no time for the purple prose spouted by wine snobs, she thinks drinkers need more education.

'When you read the back of a bottle of chardonnay and it says 'goes with chicken', that doesn't take into account that there are a squillion recipes for chicken and a squillion kinds of chardonnay. I try to show people why some wines go with food and why some can't. I try to educate them in a non- threatening way.'

As the wine consultant for events company Feast and Vine, she's been busy sharing this kind of no-fuss expertise at several Wellington On A Plate events so far. There's been a Mediterranean-inspired lunch in Khandallah, a walking tour of her favourite inner city wine bars as well as a Sauternes, cheese and patisserie tasting at Bordeaux Bakery. On Monday she'll be choosing the wine at an exclusive sold-out dinner hosted by restaurant critic David Burton at Betty's Function House and Bar.

She says wine and food matching is a new thing for many New Zealanders.

'We have such a limited culture in terms of wine and food matching, because we were colonised by the British and the north-eastern Europeans, who were not great wine drinkers. We are a very multi-cultural country now and we have a very multi-cultural approach to food but we don't have that history of matching it with wine.'

As well as her wine consulting, Belsham now works in marketing and brand development for Martinborough winery Murdoch James. But her first real experience of the wine industry came 'a lifetime ago' when she was a graphic designer creating labels for wine bottles in the late 1990s. 'I wanted a change of scene so I went travelling. I was in Ireland and I decided what I really wanted to do was to have a wine shop.'

She started working for British wine retail giant Oddbins - which enabled her to study for the industry-standard WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust ) qualifications - then moved to Sicily where she intended to work on a vineyard. When those plans fell through she moved back to New Zealand in 2002.

Meeting - and marrying - Carl Fraser, now the winemaker at Murdoch James, was another turning point.

In 2004, the couple opened upmarket Willis St shop Wineseeker, where they ran wine courses and tried to help customers broaden their palates.

'It was interesting, because a lot of people won't go to real wine shops because they feel they don't know enough. But then in the shop we would invariably get people who would go on about the fancy wines they had in their cellar that they never drank, and what this or that winemaker said to them. Then they would ask you for a bottle of wine that cost $12.'

The pair sold the shop a couple of years ago to concentrate on their Wairarapa wine activities, which for Belsham includes targeting new markets.

'The wine industry has been very old school, but it is desperate for new drinkers. That's why Asia, especially China, is so important. In China they don't call it wine drinking or wine tasting, they call it wine learning.'

Being a professional wine buff may sound idyllic but with two small children (2-year-old Rhiannon and 5-month-old Chinzia), Belsham certainly deserves a glass of wine at the end of the day. She just wants other people to get as much enjoyment out of it as she does.

'I want to make wine more accessible. I say that if you like a wine, then it's a good one.'

The Dominion Post