As the calendar shifts from one year to the next, I find myself reflecting on the superb vinous adventures I’ve experienced during 2016 and the many outstanding wine pairing meals I enjoyed.
On some occasions, the entire meal was stellar. While at others a specific course (when the chef was in perfect harmony with the wine) became the standout. As expected, some pairings were predictable, but others came as a surprise blazing new trails in my understanding of the delicate interplay between the careful crafting of both the dish and the wine.
Thankfully, the adage of “white wine with fish and red with meat” no longer applies as the range and diversity of both culinary and wine choices are broader than ever with exciting new pairings seeming to appear around every corner. There will always be the classic examples of Sauternes or Barsac (semillion based desert wines) with foie gras, Port with walnuts and Champagne with oysters.
Yet today’s adventurous host is also thinking about an elegant pinot noir or a cool climate syrah with grilled salmon, a rich Rhone-style white with sautéed veal or a dry lightly chilled rosé with cold roast chicken.
My rule of thumb to a great pairing is not based solely on the varietal or the main component of the dish. Rather, I lean toward the style of the wine (e.g. mature, youthful, bold, elegant, acid and tannin profiles) along with the preparation and seasoning of the dish. When two or more wines are served with the same dish, each may bring out different characteristics. For example, a particular course I recall showed the opulence of mataro (aka mourvedrè) accentuating the texture of the raviolo of oxtail while the tartness (bright acidity) of carignan presented itself as a counter point to the dish’s richness. Both quite enjoyable but different sensory experiences.
In early December, my wife, Barbara, and I visited our very dear friend Edee Shuman in Las Vegas and enjoyed a multi-course wine pairing dinner at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House in the MGM Grand Hotel.
Wine Director and Sommelier Scott McSimov and Sous Chef Prisciliano (Paco) Perez teamed up to present a six-course small plate delight. Each course of the eclectic menu was expertly paired with a different wine (several were new surprises for me) that brought out the best of Paco’s creativity and Scott’s exceptional talent. A highlight was the 2014 J. Christopher Über-Sauvignon (an unexpected yet outstanding expression of sauvignon blanc) from Oregon’s Willamette Valley paired to an octopus terrine with arugula, frisse and lemon oil to complement the wine’s bracing acidity and minerality.
Lunch at Osteria di Passignano at Badia a Passignano (in Tuscany) was a complete surprise as I would never have imagined several of the pairings presented with five world- renowned Tuscan reds from the Antinori family. And each course was a hit! A selection of three extra virgin olive oils with 2013 Badia Passignano Gran Selezione was a fun start. The 2013 Tignanello paired with a parmesan cheese fondant accompanied by a poached egg, ricotta cheese and spinach croquettes was truly imaginative. Then, Pappa al Pomadoro matched beautifully with 2012 Guado al Tasso. To follow that more traditional pairing, we enjoyed a pan fried duck breast elegantly plated with broccoli, capers and anchovy that complemented a bold 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Pian delle Vigne. And then for the biggest surprise of all came a delicious cheese selection with a pear and honey filled puff pastry and the highly acclaimed 2013 Solaia.
This summer, I coordinated a five-course dinner at the River Terrace Inn in Napa with Executive Chef Matthew Grigg for a large group of business executives featuring the wines of Napa’s J. McClelland Cellars and pureCru. Each course brought out the complementary flavors and textures of the wines and food but one was striking for its simplicity and perfection. It was a “simple” lamb bolognese with hand-rolled spaghetti paired with 2012 J. McClelland Charbono and 2012 pureCru Sangio Veta. Each wine demonstrated a different approach to the dish and the crowd was about evenly split on their favorite.
Another dinner I organized for a client at Celadon in Napa with proprietor Joel Tavison and executive chef Federico Guillen paired with the wines of Gloria Ferrer and Patz & Hall was a bit more complex. Both the 2005 Gloria Ferrer Carneros Cuvée (richness with notes of brioche) and 2007 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvée (elegantly layered complexity) emphasized the best of a Dungeness crab cake with Samba aoli.
And a mini-vertical of 2012, 2013 and 2014 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Hyde Vineyard with roasted duck breast, summer squash, heirloom tomatoes and onion soubise was just perfect.
Looking back on 2016, my memory bank is filled with numerous outstanding pairings. Whether at a formal meal or an informal get-together like our summer’s end backyard barbecue where we enjoyed the 2002 Ravenswood Zinfandel Dickerson Vineyard with ribs and grilled vegetables, it all seemed to work!