This New Year’s Eve was not, for me, an event fraught with wine geekery. Thus, I didn’t take notes (though I scribbled some impressions the next morning). I did plan a menu with wines to match each course, though of course some of the guests were a little more concerned with quantity than quality. Given that, I thought I’d take a slightly unusual approach to this set of tasting notes, and talk about the food and the wine together…why they were chosen, and how they ended up interacting with the food (and the diners). Some would argue that this is what all tasting notes should be. I think that argument has considerable merit, but ultimately I don’t think that specific wine/food matches are a particularly useful form of service journalism; now we’re not just letting wine critics pick our wine, we’re also letting them pick dinner. That seems, at least to me, to be the opposite of progress.
In case the menu looks bizarre, it was done to reflect all the different ethnicities at the table. Which made it more than a little schizophrenic. That said, everything was very, very tasty.
The wine – Roederer Estate Brut (Anderson Valley)
Why it was chosen – Brought by guests as an apéritif, to begin the festivities.
Did it work? Yes. The Roederer Estate is a solid, good-quality sparkling wine that doesn’t make significant demands on the palate, either through excess delicacy, force, or complexity. It’s strong enough to serve with food, especially given the strong pinot noir component that always seems to dominate the blend
The food – Wellfleet & Duxbury oysters with a standard mignonette
The wine – Ollivier “Domaine de la Pépière” 2006 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” (Loire)
Why it was chosen – oysters and Muscadet…how can you go wrong? It’s classic pairing for a reason.
Did it work? Surprisingly, no. It was OK (though not special) with the briny, sweet, thoroughly appealing Wellfleets, but it turned metallic and bitter with the more strident Duxburies. This was a very surprising result, frankly. I’m used to Muscadet shifting with an array of differently-flavored oysters, but not to it simply refusing to play at all. Yet both the wine and the oysters were perfectly lovely on their own. This was a good reminder that to every wine-pairing rule there is at least one exception.
The food – domestic “caviar” (whitefish and salmon) with buckwheat blini, plus the usual accompaniments
The wine – Quintas de Melgaço “QM” 2006 Vinho Verde Alvarinho (Monção)
Why it was chosen – salty fish eggs, the “sweetness” of the blini, and the acidic bite of the onion...the wine pretty much has to be something that normally plays well with fresh seafood of a saltier ilk, and the QM has a core of fruit that can seem almost sweet against the right backdrop of food. There’s plenty of acid for the onions. Plus, there’s an engaging pérlance to the QM that I thought would be fun with the “pop” of the eggs.
Did it work? It was OK…an indifferent match. One of those times when it’s better to alternate the wine and food rather than attempt to pair them. Nothing was damaged, but nothing was enhanced, either. That said, the wine did an admirable job of clearing and resetting the palate for each bite.
The food – beef & chimichurri empanadas
The wine – Edmunds St. John 2005 “Shell and Bone” (Paso Robles)
Why it was chosen – given that we’re still in the early stages of the meal, I wanted something white here, but for beef with chimichurri seasoning it had to be a substantial one. There were tomatoes, pimientos, and green olives in the filling, which should have argued against this pairing, but I gambled on the notion that they’d be overwhelmed by the meat, spice, and pastry combination.
Did it work? Yes, very well. The acidity of the tomatoes didn’t interfere with this lower-acid wine, the spice played well with the wine’s particular complexities, the olives were brought out by the pairing (in the empanadas themselves they were overwhelmed by other elements), and the beef (rather than the wine or the spice) became the sharpening element in the mix. That was an interesting result. The “fat” of the wine was a fine foil for the pastry dough, as well.
The food – butter-poached coho salmon, dill/sour cream cucumber salad with Murray River salt and white pepper, smoked salmon
The wine – Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2006 Sauvignon Blanc “No. 2” (Loire)
Why it was chosen – normally I’d want a little more weight and “fat” with wild salmon, but the cucumber salad was, I thought, the dominant flavor element here. Thus, something with a greenish tinge was called for…but not something that would turn too angular with the salmon. Acidity was a must, too, as a match for the salad and a foil for the smoked salmon.
Did it work? Yes, better than I’d hoped. There’s a kind of spread to good Touraine sauvignon that’s not achieved in Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé (though those wines have other qualities, of course), yet this particular wine had enough subtlety to not overwhelm the more delicate aspects of the dish; something as aggressive as a Marlborough sauvignon would have been too dominant. The salad and the wine poked and prodded at, but did not penetrate, the poached salmon, seeming to bracket it with different takes on the same realm of flavors. The smoked salmon provided a sort of “seasoning”…which was, in turn, a fine counterpoint to the earthiness of the wine, turning its chalk to salt and the smoked salmon’s salt to a more basic minerality. This was fun.
The food – freshly-made fettucine with broccoli, pine nuts, tomatoes, saffron and Manchego
The wine – Forsoni “Sanguineto I e II” 2004 Rosso di Montepulciano (Tuscany)
Why it was chosen – for whatever reason, I couldn’t get sangiovese out of my head for this dish. Certainly I needed acidity (for the tomatoes), but also enough heft to rise above the Manchego and saffron. And yet, not so much ripe fruit that the broccoli turned weedy.
Did it work? Yes, essentially. I wouldn’t call this pairing indifferent, but both the wine and food stayed mostly to themselves, not really interacting much except at the fringes, where both the saffron and tomato teased some additional complexities from the wine. I think the correct white would have been slightly better here, but we’d had a lot of whites already, and I felt that the switch to red was overdue. I’d like to try a Basque white with this.
The food – spicy Portuguese squid “stew” (tomatoes and lots of heat)
The wine – Sella & Mosca 2004 Cannonau di Sardegna “Riserva” (Sardinia)
Why it was chosen – under the assumption that, given a red with the previous course, a red would also need to be poured here, I wanted something that could handle tons of acidity (from the tomatoes, onions, garlic, wine, and red pepper), was light enough for fish, and was strong enough to deal with the spice. That’s a tall order, and I’m not sure there’s any one perfect solution, but I’ve always found this Sardinian grenache to be an excellent cross-color match for fish, so I thought I’d give it a try.
Did it work? Yes, absolutely. Though some of the wine was certainly hard-pressed to stand up to the dish’s heat, its core of sweet, ripe, red fruit (strawberry and bubblegum, in the classic grenache fashion) remained unbent, while the “space” inherent to the wine allowed the fish to join the party unmolested. This was neither my favorite nor the most surprising match of the evening, but there was something about it that was just right.
The wine – Feuillatte Champagne “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne), from magnum
Why it was chosen – brought by guests for toasting at midnight.
Did it work? Not my favorite producer. Feuillatte’s bubblies tend to be overly angular while lacking incisiveness, and this was no exception. There was a little more leesiness than usual, but it was like dousing a nascent brioche with a too-tart lemon glaze. Still, we were amidst all the usual turn-of-the-year midnight stuff, and not really paying all that much attention to the wine, so it didn’t really matter that much if the wine wasn’t a great one..
The food – duck terrine (all duck; we had several non-pork eaters) with an endive/dried cherry/walnut salad
The wine – JM Burgaud 2006 Morgon “Les Charmes” (Beaujolais)
Why it was chosen – another nod to classicism in the gamay/terrine pairing, the heft of a Morgon (plus its acidic cut) for the weight of the duck, and the particular qualities of the wine for the dried cherries and walnuts (the latter of which, I felt, would need tannin in the wine to offset their own).
Did it work? Incredibly well. Probably the best match of the night. Everything worked as I felt it might, and the wine’s structural length managed to linger as long as the delicious gaminess of the terrine. This is a classic for a reason, I suppose.
The food – lamb tagine (ras el hanout, raisins, dense meat stock reduced until almost syrupy, honey)
The wine – Easton 2006 Zinfandel (Amador County)
Why it was chosen – a big red was unquestionably called for, but the sweetness in the dish needed addressing. I could have gone for an outright sweet wine, but I felt that would be overkill, and most off-dry reds are either light or slightly candied, and thus would be grossly out of place here. The only options that make real sense are, perhaps, an off-dry Banyuls or an Amarone, but both represented enough of an uptick in cost that I was eager to find an alternative. My thought was that zinfandel, via the qualities of its fruit and, at times, its high alcohol, would provide a “sweetness” of its own…one that could deal with the dish’s peculiarities.
Did it work? Fairly well. In retrospect, a lush Australian shiraz or domestic syrah might have been an even better choice. The thing about zinfandel is that despite its high alcohol, explosive fruit, and general intensity, there’s usually a nice dollop of acidity that can only be beat back by the most extreme ripening regimens. I normally like acidity with heavy dishes, but I don’t think it works as well when the dish is heavy and sweet. There was nothing bad about this pairing, but it didn’t exactly sing, and eventually the food proved too dominant for the wine.
The food – a selection of Swiss, Irish, & English cheeses
The wine – Costières & Soleil “Sélection Laurence Féraud” 2005 Séguret (Rhône)
Why it was chosen – I’m generally in agreement with those that think, on average, whites go better with more cheeses than reds. But I’ve also learned that when the wine is red, I like a little sweat and leather. Hence, a Southern Rhône. And, frankly, knowing that at this stage the alcohol has been piling up for everyone, an uncomplicated wine seemed called for.
Did it work? See above, re: the quantity of wine preceding this course. But yes, it worked OK. I’m not sure there’s a good wine match for proper Cheddar (and I’ve tried most of them), but the Séguret was decently versatile, and flavorsome on its own. I wonder if the ESJ “Shell and Bone” might not have been a better choice for this position.
The food – “Irish cream” bread pudding with white & black chocolate
The wine – Mas Amiel 2004 Muscat de Rivesaltes (Roussillon)
Why it was chosen – I actually wanted a Banyuls Blanc here, or something similarly weighty (a sweet oloroso Sherry was also a possibility), but I had no luck finding either, and I wasn’t willing to chase all over town looking for a perfect match. So I defaulted to this, figuring that fortification would help mitigate muscat’s lack of weight and harmonious (with this food) aromatics.
Did it work? No. Not heavy enough. and too…well, muscat-ish for this dish. It was tasty on its own, but didn’t work at all with the dessert.