Recently I sat in on a food and wine pairing seminar led by a brilliant chef in the area, Chef Jeffrey Scott. He started the talk with the topic, “What makes a good pairing?”. This is not a cut and dried answer. There is a lot of information out there that state generalities about what goes with what, whites go with fish and meats go with red. I can assure you that wine pairing is not that simple. The beauty in food and wine pairing is in the details, the subtle nuances, and marrying flavors. The first thing that really stood out to me was the common rule of pairing a big and bold dish with an equally big and forward wine, like pasta with an arrabbiata sauce and a spicy and robust zinfandel. Actually a common thing I’ve heard is, “You want something that can stand up to such a big wine.” This to me never made perfect sense; why on earth would we try to marry competing flavors? You’re setting them up for failure if you’re putting them in a fighting pit- like, who will come out triumphant? The wine or the food? Wine and food should be in balance and harmony, not competition.
How do we harmonize and balance flavors and nuances between wine and dishes? This is where a little bit of history and geography can really help. The first pairing that Chef Scott brought out for us was savory light profiterole with a lightly cured salmon, fennel marmalade, and goat cheese mousse that was paired with our 2014 Dianthus Rosé. While the dish and wine were great together, I really understood why when he talked to us a little bit about terroir and land. In Provence, they are known world wide for their exceptional rosé. When Chef Scott was thinking about what to pair with this dish, he thought about the region of Provence. Right then, I was taken to a place where I could see the beautiful French chateaus with a cool ocean breeze, fields of lavender, and light herbage. When pairing a wine that is so expressive of terroir and land, why not take elements from the same land to create a dish. Makes perfect sense. You take a rosé that has beautiful elements of the southern Rhone and nuances of garrigue, complimenting the lightly cured salmon and fennel marmalade.
Wine pairing by region? I wish I could say it was that easy, but I think it’s the first step in understanding pairings. Understand the climate, terroir, and dishes. After delving into the geography, you must then really understand the wine. Aside from knowing where it’s from, you must know the ins and outs of the bottle. How old or young is the wine? What is it like when you first open it? How do those notes and nuances change upon opening? All of this must be taken into consideration when creating a dish that complements or showcases the wine. Chef Scott’s next dish was a pan seared diver sea scallop atop a parsnip puree, watercress, and vanilla bean oil served with our 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. This was a unique case in which the first bite and sip married very well, but as the dish and wine progressed, the wine changed in a less pleasant manner. The aftertaste was no longer bright, but acidic and overwhelmed the flavors of the dish. It was decided that we would try the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, and see if the age and subtle brightness would be a better pairing… And it was. This was a great example of understanding how something that may work well at first, can change drastically; whether that change is positive or negative.
My mind works in a very logical way; to me, it makes sense that you know the terroir from which a wine hails, and that you know how a bottle of wine starts and finishes, in order to create the perfect pairing. But what about incorporating the wine into the dish that is not the obvious glass adjacent to the plate? The final pairing that Chef Scott presented us with was a cast iron leg of lamb over truffled potato gratin with our 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel. Very simply prepared local leg of lamb that was simply seasoned before skillet contact. The truffle potato gratin made sense, as Mourvedre is known to exhibit nuances of truffle after about ten years in the bottle. For me, visually, I thought it was beautiful, but missing a certain element, a jus of sorts. I am so used to seeing steak frites with sauce bordelaise, so for me to see this perfectly cooked piece of meat with not a speck of sauce was a little confusing. I understood as soon as I took a bite and followed with a sip. It was as if the wine was the sauce, finishing the dish. That missing element I was searching for was found in the wine.
After the pairing, I found myself at this interesting place. I learned so much behind the logistics and strategy of pairing food and wine, but is that all there is to it? The truth is, no. It’s much bigger than that. There are so many other factors that can affect a pairing, or a meal in general, like where you are, who you’re with, what kind of mood you’re in. Heck, I’ve learned enough about biodynamic farming and the lunar cycle that I am sure that can affect an experience, as well. The whole experience is very personal, and in some cases, it is exactly what you make it to be. On this evening, I was surrounded by fellow Tablas Creek Vineyard employees and a renowned Chef- wine enthusiasts and foodies. This is what it’s all about, and exactly what I moved here to experience. The wine and food together were magnificent, however the overall experience made it a perfect pairing.
I’ve attached a couple of photos I took (hastily, with my iPhone!) Next time I will bring proper equipment!