I just attended a thoroughly captivating contest held in the Historic Barrel Room at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in St. Helena. The purpose of the competition, the 10TH annual bASH hosted by Appellation St. Helena (ASH), was to properly and creatively match good food with good wine that was made and poured by over 30 ASH wineries.
The food was prepared by ‘Rising Star’ CIA students, notable winery chefs, and St. Helena restaurants. The competitors were judged on the match by a team of professional judges while attendees vote with tokens. Judges awarded the top three student teams, and guests selected a professional team for the best wine and food pairings.
When I began my wine calling, I developed some modest paring rules that worked for me and my limited range of wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends with beef, Pinot Nor with pork, Syrah with lamb (also with highly spiced dishes), and Chardonnay unpaired because it is so good to savor alone, or occasionally with Salmon au Beurre Blanc as Salmon works well with fatty fish or fish in a robust sauce. Rhone-style wines, rosé, and GSM blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) would be taken with al fresco dining and grilling. I would drink Sauternes, Barsac, sparkling wine, or Champagne with roast turkey. These matches just seemed to yield a harmonious relationship for me.
As time went on and the range of wines that I drank increased, I found the need for additional paring assistance for harmonious wine and food mates. I soon discovered further paring methods based on a variety of sound criteria. One such principal that I found useful was to match the body or weight of a wine against the food to make for a happy match. In that way neither party dominated.
Another principal that I adopted was to mate the wine to the leading or most obvious element in a dish. Things I paired to were the herb and spice seasoning, or a particular sauce, and at times certain components, often produce, integrated into the dish.
Consider wine and food pairing open-ended. The variety of wine styles, terroirs, and grapes is vast. That fact provides the motivation to learn and experiment. It might be best to make haste slowly unless this topic becomes a passion.
Acidity is vital in wines. Generally higher acid levels in a wine make for a better pair with food. But it goes beyond that. Elevated acidity contrasts well with rich dishes and sauces, the brightness will not be dominated in other cases, and generates eagerness for the next forkful. Wines with heightened acid levels are most of those in Italy, German Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir.
Tannin, a phenol found primarily in red wine, interacts with fatty dishes, salt, or spice in a variety of ways depending upon concentrations. So, a little research is a good thing. Red wines usually pair well with roasted or grilled red meats because the fatty meat reduces the effect of the tannins and the wine feels smoother. Be careful of highly spiced, bitter, or salty dishes with reds. Spices accentuate tannins and the result is bitterness.
Low-alcohol or off-dry (slightly sweet) wines match with spicy dishes and reduce the heat. Alcohol tends to intensify the hotness in piquant foods, so low alcohol is best. Of course, a well-chilled wine feels even better. The sugar in an off-dry wine will coat the tongue and lessen the heat too
Finally, practice often has it that a great bottle of wine is often paired with subdued cuisine so that the wine will be certain to shine brightest. And when the cuisine is paramount, do just the opposite. Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment.
If your range of wines is small, consider just committing to memory which wines work best with what type of dishes. But employing basic pairing principals is more complete as this increases matching possibilities as well as understanding.
For any wine type, for example Sauvignon Blanc, consider the area or appellation it sources from, because the wine can be subject to a variety of terroirs, vinicultural practices, winemaking, and élevage. Different AOCs yield different styles of wine from the same grape. There are many further things to consider and other ways to select parings for those wanting to learn.
A few specific matches (some also mentioned above):
Sauternes and Barsac are very sweet French dessert wines that pair well with roast turkey or poultry, savory recipes employing tropical fruit, ripe peaches and nectarines, fruit tarts, sweet or hot Thai food, and the French would recommend their classic match with Roquefort or foie gras.
Sauvignon Blanc works with an acidic vinegrette or sauce.
Pinot Grigio and light fish recipes make for a complimentary match.
Off-dry Riesling mates well with spicy or sweet recipes.
Chardonnay pairs well with crustaceans, oily flaky Fish, Halibut, Cod, Sturgeon, Salmon, Lobster, semi-soft Cow’s Milk and Goat Cheese, and a variety of vegatables. Remember Chardonnay comes in a variety of styles including oaked and not, and passing through malolactic fermentation and not.
Grenache forms a complimentary pair with a variety of roasted vegetables and meats, and one of my preferred spices, cumin.
One final idea, by paring a dish that has constituents that repeat some of the aromas and flavors of a wine, it is often possible to enhance and amplify those aromas and flavors in the wine. I experienced this principal from three of the teams competing. Anna Salin of Team 18 explained to me that they did just that with their petit lamb bite paired with Trinchero’s 2013 Central Park West Vineyard Petit Verdot. Anna elucidated, “Our petit lamb bite, with its savory and berry attributes, accentuated those same traits in the wine. Of course, this took some effort to get things correct and in the correct proportion and balance.”
Pauline Pastor of Team 10 explained to me that they applied the same principal in their creation. Pauline illuminated, “Our plate is a Manchego goat cheese and cheddar cheesecake with Marcona almond and pistachio crumble and an elderberry gastrique. It may sound complex, but our goal was to tune the ingredients to echo and enhance similar attributes in Crocker & Starr’s 2015 RLC Cabernet Sauvignon. Not entirely simple, but great fun. We believe we have achieved our goal.” I couldn’t agree more!
Prager Winery and Port Works arrived at similar result with their 2005 Colheita tawny Port (Petite Sirah) served with a berried mini-custard bite. This was another echo-match made in heaven! Peter Prager had a side dish of candied pecans. I told Peter, “Your Colheita-custard paring hit all the right chords, and those candied pecans have the intensity then my candied walnut recipe lacked last week.” Peter, “Glad you liked the tawny Port paring. The pecans – no surprise. My wife has perfected the recipe over quite a few years.”
My choices for the front-runners in the paring contest are the three teams I just mentioned: Team 18 featuring the petit lamb bite with Trinchero’s Central Park West Petit Verdot, Team 10 presenting Manchego goat cheese, cheddar cheesecake, Marcona almond, pistachio crumble, and elderberry gastrique with Crocker & Starr’s RLC Cabernet Sauvignon, and Prager Winery & Port Works introducing the mini-custard bite with Colheita tawny Petite Sirah Port
The reason, their parings were so harmonious and delicious. Not to forget the fact that red wine was the mate, and Napa Valley does so well with reds. Fine whites are produced here also, but we are known for reds, especially Cabernet blends, or components of those blends. If others want to pair whites or non-Cab with food, I encourage them, and I am sure they will have some success.
Judged results of the pairing
Professional Team Winners
Beringer Vineyards, 2012 St. Helena Home Cabernet Sauvignon, with Acacia House by Chris Cosentino (Oxtail Toast, Pickled Mustard Seeds, Wild Fennel)
Ehlers Estate 2015 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon, with Goose & Gander (Braised Lamb Neck and Candy Cap Mole, Steamed bun, Benne salad, Lemon Crema)
Charles Krug Winery 2016 Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc, with Estate Chef Daryl Muromoto (Braised Pork Ciccioli Crostini, Estate Citrus Marmellata)
Student Team Winners
Del Dotto Vineyards, St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon, students David Ju and Chase Evans (Steamed Bao Buns with Braised Beef Cheeks, Shallot Aioli and Spring Vegetables)
Parry Cellars, 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, students Sean Smith and Reilly Brown (Ancho Beef Taco with Charred Salsa and Escabeche)
Rombauer Vineyards, 2014 Stice Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, students Allison Komara and Nina Widjaja (Korean Beef Short Ribs “Galbi Jjim”)
Pellet Estate, 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Pellet Vineyard, students Brandon Matthews and Carlos Ramires (Cornet of Red Wine Braised Kobe Beef, Creamy Polenta, with Morel and Black Truffle)
Ballentine Vineyards, 2016 Maple Station White Blend, students Cameron Hassell and Nicolas Stogsdill (“Wanna Wonton”)
CIA Director’s award for Excellence in Creativity and Innovation
Chase Cellars (2017 Zinfandel Rose, Hayne Vineyard), students Charles Fulbright and Conner Black (“Saturday Special”)
AppellationsTen Wine Reviews
94, Petit Verdot Central Park West Trinchero, 2013
Deep purple with black hues, this gorgeous PV is remarkably approachable with a soft, delicate touch and feel, undeniably supple, and an elegant character. Possessing ultra-fine tannins, the wine still delivers razor-sharp focus with a vein of acidity running through, and notable structure. Carrying aromas of dark berry fruit, blueberries, and white flowers, this PV displays ripe fruit which boasts fine purity – an ASH hallmark, layered complexity, and good length. An extraordinary piece of work! About $95.
91, Cabernet Sauvignon Anomaly Vineyards 2016
Deep purple in color and medium light in weight, Anomaly’s 2016 Cabernet has a subtle touch with components in good measure. Reveals purity of fruit, ample tannins for structure nicely managed, the acid level lends focus, and is quite approachable. About $120.
91, Mockingbird Blue Tuck Beckstoffer Estate 2015
Called their flagship wine, the blend is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, and a dollop of Petite Verdot from estate fruit. Dark-ruby in color and aged in 100% new French oak for 22 months, Mockingbird conveys blackberries with hints of blueberry and vanilla. This mid-light-weight displays nice energy and agility, very fine-grained tannins, and outstanding focus from the streak of acid permeating. About $240.
90, Crocker & Starr RLC Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
This ruby colored mid-weight 100% Cabernet is a small 400-case production. Aged over 20 months in 60% new French oak, RLC (Rock Loam Clay soil) reveals a fine-grained texture, aromas of red berry fruit with Star Thistle, and on the palate black cherries, walnuts, and a hint of cranberry jam. Shows a refined character, good focus from the acid level, and ultra-fine tannins with a very soft touch. About $65.
90, Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc Blend 2015
Ruby with shades of burnt umber, Crocker & Starr’s 768 case is composed of 60% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 11% Petit Verdot, and 6% Malbec. The affable combination of varietals with ripe fruit and a supple palate-feel make this mid-weight nicely approachable. Appropriate acidity provides delineation. Offers notes of red berry fruit – raspberry, cranberry, with hints of tobacco leaf and forest floor. About $50.