Wine is often described as a condiment for food. Similar to ketchup with French Fries or a sweet-spicy chutney with an Indian preparation, wine enhances and elevates food. Food can also lift and showcase the many dimensions of a wine.
That said, just the opposite is possible. The wrong pairing of food with an exceptional wine can dumb-it-down, masking otherwise subtle and elegant flavors. Poor pairing can handicap even a good wine to the extent that it is almost undrinkable.
I was recently served a tremendously promising 1994 Chateauneuf-de-Pape. I have always enjoyed this wine of any vintage and was excited to of savor the blessing that 18 years of bottle age had bestowed. I was at a friend’s home and he pulled this gem out of their wine cellar to enjoy with the meal being prepared. Unfortunately owning a great wine cellar does not always mean you truly understood its contents.
For the evening meal, pulled-pork, harvested from their own pig slowly smoked in the back yard, was dished out onto home-baked rolls . My friend was so excited to share this lovingly and carefully prepared dish.
Unfortunately, the overriding flavor of the sweet barbecue sauce fought with the richness of the wine. There was no winner in this contest. The sweetness of the barbecue directly conflicted with the earthiness and rich nuance of the wine. The Chateauneuf was rendered caustic and disturbing, echoing the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
The pulled pork would have been just fine on its own, maybe paired with a beer or Beaujolais, Riesling or even a flavorful Zinfandel. But in this case, the pork’s flavor was struck off balance by the wine. The fruit and smoke were unappealing.
Now let’s take a different situation.
I had the privilege of hosting a vintner dinner in a remote destination-restaurant north of San Francisco. Nick’s Cove is situated on the western side of Marin County, peering across to the Point Reyes national seashore on Tomales Bay and conceived in another era of heaven.
The architecture of the restaurant and inn reflects the simple rural/coastal vernacular style common to the bare-bones existence of rising immigrants in the 40s. The cabins were built without architects, but with the labor of the original owners and their helpers; the cabins and restaurant were recently completely remodeled without damaging their historical feel.
The first course of the meal was paired with a crisp, minerally, bright Sauvignon Blanc. The wine leads with a neutral citrus nose: not grapefruit, lemon or lime, but an aromatic blend of all. The mid-palate is almost flinty, with bright acidity, finishing long and luscious. I make this wine with a hat-tip to the French Loire Valley wines of Sancerre. Living on the Pacific Coast, I set my sights on it being the perfect pair with raw oysters. Tomales Bay is home to a half dozen oyster farms and Nick’s Cove serves them up with a couple of mignonettes and lemon wedges, open and beckoning on a platter of ice.
My approach is to take the lemon wedge and squeeze it over the entire platter, moving rapidly in a clockwise direction, careful to dispense a drop or two on each gaping half-shell. The oysters float in their own briny solution, drawn from the ocean and full of its flavor. I pick up one, free the muscle from its anchor to the shell with the mini triton provided. Then I raise the shell and slide the tender morsel into my mouth, kneading and chewing primarily with my tongue. The slight lemon notes blend with the crisp freshness and ocean flavors; but the true reward comes immediately after swallowing when I wash the little treasure down in a modest mouthful of Sauvignon Blanc.
The minerality of the wine compliments the crispness of the oyster. The citrus is set off in harmony with the slight lemon and sea-salt notes. The fruit in the wine lifts the ocean flavors and wraps it with its own acidity that takes each component higher, drawing water from the mouth to further the exalting experience. The finish of the wine then extends the oyster for long moments. It validates the individual price for these little gems.
This is a true pairing that will make dry wine lovers out of those who might have preferred White Zinfandel, or oyster lovers out of those who were previously averse to the scent and texture of something raw in their mouth.
When one is graced with a pairing so well conceived, the entire concept of pairing becomes self evident. It is enough to send even the most skeptical on a hunt for the next great flavor experience and to change their underwear 😉