The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Road Tested: Theories of Food & Wine Pairing, Explored and Exploded

I think I know what I’m doing. I am self-satisfied in that way, teetering on the edge of smug some days. When my ego swells to flood stage I feel capable of tackling any wine matching challenge, after all, I’ve heard them all from innumerable customers in my store day-in, day-out over the last seven years. I’m a voracious eater with few flavor aversions who tries wine with most meals in every decent and indecent restaurant I can afford to walk, drive or fly to, I host wine dinners, we do wine & tapas tastings every Saturday night on the mezzanine above the wine department, when I’m not reading about or tasting wine I’m in the kitchen reminding myself why I remain an amateur cook. You get the point. Hubris sets in. This month provided a welcome awakening from my conventional wine matching patterns. I am currently moonlighting as beverage director for Lantern, an innovative local restaurant that brings Asian influences to a variety of locally farmed products and in the process serves up curveballs that have thrown my rote pairing patterns off-kilter. What to pair with Fung Jeow, first braised and then fried chicken feet that are from a fever dream of snack food, an appetizer I imagine Tom Waits picking clean in a surreal steamy wings joint in Hong Kong while watching the Steelers game and listening to rain pour down and drip through a failing pressed tin ceiling. If you’re such the wine expert, tie this one on: sashimi with a Japanese five-spice and sea urchin sauce, a dish at once clean and pleasantly spicy, but with heterogenous textures and aromas that disorient many of my shoe-in wine selections. I think the panicky, adrift feeling I have at the Lantern table is being back at stage one of learning something. My ossified mind shaking off crumbs and cobwebs and redrawing flavor connections in probably more subtle, ornate patterns than I’ve previously utilized.

I waded into my new task pretty self-assured, and will humbly admit that several of the wines I brought to bear on Lantern food, wines selected using (in the parlance of my profession) some of the fundamentals of food and wine pairing, have turned out to be humiliating mismatches. How much do I know about what fermented bean paste does to the texture of a dish, or how floral aromas in yuzu with interact with floral, delicate white wine aromas? I could know more. I will know more soon- it’s not that these flavors are exotic or particularly difficult to comprehend, it’s just that they are one percent of what I’ve worked with over the years. So what follows is a list of pairings that have really resonated for me in the last month, and a few others that fell flat. Maybe you can learn something from my mistakes. And prove me wrong: check out the Lantern one night, and maybe you can email me the eureka moment you had with their food. At the very least, you’ll have a good meal. Gourmet magazine rated Lantern one of the 50 best restaurants in America, not too shabby for small-town NC. I would rate them the best place to get egg fu young in America, but I don’t think it’s a regular menu item. Maybe if I make enough noise about the dish they’ll keep fu young around. I sometimes crave it for breakfast. . . .

2005 Merkelbach Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Spatlese – This wine hits the bulls-eye with freshness and disarmingly exuberant, ripe and full fruit. It made me happy served beside ginger and Sichuan pepper chicken on a bed of fresh egg noodles, and survived a potentially rocky transition into our crispy duck soup entree. I can’t say enough nice things about Merkelbach. And the wein is cheap!

2005 Artazurri Rose – Artazurri is dominated by juicy red berry fruit aromas, and the finish is dry but by no means dessicatingly so. It made friends with a variety of dishes, but didn’t really shine with anything. If I were trying to sell you this I’d call it food-versatile, but less politely put it seems to achieve acceptance in a Lowest Common Denominator sort of way. It does what quality affordable wine should (at the very least) do, provide and an enjoyable drinking experience that squeezes in to my wine dictionary somewhere between undistinguished and unpretentious.

Hitachino White Ale – Really good with sashimi and a mackerel tartare. Orange aromas from the beer complemented the fish. It makes sense that a quality sake maker could conjure up beer with lightness and aromatic delicacy to suit raw seafood.

2005 Cavalchina Bianco di Custoza – Too diffuse aromatically and light texturally for the dishes we tried it with. A nice wine on its own, but the Cavalchina was overwhelmed by mushroom egg fu young, and dissonant alongside an entrée of steamed black cod flavored with ginger and served on jasmine rice. A disappointment, because I still feel the whites of Northeastern Italy are underutilized with delicate seafood courses. At least in my dining room they are.

2004 JL Wolf Riesling – I love the Loosen line of wines, but this other project of the doctor fails to ignite my interest (light my fuse? Burn my grilled cheese?). Capable winemaking and pleasant varietal character are here, but where are the sparks? I’m not wasting any more healthy liver cells on this. Fine with the cod described above, a little overwhelmed (as I expected) by the curry described below.

2004 Adam Gewurztraminer – I brought two Gewurztraminers to tackle a vexing wine pairing question: what to bring for dinner with flavors from the Indian subcontinent. Most wines are bowled over by curry: Adam did fine alongside red curry stew with squash, Thai basil and jasmine, but it was notably the lesser of two Gewurztraminers we auditioned. A bit too wimpy. There’s a better Alsatian wine out there, to be frank. This is pretty average juice.

2005 Elena Walch Gewurztraminer – Elena’s wine tasted like it was made for the curry. Alto Adige awakens my slumbering like (love is too strong a word, it’s like we’re good friends, holding hands on long walks in the park, but not making out on the swings) for Gewuztraminer/Traminer Aromatico. You know where Tramin is, right? Makes sense.

2003 Studert Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese
Kicks butt with fu young of the truffle and flowering chive variety. This Wehlen winery is criminally underrated. They’re no JJ, but Manfred and Katharina are making wine in their own universe of a standard mortals should basically forget about trying to replicate (see previous Germany posts). One of at least five branches of the Prum family making Mosel wine today.

2005 Kracher Pinot Gris - Alois the Austrian dessert wine wizard also makes a fun-filled dry white or two, case in point the Illmitz Pinot Gris. Grauer Burgunder, if you have a penchant for German. It made a chicken and dumpling soup with surprisingly delicate pork-infused dimplings taste even more delicious.

2005 Grosjean Pinot Noir – A misstep on my part. Great wine from the Valle d’Aoste, and the accompanying chicken, mushroom and local chestnut entrée was fab as well, but this light red faltered with a dish that ultimately was cleaner and brighter on the palate than I had imagined. A white burgundy would have done better.

Hope this journey through meals past has been of some use. Food and Wine pairing can be a fun (and rewarding) hobby, and few choices are truly catastrophic. It’s high time to topple a wine pairing cliche or two. You need calories anyway, why not maximize your enjoyment of them?


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