WineInk: Pairing Perfection
Greg Van Wagner matches food and wine
Perfection. It is rarely an attainable goal in any profession. But, it is especially elusive in the world of wine.
Begin with the notion that perfection is in the eye, or the palate, of the beholder. One person’s idea of a flawless wine, or even a good one, is dependent upon their unique and personal tastes. A wine that resonates with any one individual may not ring the bell for another, even if both are experienced and learned tasters.
Then, there is the ultimate variable: Mother Nature. A winemaker may have the best credentials, the ultimate location for their vineyard, and the most up-to-date and modern equipment, and they are still subject to the vagaries and vicissitudes of what the weather will offer up in any given vintage.
Yes, the word “perfect” is rarely used to describe a wine; it is just too subjective. But, it is often used in conjunction with another wine word: pairing. Perhaps the alliteration is just too good for wine writers, including yours truly, to pass up, but the possibility of pairing perfection is as elusive as producing a perfect bottle of wine. It just doesn’t happen. Or, does it?
I was thinking about this recently at a wine dinner that was hosted to introduce dishes from the soon-to-be-opened Parc Aspen restaurant that will debut this winter in the subterranean space on Hyman Avenue, formerly occupied, for the past quarter century, by the beloved L’Hostaria. Greg Van Wagner, who is the new wine and beverage director at Parc Aspen, paired three dishes at the tasting with extraordinary wines, all of which were, believe it or not, beyond perfection. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but, if you were there and tasted the wines that Van Wagner poured to pair with the impressive three-course meal prepared by Parc Aspen’s chef Mark Connell, you may well have understood my enthusiasm.
Pairing wines can be a very personal process. Begin with the one rule that means the most: There are no rules. If you have a yearning for a particular wine with a dish, say, a buttery California Chardonnay with a grilled flat iron steak and garlic butter, go with it. Sure, it breaks the standard edict of red wine with meat and fish with white wine, but I’ll sip a glass of Rombauer Chardonnay with my grilled flat iron all night long and be a better man for it.
Still, there are, let’s call them suggestions, that can make the tasting experience a little more palatable. To begin with, consider if your meal is to be a special occasion or just an everyday lunch or dinner.
If you plan to impress with your best wines, the ones you have been holding or have invested heavily in, then be sure to pair those wines with a meal of substance. Karen McNeil, wine writer and the author of the Wine Bible, uses the axiom, “Great with great, humble with humble” to describe the concept of pouring your best wines with a serious meal. Open that $10 Zinfandel with the take-home pizza but pair your best Bordeaux with the best braised meats you can find. It may sound obvious, but it is a good thing to consider when you are entertaining.
Also, always take into account the “weight” of the wine and food you are pairing it with. Heavier dishes, say a hefty pasta or grilled meats, go better with full bodied wines like Shiraz or Cabernet, while lighter-weight meals, like grilled trout or sautéed chicken thighs, go better with wines that are little more delicate, like, say, a Sauvignon Blanc. But, don’t rule out lighter-bodied, red-wine styles with that chicken. A Rosé made from Grenache or a lighter style Pinot Noir may be excellent choice. Generally, the lower the tannins, the better the red wine will be with the lighter dishes.
And, consider selecting wines that come from the same region as the dish you are preparing. Earlier this year, we did a piece on Las Montañas, the newly opened Mexican cantina on restaurant row. Wine director Patrick Olds of MML Hospitality, Las Montañas’ parent company, spoke of adding wines to his list from Mexico and South America to complement the Latin flavors of the foods. Think about maybe pairing Barolo wines with that Osso Bucco you are making at home or wines from Rioja with the paella dish on offer at Basalt’s Spanish restaurant, Tempranillo.
For the preview tasting, Van Wagner poured three wines from France, perhaps reflecting an emphasis of the upcoming Parc Aspen list. The Seftons are admittedly fans of the wines of Bordeaux.
The first pairing matched a white wine, the Hubert Lamy “en Remilly” Saint Aubin 1er Cru from Burgundy, with a butternut squash soup that gave a taste of the fall season. The soup was rich and full, complemented by dried and whipped cranberries and pistachios, which gave it a touch of nuttiness. The wine, sourced from estate vineyards located between the villages of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet, provided a perfect example of pairing the weight of wine with that of the food. While the soup was creamy and rich, it did not overwhelm the wine.
But, it was the next course — Colorado Lamb Two-Ways, paired with a Domaine Belle Hermitage Syrah from the Northern Rhône region of France — that stole the show. As the lamb was expertly prepared, seared crisp at the bone and perfectly pink in the center, I expected a Pinot Noir to be poured. But, Van Wagner knew that the wine’s earthy, toasty flavors and intensely concentrated berries would bring out the best flavors of the meat. Inspiring.
Dessert doubled down with another seasonal dish: A pumpkin-spice sponge cake augmented with white-chocolate mousse and a scoop of candied-cap ice cream made from candy-cap mushrooms. Perhaps the only pairing that would work with the sweet and spice of the dish was a Sauternes, and that is exactly what Van Wagner poured. This from Clos Dady.
Sweet on sweet worked well, but, again, it was the weight of the wine working in lock step with the dessert that made it so special.
Aside from being a great local character, Van Wagner is one of the most impressive wine professionals we have in this valley. For years, he was in command of the exceptional wine list at Jimmy’s, pairing sumptuous wines with the new American menu that was so popular at the long beloved restaurant. Now, he is in the process of preparing for his new venture, establishing both a wine list and a beverage program at the much-anticipated Parc Aspen, which is a culinary project of Maryanne and Harley Sefton, who are focused on bringing a locally-owned and operated farm-to-table restaurant to Aspen’s dining scene.
Beyond his work at Parc Aspen, Van Wagner is the creator of the innovative SommGeo digital wine maps and study program that uses Google Earth to take wine aficionados and professionals on virtual 3-D tours throughout the world of wine. The program is mind-blowing in the amount of information it conveys, and the way it brings vineyards to life.
In addition, Van Wagner has given back to the world of wine by utilizing SommGeo as a fundraising venture for the SommFoundation, which is committed to the education of sommeliers and wine professionals throughout the industry. Individuals who donate $85 or more to SommFoundation will receive one year’s access to SommGeo as a benefit. Go to sommfoundation.com for more info and to see a YouTube presentation of SommGeo.
Oh, and Van Wagner has recently launched a new wine himself under the label Aspen Cellars. More on that to come.
But, for now, consider what you pair with your wines. You may not do it quite as intuitively as Greg Van Wagner, but, with a little thought, you, too, can pair like a pro.
2016 “The Discussion” Napa Valley Red Wine
When people think of Duckhorn Vineyards, the first thing that comes to mind are their varietal wines, like the Merlot and Pinot Noir that they are famed for. But this wine is different. It is a red Bordeaux blend collected from grapes grown in four different vineyards in the estate’s portfolio. Led by Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, the wine is deep, dark and complex.
What would I pair it with? Why a grilled bone-in Tomahawk rib-eye steak, of course.
But that’s just me.