Note: This post was originally published on The Wine Key, a consulting business run by fellow wine blogger Charlotte Chipperfield.
A guest at one of my recent dinner parties asked me a question about how I, as a chef who has worked at restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Le Chateaubriand, conceive of wine pairings.
To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought, at least philosophically. Certainly from a taste perspective, but not in some well-articulated way that would mirror my very vocal opinions on food itself, the nature of good cooking, etc.
So I gave the question some thought, and quickly came to a realization: There are actually three kinds of wine pairings in most restaurants:
1) The dish with which you’re pairing the wine has flavor and aroma components that resemble or are the same as the potential beverage choice, and vice versa. This is perhaps the most common and “expected” wine pairing, like serving roast duck with blueberry balsamic sauce alongside a Pinot Noir from Oregon, or a citrusy shellfish dish with a young, minerally Muscadet from the Loire Valley.
2) The restaurant unfortunately hasn’t been able to sell a certain wine by the glass or bottle, and so now resorts to forcing it upon diners as an appropriate (sometimes unusual!) pairing. What’s sad is just how frequently this occurs, and how readily unsuspecting diners are willing to gulp down a glass of wine they KNOW doesn’t work with the meal. Of course, all pairings born out of business desperation aren’t bad, but they’re rarely remarkable.
3) The dish with which you’re pairing the wine has flavor and aroma components that complement or add to the potential beverage choice, and vice versa. The rarest of all wine pairings, these tend to be truly phenomenal. Rather than merely mirroring flavors and aromas, they build upon them, heightening or expanding experiences. The sum of the two – the dish and the wine – is here greater than the parts.
I explained to my guest that my aim with wine pairings is chiefly to capture the third experience. While it’s arguably the riskiest, it has the highest pay-off.
Why is it the riskiest? That’s simple: When you’re looking to add flavor or heighten a flavor, it’s significantly more difficult to identify what wines will work and which won’t. Comparatively, it’s reasonably easy to match rich cherry and oak flavors with a dish that delivers much the same.
So first and foremost, you have to be willing to take a chance if you’re going to come up with a stunning wine pairing. If you’re not open to pushing boundaries or are afraid of displeasing your guests, this column probably isn’t for you.
The next step should be obvious: Taste the dish. That sounds easy, too, but this isn’t a time for simply evaluating whether the dish is tasty or not. Of course it’s tasty (why would you serve bad food to your guests?).
What you want to do is expand a range of flavors, textures, aromas and even emotional experiences. Chew and taste with a goal in mind, asking constantly, what’s missing? Is it acid? Is it a buttery-ness? Is it bitterness? Is it something vaguely smoky and foresty? Build an ideal dish and wine pairing in your head, placing sensory ideas in touch with your own knowledge of grape varietals, wine regions and all the unique variations therein. In a certain way, as you explore the dish on your plate, you’re mapping out and coming to know, almost geographically (if your plate was a globe), the ideal wine.
This mapping can take you in many directions, and as a risk-taking sommelier, you shouldn’t be afraid of going wherever your senses take you. Follow instinct and gut feeling.
That last sentence, “follow instinct and gut feeling,” reveals the true difference between wine-pairing options No. 1 and No. 3. The first, which puts similar or deeply contrasting flavor and aroma profiles together, relies chiefly on reason and logic. It makes sense to do that.
No. 3, on the other hand, relies chiefly on something beyond reason. Is it emotion? Is it feeling? Is it passion? Is it ignorance? Whatever it is, it moves past the limits of the human mind and aims to capture something only your fives senses can appreciate and translate. It doesn’t make sense, but it does sense.
The recipe and suggested wine pairing below goes a long way to capturing what is meant by the above paragraphs. My advice is simple: Start with the following, taste the dish and wine together, and then try to articulate (to yourself – maybe even on paper) why the combination works. Or if it doesn’t work for you, articulate that, too. At the end, regardless of the exercise’s outcome, you’ll have come closer to an understanding of your own pairing preferences.
Ultimately, it’s that individuality and distinctness that separates the good from the bad. Food and wine, after all, is a matter of personal taste.
Serves four as a light main course
1.5 pounds boneless lamb leg, preferably from a young animal reared locally in a humane, free-range environment
1 large eggplant
5 Sweet Vidalia onions
A bit of heavy cream
Cut the five onions thinly and place them in a hot pan with oil. Cook the onions until deeply browned, stirring regularly and adding water as needed to prevent the onions from burning too much.
Keep cooking the onions. Whereas “browned onions” typically are taken off the heat after they take on a nicely burnished hue, you want something more like the color of mahogany wood. Carefully watch the moisture level of the pan; you’ll need to keep adding small amounts of water to extend the cooking time. The whole process should take upwards of two hours.
Let the browned onions cool briefly. While still warm, put them in a blender and add just enough heavy cream to loosen the mixture. Blend to create the equivalent of an “onion ganache.” It should be thick but easily spreadable, with a rich caramel flavor and a wonderful mouth-coating quality. Reserve until service.
Over an open flame, deeply char the exterior of the eggplant. Burn the skin black; don’t hold back. A grill works well and is reasonably clean; you can also use a gas burner (place the eggplant directly on the stove, like you would a pot). An “elite” move would be to stoke the grill with grape vine cuttings, which naturally burn extremely hot and will give a characteristic flavor to the charred eggplant.
After the eggplant cools, remove the charred skin using your hands, leaving trace amounts of char behind on the eggplant flesh. Break the eggplant into four long sections, pulling away as many seeds as possible. Reserve the flesh in a small pan.
Using a sharp knife, carefully butcher the boneless lamb leg, cutting in long, smooth cuts to remove excess fat and tough membranes. Aim to cut four “steaks” from the leg meat – look to isolate similarly sized pieces of the lamb, which are naturally broken up in the leg by virtue of the aforementioned fat and membrane.
At service, preheat your oven’s broiler and a stove-top pan with a bit of neutral oil (like grapeseed) until raging hot. Season the lamb leg pieces with a bit of coarse sea salt. Slide the eggplant under the broiler and while it reheats, sear the lamb. The pan should be hot enough and the steaks small enough that only about 1-2 minutes on each side colors the exterior but leaves the interior rare. Remove the pieces from the pan and allow them to rest briefly while you pull the eggplant out of the oven.
Finish the dish. Smear onion puree across the edge of the plate and lay a sliver of eggplant flesh across the opposing edge. Drizzle the eggplant with only a touch of extremely high quality olive oil. Place the lamb squarely in the middle of the puree and sprinkle lightly with coarse sea salt and freshly cracked pepper.
2008 Masseria Fatalone “Teres” Primitivo, Puglia, Italy (serve lightly chilled!)
Fatalone translates as “lady killer,” and though we cannot vouch for its effectiveness in that regard, this Primitivo — with its relatively low alcohol content — is certainly quite quaffable.
Appearances are often deceiving, but here, there is much to learn and appreciate. A dirty-looking pour, somewhere between brown and burnt red, is hot with funky smells of pork, open fields and dried cherry. Then there are deeply roasted almonds, raw ceps and juicy strawberry-inflected fruits.
Opened at room temperature, this wine seems lost in translation; served slightly chilled, it becomes a unique expression of an organic winemaker’s vision at a very affordable price point. No word yet on whether the winery’s “application of music therapy” to the grapes makes any difference, but at the moment, seeing how drinkable this wine is, we’ll allow for that sort of new age nonsense.
MSRP: $14 (May 2012)
Wine Lines Rating: 90
Smoke, ripe strawberry fruit, roasted mushrooms, forest berries, blood minerality.