Kicking Off 2015 - Good Wine & Good Food

Hello, internet. We are back.

We were on an extended break due to a confluence of events that included holidays, travel, wine exams, and the general business of being an adult which always appears relatively simple on the outside, but actually taxes me to a greater degree than I probably should admit. Some days I’m not quite sure how I made it to, and continue to persist in, successful adulthood.

ANYWAY. With that little disclaimer/over-share, let’s return to the vino, shall we?

We kicked off the year with an amazing wine dinner with friends, and the highlights are worth sharing. I am fortunately blessed with friends who cook SO MUCH BETTER (and so much more frequently) than I do.

But!

I can pair wine. So, that’s how I get out of having to assist with the meal, which is better for everyone, because I usually end up a) cutting myself or b) setting something on fire.

Anyway, onto the menu, with pairings:

Appetizer: Crostini two ways, with homemade bruschetta and prosciutto, ricotta and honey.

Wine Pairing: Vecchia Modena Premium Lambrusco

Can we talk about how under-loved (and under utilized) Lambrusco is? Lambrusco is a sparkling red wine out of Italy. It’s light-bodied, frizzante, and meant to be drunk young. This is pure picnic wine, people. It also pairs really well with prosciutto, and stands up the acid in raw tomatoes, hence why I paired it here. It is also a suitable accompaniment to pizza, and is basically THE perfect wine for sunny, summer afternoons in the park. Also for as an aperitif.

First Course: Frisee Salad with Poached Egg and Lardon

Wine Pairing: Homage to Heritage White Burgundy, Pouilly-Fuissé

So, I went with a White Burgundy for this course. To be honest, as I served it I was wondering if I should have gone for a more high acid white; maybe a Chablis or even a Sauvignon Blanc. The pairing turned out to surprise me, though, and I think it may have been my favorite pairing of the meal. This Chardonnay had notes of ripe fruit – melon, apple and pear – and just a touch of neutral oak aging which gave it a little bit of creaminess and weight. The fruit matched the crispness of the frisee, and the weight and creaminess basically had a mind meld with the poached egg and lardon. I could eat this salad and drink this wine together for the rest of my life and be pretty happy about it.

Second Course: Cacio e Pepe with squid ink pasta

Wine Pairing: 2013 Roio Orvieto Classico

Cacio e Pepe is a light pasta dish consisting of Parmigiana cheese, pepper and…pasta. It’s simple and elegant, as most of the best meals are. And because of this, I struggled mightily with the wine pairing. Complex meals with multiple components are generally easier to pair – there are more handholds, if you will. More elements for the wine to link onto, more nuances to bring out subtleties in the wine. In simple dishes, there is nowhere to hide – the wine either works, or it doesn’t.

I played around with red wine possibilities for a while, contemplated a high acid white… In the end, I reverted back to my basic rule for all pairings: when stumped, go local.

Cacio e Pepe, it turns out, is native to the Umbria region of Italy. There’s also a lovely little white wine native to Umbria called Orvieto, which ended up being a perfect match for this dish. Orvieto is mostly Trebbiano (kind of like Chardonnay), a grape that has neutral qualities so as not to overwhelm this simple dish, and just enough acid to cut through the creaminess of the cheese and stand up to the pepper.

Third Course: Braised beef short rib over polenta

Wine Pairing: Donnachiara 2007 Taurasi Aglianico

Aglianico is a grape that has been around forever. It was a major export in ancient Greece, consumed by the Romans, and even protected by Popes. Like a lot of Italian wine, it’s had its ups and downs in quality. But this Taurasi (referring to the region where Aglianico is grown) is on point. Taurasi is in southern Italy, in the region of Campania, where it grows on volcanic soils. The soil lends the wine its most notable characteristics – black fruit flavors followed by smoke, ash, tobacco and black olives.

So often hearty beef dishes are paired with rich, fruit forward wines like a big Napa Cab or juicy Merlot. (Indeed – these short ribs had even been braised in Merlot…). But this Aglianico had just the right amount of grip and smoke to bring out the earthy elements of the meat and highlight the silkiness of the polenta. This was really a case where each element of the meal was beautiful on its own, and together they made an incomparable pair.

Desert: Chocolate soufflé

Wine Pairing: Blandy’s 5 year old Malmsey Madeira

Can I first say how lucky I am to have friends who can effortlessly craft perfect chocolate soufflés? Especially when these are the same friends with whom I did a lot of stupid things in college? From beer bongs to soufflés. The evolution of adulthood.

Anyway, this pairing was almost reflexive for me – I heard chocolate, and I paired Madeira.

Madeira is a fortified (sweet) wine from Portugal. I love it beyond all reason. Emma hates it and thinks it is gross.

To each their own, I suppose.

The flavors of Madeira pair so well with chocolate. Unlike more fruit forward fortified wines (think, Port), the most notable flavors in Madeira are fig, coffee, caramel and nuts. It’s the perfect offset to the sweetness of the chocolate.

The other great thing about Madeira is, frankly, how weird it is. (I love odd stories and weird wines….Madeira fits the bill in this regard). I’ve written here before about how heat is the enemy of wine. That is and remains true, except when the wine is Madeira.

Back during the Age of Exploration (Columbus! Pilgrims! East India Company!), Madeira was the standard beverage consumed on ships heading to the New World or the East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, a neutral grape spirit was added (usually brandy) just before the wine was stashed into the hull of the ship. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat, oxygen and movement, which transformed the flavor of the wine. The wine would be, essentially, cooked.

The modern method of making Madeira is intended to mimic the elements the wine was exposed to during long sea voyages. The modern process is called “estufagem (es-too-fuh-jem). It works like this: the best Madeira houses harvest their grapes, ferment them in steel or in oak and then….put them in the attic. Yup. They just stick them up in the attic (presumably not with all their winter clothes, family photos and Christmas ornaments...)where the wine is exposed to the boiling heat of Portugal summers. (Lower quality Madeira is put over stove generated heat, but the best stuff is attic-aged.)

Exposure to the elements that destroy most wines – oxygen and heat – are what make Madeira what it is. The added benefit of making it this way (besides the fact that it’s delicious) is that it makes Madeira virtually indestructible. You could open a bottle, put it on a shelf for a couple of months, expose it to summer heat, and then serve it, and it would still taste fine. Madeira lasts forever. 100-year old Madeiras are not infrequently sold. Vintages dating back to 1780 are known to exist in great condition. Old bottles come to market (usually at auction) and are still drinkable. (To compare, still, dry wine doesn’t usually last that long. Vintages from the 1800s are more likely to oxidize or spoil due to cork breakdown or bottle damage).

All of that to say, Madeira was a lovely way to finish off the meal.

You know the food was great when all the preparation fogs up the windows.

You know the wine was even better when your 30ish year-old friends feel compelled to finger-write their feelings on the window.