This past weekend I was hanging around Savannah, Georgia and coastal South Carolina on a mini vacation with M.C. Ice and our awesome puppy, Ellie. Vacation has many, many benefits but one of the best is that I get out of my food rut and get to play around with wine pairings when we go out to dinner each night. Like all the normal people I know, I cook some variation of the same meals every week (face it: we all do this). I make a ton of Mediterranean food and the very occasional Asian meal, so what we eat is generally a home run with wines of all kinds. I think of all food, Mediterranean/Italian-based cuisine is the most wine friendly. Argue if you like, but that's my take.
Wine pairing is an art and a science. Since I am a fish-a-tarian (don't get down on me, I'm allergic to red meat, so my doctors said when I stopped eating it at 2 and my parents were not vegetarian!), I rely on two things to make great pairings -- sauce/spice and M.C. Ice to approve. I rarely mess it up. Try it yourself -- for instance, understanding that big red wines and beef are exclusive lovers, you narrow the playing field of acceptable wines dramatically. To make a final determination, you can do your best pairing work if you focus NOT on the meat, but on the preparation. It makes a world of difference in getting it right. I pride myself on being fabulous at pairing food and wine because of this.
But guess what? Even though I'm a sommelier and am an expert of sorts in this game, sometimes I botch it royally and it's a great learning experience nonetheless.
At the coast, we ate fish every night. What was in season and common on every menu was fresh grouper, a light, flaky, white fish that is imparted with flavor based on the sauce that goes on top. I had it three nights in a row -- all with different prep -- and I had soaring success and colossal failure in pairing over the three nights. Although on balance it worked out, I realized just how much things can fall apart if one part of the dish is different as described or if you don't consider how it all goes together. Here was grouper three ways and the pairings that worked or didn't:
Evening 1: Belford's in Savannah
The Dish: Grouper with a balsamic glaze over creamy risotto
The Wine: Savannah is a real food town and usually the wine lists have some cool stuff, but sadly Belford's wine list was super boring -- they had a very scant international selection and the stuff they did have was kind of beat. But I appreciated this in the end. It made me push my pairing muscles. I ordered a bottle of the 2008 Frei Brother's Reserve Russian River Chardonnay -- something that on its own is an oaky, caramel, tart-apple, Chateau 2 x 4 Special (thanks to Eric for allowing me to borrow this phrase) and something I would never sip.
The Pairing: Totally surprising. MC Ice was completely skeptical after having a sip of the wine without the food. This isn't what we ever have at home, but I thought with the creaminess of the fish and the balsamic glaze we would have a winner. Once paired with the fish, there was no sign of caramel or wood anywhere in the wine -- just tart apple, good acidity, and a clean finish that allowed the fish to keep its delicacy, added nice fruit to the sweet balsamic glaze, and complemented the risotto by lightening up the creaminess and making it seem a bit thinner and more refined. Total home run and extra points because it was unexpected.
Just another tip -- the Frei is a standard Russian River Chardonnay from Sonoma County, California so any stand-in at around $12 - $18 should do.
Evening 2: Alligator Soul Restaurant in Savannah
We got married in Savannah and have been to lots of the great restaurants there, but this was our maiden voyage to this subterranean, very cool, upscale yet hidden place. I just loved the grotto-like feel to it and the menu featured all sorts of delicious fish options. The chef came out at the end of the evening to talk to us -- Chris DiNello was gracious, kind, and knowledgeable. I loved it. Another thing I loved: the stainless steel martini glass. So genius -- it keeps the drink ice cold and looks damn cool!
The Dish: It was a special, not on the regular menu -- seared grouper with artichokes, spinach, and red pepper sauce (see dark, crappy picture, left).
The Wine: Before I tell you what it was, I want to tell you that the wine was ordered to go with the light salad, the cheese course (2 gouda, 2 cheddar, 1 feta, apples, walnuts, and a piece of local honeycomb -- loved it!), and, most of all, the honey-glazed scallops (dreamy pairing with this wine -- creamy, made them more honeyed, acid cut the buttery deliciousness of the scallop). The grouper was a special so it was hard to remember all the components. I thought the 2007 Trimbach Riesling from Alsace, France, which is creamy, aromatic, fruity and almost oily, yet acidic, would be a safe bet with a light fish.
The Pairing: To counteract the perfection of the scallop/cheese pairings was the freaking DISASTER of a pairing with this grouper. Please don't make this mistake -- it made me think I should have ordered a bourbon instead. I went from acidic, peachy delight in the wine to harsh textures and clashing flavors that made me think of Iggy Pop rocking out with the New York Philharmonic. The artichoke was salty and green tasting, which contrasted so strongly with the aromatic, nectarine notes in the wine and made the acidic nature of the Riesling cut my tongue like a knife. This wine is usually so creamy, but when met with the red pepper sauce it became thin and bitter. As you can see from the pic, the plate is kind of loaded up with the artichokes and red pepper. I thought they would be small bits and not overwhelm the wine. Should have asked. Mea culpa.
What a complete pairing disaster. For my palate, this pairing is akin to streaking at a funeral -- so inappropriate and completely offensive. I love the Trimbach and drink it regularly, but not with these ingredients. Don't try this at home, kids. If you see red pepper and artichokes, step away from the Riesling. Ick.
Evening 3: Truffles, Bluffton, South Carolina
With that disaster under my belt, I was feeling off my game. Could I redeem myself? I mean the scallops and other stuff worked with the Riesling, but the grouper...oy, vey. It gave me the chills just thinking of it.
The Dish: Grouper with Mediterranean topping -- tomatoes, olives, and feta.
The Wine: I paired the Decoy Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley with it. Yes, red wine and fish. I went off the sauce rule (keeping in mind that the red had to stay on the light side so as not to ruin the fish).
The Pairing: After the nightmare of the night before, we went by the glass for each dish (a perfectly fine option if you are ordering different stuff from your companion). As a tangent, I almost ordered a beer with the spinach and artichoke dip given my artichoke disaster of the previous night but then got brave and went for Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand and it was a total hit! If you want to cut the creamy, thick and "green" nature of that dip, the Sauvignon Blanc lightens it all up and the green flavors in the wine complement the food to make it all smooth, with no sharp angles or salty, bitter badness -- which is always the fear when pairing with artichokes and spinach. Should have remembered this when I was pairing the grouper the night before!
But I digress. Let's address the briny, earthy flavors of the kalamata olives, which dominated the tomato and feta topping and seeped into the fish. The Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from a very cool area of Mendocino County, north of Napa and Sonoma (some of the best Pinot and sparkling in the US in my opinion), had complementary notes in it -- earthy, minerally, and just slight red berry flavor that went perfectly with the Mediterranean mix. The acidity of the tomato matched the acidity of the wine and it was just heaven. Thinking about the flavors as they were described -- the acid in the tomato, the earthiness of the olives, and the saltiness of the feta worked so well with the wine's minerality, fruit, and acidity! It worked out great!
So there is some pairing in practice that illustrates my earlier points. Same fish every night with different prep = a different wine every time. Hopefully this will help you when you're pairing. I'm glad I documented it here -- next time I'm at the coast, I'm going to pull up this post just to remember.
Happy Pairing and please share with me your successes and disasters!