Pairing wine in the real world

 The ballroom of the J. W. Marriott Marquis in Miami, site of the VeritageMiami Spring Edition Interactive Dinner (Photo: Lyn Farmer)

The ballroom of the J. W. Marriott Marquis in Miami, site of the VeritageMiami Spring Edition Interactive Dinner (Photo: Lyn Farmer)

I've seen a lot of comments in books and magazine articles about pairing wine, and it often seems so easy. Lamb? Open that bottle of Pauillac you've been saving. Oysters - well, Chablis of course. But dining in the real world is a bit different for many of us. Last Friday I had a case in point, the interactive dinner for VeritageMiami at which 525 people cooked dishes created by six chefs. Yes, they cooked their own dinner - every table of eight people had a cooktop and a mis en place, and guests cooked along with the guest chefs on stage in this annual charity event to benefit United Way of Miami-Dade.

To make things a bit easier, we paired up the chefs in teams of two, and to make things more difficult, we paired wines with each collaborative course. Pairing specific wines with each course gave us the opportunity to showcase how certain wines and foods go together, and it was an interesting exercise in compatibility. Let’s look at what made the pairings work.

 Photo: ZoninUSA

Photo: ZoninUSA

First, we prepared out palates by featuring cocktails made with Atlantico Rum and with Zonin Prosecco for all the wine lovers. Prosecco in a sparkling wine made in Veneto, in northeastern Italy. This is a cool region and in cool climates grapes develop bracing acidity. Zonin is one of the region’s leading producers with a reputation for quality gained over nearly two centuries. 

Prosecco is the name of a small town in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, and for many years it was also the name of the grape from which this wine was made. As Prosecco grew in popularity as a dry alternative to many semi-sweet Italian sparkling wines (like Asti Spumante), growers in other regions realized that if they planted the prosecco grape, they could also call their wine “Prosecco.” Understandably, the wine producers in Italy colpito il tetto (hit the roof). Their solution? They officially changed the name of the grape to it’s local name “glera” and declared Prosecco was a place name and therefore protected under European law. They fared much better than their neighbors in Champagne at ending the piracy of their prized name.

Zonin’s Prosecco is one of my favorites – I like the faint hint of almond in the fruity flavor, just a trace of bitterness that gives the wine a nice edge, and gives one’s appetite a nice edge as well, the purpose of any good aperitif. At 11 percent alcohol, Zonin Prosecco is refreshingly light on the palate – it is an uncomplicated aperitif and yet it has enough nuance to allow to be a good match with lighter foods. With its crisp acidity, it is a good match for ceviche, caprese salad and other starters that have a bit of vinegar or citrus juice that can undermine many wines.

 Julia Ning and Nicole Votano's veal cheek and foie gras dumplings with shaved vegetables and peanut nuoc cham (Photo: Lyn Farmer)

Julia Ning and Nicole Votano's veal cheek and foie gras dumplings with shaved vegetables and peanut nuoc cham (Photo: Lyn Farmer)

With the dinner, the tricky pairings began. One issue posed by the dishes on the menu was complexity: each plate was a collaboration between two strong-minded chefs who each also wanted their personality to show while meshing with their colleague. In the first course, chef Julia Ning wanted to showcase the Latin-Vietnamese fusion cuisine that is the foundation of her new restaurant Phuc Yea, a pop-up that is finally going the brick and mortar route. She was cooking with her friend Nicole Votano, an eclectic chef who is focusing these days on sustainable agriculture and carefully chosen local ingredients at her Miami Beach restaurant DIRT//East Clean. Julia made dumplings stuffed with veal cheek and foie gras and Nicole added a salad of shaved local vegetables, including asparagus, a veg that is not an easy match with wine. 

Further complicating the dish were two sauces – Julia called for a drizzle of dipping sauce made from a reduction of Dr. Pepper soda, soy and black vinegar, while Nicole added peanut nuoc cham, a dressing for the vegetables that combines sugar, lime juice and umami-laden fish sauce. The juxtaposition of the two sauces was delicious but potentially tricky for the accompanying wine – we required something that would stand up to food with strong flavors and a bit of rich texture from the veal and foie gras, but that was still essentially a salad with a tangy dressing.

 Calasole Vermentino Photo: Rocca di Montemasi

Calasole Vermentino Photo: Rocca di Montemasi

What we needed was a with that had crisp acidity to pair with the foie gras and match the acid components of the sauces (not to mention the hint of sweetness from the Dr. Pepper reduction) and a fresh minerality and enough flavor of its own to match the fish sauce and flavorful, slightly sweet seasonal vegetables. I found all these requirements in a vermentino from Tuscany, a beautiful wine from Rocca di Montemassi called Calasole. 

Vermentino is a grape that for many years only flourished in the vineyards of Sardinia, off Italy’s Mediterranean coast. In recent years, enterprising vintners have been planting it on the mainland in coastal regions that are not really so far away from its Sardinian home. In the Tuscan region of Maremma, south of Livorno and Pisa the gentle warm ocean breezes (one of which is named “calasole,” hence the name of the wine) help the grapes ripen slowly so they develop flavors of apple and citrus, plus some dry minerality and a subtle hint of stone fruit (white peach, for example). These flavors are backed up by crisp acidity that gives the wine the sort of focus we needed to match with the deceptively complex flavors of Julia and Nicole’s dish.

I liked the pairing very much – this is a wine that is as versatile as it is tasty. If you want to read more about the wine, do visit the Rocca di Montemassi website. The good news is that the other pairings worked out just as well. In my next post, I’ll walk you through those combinations, and share the recipes for all three dishes as well. Cheers!