Risky Business

In the WSET Level 1 course we focus a great deal on how and why various wines and foods go together in harmony or clash in dissonance. Through eight food pairings during the class we explore some real-world illustrations of what, in a book, seems just so much cerebral theory. What made the class exercises particularly useful this trip is that after the day’s course, I had a chance to put the examples to the test when I had dinner with a friend at Chicago’s wonderful Aba Restaurant.

Hummus and Lamb Ragu at Aba ©Lyn Farmer

Hummus and Lamb Ragu at Aba ©Lyn Farmer

Aba serves “Mediterranean Cuisine,” which is something of a generic description of what turns out to be a very complex menu created by chef CJ Jacobson. With many of the dishes carrying Lebanese and Moroccan influences, any given plate is sure to contain a heady variety of spices, some aromatic, some moderately hot, and all of them wonderfully exotic.

Reflecting the menu, beverage director Liz Pearce has assembled a beguiling array of warm-climate wines from the South of France, Greece, Italy and Spain along with a few inspired choices from the warmer parts of California that so accurately reflect a Mediterranean sensibility. With an emphasis on full-bodied white wines and reds with crisp acidity and softer tannins, Ms. Pearce gives the wine lover a lot of options.

A lovely selection of wines by the glass gives indecisive tables many options among a group of flavorful white wines and low-tannin reds with which to begin. I loved a Domaine Skouras Moscofilero, a Greek white wine that was crisply acidic, vibrantly fruity and had enough body to stand up to both starters at my table, a plate of hummus with shredded lamb ragu and a dish called Muhammara that combined pomegranate with walnuts and spicy Aleppo pepper. 

Mahammara at Aba ©Lyn Farmer

Mahammara at Aba ©Lyn Farmer

Subtly hot, both sweet and tart from the pomegranate and even a bit tannic from the walnuts, the Muhammara appeared on paper to be a classic high-risk pairing but the moschofilero was the ideal foil for it: it had plenty of fruit to counter the chili and the tannin (both of which reduce fruitiness in wine), it had crisp acidity to counter the sweetness of the dish and it had the body to stand up to the complexity of spices. Here, a low-risk wine was the perfect answer to what could have been a pairing quandary. It did equally well, for different reasons, with the rich hummus, where the crisp acidity offset the fattiness of the lamb.

I find it helps to keep in mind the WSET concept of dividing both food and wine into high risk and low risk groupings. Low risk wines go with many things – they generally have lower alcohol, low or non-existent tannins, abundant fruitiness and sometimes a hint of residual sugar. High risk wines are, as you might expect, nearly the opposite: high tannin, high alcohol and very dry. Keep the categories in mind and you may find it easier to navigate around a highly spiced meal.

Having the help of a thoughtful wine guide like Liz Pearce at Aba is a big asset, but you can provide the same skills at home by spending some time exploring wine and food pairings at an upcoming WSET or Fine Vintage, Ltd. course!

If you want to visit Aba yourself, here are the details:

Aba Restaurant

302 N Green Street,

Chicago, IL 60607