In Perfect Harmony

Pairing wine and food is arguably a science, but in most cases it boils down to art. Many of the most expensive restaurants around the world employ professional sommeliers who spend a lifetime mastering the intricate qualities of wine, all with the intention of pairing the culinary creation at hand with a wine to perfectly complement it. However, even qualified and respected sommeliers will vary in their conclusions and suggestions, and even the best among them rely upon opinion to some extent.

To pair food and wine, however, does not require a sommelier or a world-class restaurant. All a consumer needs is some basic education and a willingness to experiment. The basic rules – white with fowl and fish, red with red meats and dark sauces – might seem rigid, but they are just guidelines that are malleable and can expand with experience. One must always consider the density and style of the individual dish, as well as the density and style of the wines, red or white. Over time, any wine drinker can gain confidence and familiarity with the attributes of many of their favorite wines sufficient to allow them to make a decent pairing with just about anything they eat. There are no wrong pairings, red or white, as long as fun can be had and learning takes place.

Of course, experience can be gained in one’s own kitchen, but in the Finger Lakes opportunities abound to taste wine and food together. In the last installment of this series, we explored three wine and food pairings in winery-restaurant establishments on Seneca Lake. In this article, I highlight three additional winery-restaurant opportunities on Cayuga Lake’s western shore.

It is noteworthy that out of six restaurants, five different types of wine have been selected. This variation reflects the nature of the young wine region. Experimentation and open-mindedness still rule the day in the Finger Lakes, and that creates opportunities for even the casual taster to compare and contrast as they move from winery to winery.

Knapp Vineyard Restaurant
In most pairings, winemakers and chefs alike tend to prefer vinifera or European wines, mostly due to their complexities and ability to be constructed in a dry style. Knapp Vineyard winemaker Steve DiFrancesco is willing to recommend wines made from hybrid grapes that demonstrate real quality when made in the Finger Lakes.

“The Seyval Blanc grape variety once had a high quality reputation,” Steve said, “but it was foreshadowed by the vinifera revolution in the Finger Lakes of the 1980s and 1990s. Treated with respect, however, the variety can be made into a very pleasing wine.”

Knapp’s Seyval Blanc begins with grapes from vines planted in the 1970s and is fermented in neutral oak to give it a bright flavor. To pair a culinary dish with Knapp’s 2010 Seyval Blanc, Chef John McNabb created a seared flounder over clementine-scented jasmine rice with Knapp Limoncello and rosemary beurre blanc, and homegrown asparagus spears.

“The idea of the seared flounder dish stemmed from a successful past dish in which I used sea bass in a like application,” John explained. “This time around I wanted to utilize a more sustainable fish, but something that was still delicate and would keep the integrity of the dish.”

Cayuga Ridge Winery – The Copper Oven
This selection is a Riesling, but while the Finger Lakes Region has become well-known for its Rieslings, the method by which Cayuga Ridge Winery pairs its wine with food is decidedly novel. Tom and Sue Challen have owned Cayuga Ridge for 20 years, but this past year their daughter, Mary Jane Kircher, added a feature to allow wine tasters the opportunity to enjoy food with the winery’s selections.

Instead of a conventional restaurant and kitchen setup, however, Mary Jane decided to purchase a 6,000-lb. portable copper-clad white clay oven from France. To add even more flair to this distinctive choice, the giant oven is used – almost exclusively – to produce pizza.

Why pizza? “I like pizza!” she replied, enthusiastically. To be sure, the pizza being offered is nothing like what comes out of your neighborhood parlor. Mary Jane is committed to sourcing local ingredients for use in her gourmet pizza-like dishes. For this pairing, Mary Jane highlighted her 26 Mile Pie (no ingredients come from more than 26 miles away) which consists of Lively Run Herbs de Provence Chevre, caramelized local sweet onions, homegrown heirloom squash purée, and local apple cider reduction, drizzled after cooking.

To pair with the 26 Mile Pie, owner and winemaker Tom Challen selected his 2008 semidry Riesling, a wine rich with fruit that he believes “plays with the seasonal flavors of the pizza. The brightness and acidity bring a nice harmony to the meal.”

Sheldrake Point Winery – Simply Red Bistro
Sheldrake Point Winery has quickly become well known for wine-related dining in the Finger Lakes. Each year, the Simply Red Bistro at Sheldrake Point hosts several winemaker dinners that bring the winery’s staff into contact with guests to explain how wine is made and how wine can influence the creation of a menu.

One of the dishes highlighted for the Spring Winemaker’s Dinner this year was tea smoked chicken, made from locally foraged chicken that is wok-smoked over a selection of exotic spices including tea, star anise, ginger, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns and jasmine.

Chef Samantha Izzo explained her inspiration for the dish: “I wanted to evoke spring and the aromas that fill the air at Sheldrake Point and with light spicing stimulate a sense of rejuvenation for both body and soul.”

Sheldrake Point’s general manager and winegrower Bob Madill selected the 2007 Barrel Reserve Pinot Noir to pair with the tea smoked chicken. “Two-thousand-seven will be remembered for being dry and for a marvelously sunny late summer through fall yielding full flavored red varieties with ripe, sweet tannins,” Bob explained. “Pinot exhibited wonderful typicity that combined elegance and concentration. Given the vintage year, we used a bit more new French oak for savory spice and complexity.”

Bob summarized the pairing, saying, “Spice on spice, wok smoke on fired barrel, a crescendo that reflects spring’s exuberance.”


by Jason Feulner