A good meal can certainly stand on its own merits, but a good meal paired with an ideal wine becomes much more. At the end, the elements of the food and wine blend together to become an experience that binds the two inexorably.
It takes time to find really great pairings. Typical pasta with a typical dry red wine can be very satisfying, but an earthy, spicy, savory Italian culinary creation paired with Borolo, a regional Italian wine made from the Nebbiolo grape, can bring such a dish to unbelievable heights. But how would you know? To develop these associations is often a matter of trial-and-error, as one must begin to experience Italian cuisine as well as come to discover Italian wines that are more obscure in the United States.
Food lovers know that Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, widely available wines, pair well with seafood. It takes time, however, to discover something more obscure. Chablis, for instance, can bring seafood tastes to new heights. Chablis is simply Chardonnay made in the cool northern Chablis region of France, an area that makes sharp wines with distinct floral aromas and an acidic flinty taste. Most versions are produced completely without oak. Finger Lakes producers recognize the potential to make this oak-free Chardonnay here that has the same qualities as its Chablis cousin since both regions have a similar climate.
To think about food with Chablis or oak-free Chardonnay is simply a matter of embracing something new. You don’t have to be an expert to find numerous examples of widely available wines from all over the world that bring something unique to a dining experience. Thankfully, many readers of this magazine live in, near, or frequently visit an area that has many opportunities to order a meal, pour a glass and learn. Pairing is a step-by-step process, nothing more.
Heron Hill Winery – Blue Heron Café
Mike Oliver, Heron Hill’s director of its Blue Heron Café, believes that Riesling can be crafted to fit a wide variety of foods. “I feel that the prevalence of the Riesling grape in the Finger Lakes and the contrasting characteristics that can be developed from this wine (depending on the sugar level and wine making techniques) lend it to a variety of food pairings.”
While noting that Heron Hill’s semi-dry Rieslings could match a variety of sweet dishes, Oliver points to the medium-bodied 2008 Ingle Vineyard as a crisp accompaniment to a dish of Oysters Rockefeller.
“This is a timeless classic that I always like to come back to,” says Oliver, referring to the broiled oyster half shells topped with puree of spinach, green onions and spicy bread crumbs, and fresh mozzarella cheese. “I’ve made this recipe for 10 years, but just introduced it to Heron Hill. The spiciness of the bread crumbs calls for a wine with a touch of residual sugar and light minerality to bring out the flavors of the oysters.”
Heron Hill Winemaker Bernard Cannac, a native of France, concurs with Mike Oliver concerning the importance of minerality in Riesling. “The Ingle Vineyard (near Canandaigua Lake) is a very particular site. The soil there is naturally well suited for growing grape vines. It has a fair amount of slate, which shows in the Chardonnay and the Riesling. The slate character is even more enhanced in the Riesling due to the aromatic profile of the Riesling varietal itself. By nature, Riesling can show some minerality, flint character and even petroleum, when grown in a cold climate.”
While Bernard Cannac joined Heron Hill after the 2008 vintage, he is impressed with the balance and acidity of the wines from that year and with his Finger Lakes experience thus far. “I believe that one of the strengths of the Finger Lakes Region is that growers and winemakers can produce complex wines with a nice backbone without getting too heavy. We can grow ripe fruit and yet preserve the natural acidity. One of the key notes in the Finger Lakes is elegance.”
Ravines Wine Cellars – Ravinous Kitchen
Ever the proponents of food-friendly wines, Morten and Lisa Hallgren from Ravines Wine Cellars recently remodeled a portion of their tasting room to include an eat-in kitchen area featuring light fare to pair with their wines. The Ravinous Kitchen opened this past spring with a selection of chocolates, cheeses, breads, tarts and the occasional theme-inspired dish, all paired with Ravines wine.
“We have always made food a very important part of what we do at Ravines,” explains Lisa, who has, since the inception of the winery, created food events in the tasting room. “When we release a new wine, we usually make some foods that we think pair beautifully with the wine and invite our customers to try them together. The Ravinous Kitchen is a place where we can bring together our wines, with local farmstead cheeses, meats, artisan chocolates and breads and enhance the whole food and wine experience.”
The cheese and chocolate plates offered in the Ravinous kitchen are designed to pair with several different wines at once, although the Bordeaux-style 2007 Meritage (a blending of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot) is featured prominently between the two plates. The two chocolates that pair with the Meritage, made for Ravines by Hedonist Artisan Chocolate in Rochester, include a Bittersweet Truffle with a center of creamy chocolate ganache flavored with the actual Meritage wine, and a Currant Truffle made with ripe black currants grown by R.H. Rhodes & Sons in Penn Yan and infused with the Cassis liqueur from The Finger Lakes Distillery.
The cheese paired with the 2007 Meritage is Keeley’s Across the Pond cheese, a semi-soft washed rind cheese made from raw milk by Keeley Cheese Company on Cayuga Lake. “Across the Pond is lush, buttery and complex with an amazing earthy character that gets stronger as it ages,” explain Lisa. “We like to let it age a little so it’s a perfect match for the Meritage. The proteins in the cheese soften the firm tannins in the wine and the earthy flavors of the cheese complement the complex fruit, earth and oak balance of the wine. We serve it with a freshly baked baguette from Keuka Artisan Bakery in Hammondsport.”
Morten Hallgren, who has won critical acclaim for his 2007 Meritage, boils down the food-friendliness of wine to a formula that inspires his craftsmanship in the Finger Lakes. “From my point of view, it comes down to balance. In order for a wine to not only be a social drink but a table wine, several issues must be addressed: moderate alcohol, good acidity level giving the wine freshness, moderate use of oak for sufficient tannin structure to hold everything together, and an emphasis on fresh fruit aromas as opposed to jammy, cooked aromas. Careful winemaking is important so the wine is finished without rough edges.”
In our continuing series on Finger Lakes wine pairing, we’ve explored six different wineries that pair food and wine on their premises, highlighting four different kinds of wine. In this issue we highlight two more establishments found on Keuka Lake, one of which features a perfect pairing to the region’s staple wine, the other striving to match food with a style of wine found in the storied Bordeaux region of France.