Perfect Couples

Wine begs to be consumed with food, although it’s not always easy to remember that when you are tasting on a wine trail in the Finger Lakes. At most wineries crackers suffice as accompaniment, but these little morsels, as necessary as they are for the tired palate, hardly allude to the joy of sipping a nicely crafted wine with a well-cooked meal. Flavors occur that neither the wine nor the food can provide on its own. In many respects, tasting and purchasing a wine at a local winery is just the first part of a journey that continues later, at the dinner table, preferably with good company.

And yet many wineries offer an opportunity to taste their wines while sampling some gastronomical creations on site, the two disciplines married in an effort to offer new opportunities for tourists and regular visitors alike. A restaurant within a winery is hardly a new concept, even in the Finger Lakes, but the combination has expanded over the past few years as wineries seek new sources of revenue in conjunction with the fine dining renaissance that has taken place among middleclass consumers. Wine lovers and food lovers are often one-and-the-same, and the Finger Lakes region has more to offer in the dining scene than ever before.

In the next few issues of Life in the Finger Lakes, we will highlight some wine and food pairings provided by local winemakers and their culinary colleagues. We hope the descriptions trigger your imagination, especially if you haven’t contemplated how well Finger Lakes wines can match with food. In fact, the cool climate of the Finger Lakes creates wines, both white and red, that are suited for food pairings. The minerality found in the rocky soil and the acidity preserved in the slowly ripened grapes gives the finished wines subtle flavor profiles that make them perfect companions for a variety of foods. In contrast, hot growing climates can produce powerful wines with intense flavors that can clash openly with dishes.

The three wines we’ve paired with foods in this article have all found some measure of success in the Finger Lakes: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and, of course, Riesling.

Ventosa Vineyards – Café Toscana

Pinot Gris (also known as Pinot Grigio) is made from a grape that is grown widely in Italy, France and also California. While a best-selling wine in general, it’s not often produced in the Finger Lakes. Despite its production in some warmer climates, Pinot Gris is considered a cool-climate grape that when made well, can zip with acidity and brightness.

Jenna LaVita, winemaker at Ventosa, describes the winery’s 2009 Pinot Gris as “refreshing, with rain at harvest time leading to a mineral/slatey profile, giving the wine its signature crispness and making it work well alongside fresh dishes. The reason this wine really shines is the balance of fruit and acid.”

To match the flavors of Ventosa’s 2009 Pinot Gris, Café Toscana’s head chef Ernie Brigham suggests his Penne Pasta with Butternut Squash. He describes it as a creation of necessity during a winter festival: “It’s the middle of January and about 10 degrees outside. Freshly picked vegetables from our garden are out. Hmm …summer squash …winter squash …butternut squash!”

The dish, simple yet elegant, combines butternut squash sautéed in olive oil with onions and escarole, added to pasta and topped with Romano cheese. Brigham, a 30-year veteran of the Finger Lakes culinary scene, describes the 2009 Ventosa Pinot Gris as a “perfect match” for his dish.

Belhurst Castle – Edgar’s Restaurant

Riesling is king of the Finger Lakes, yet consumers shouldn’t take for granted their ability to taste a wide variety of local, yet world-quality Rieslings. Many wine and food critics consider Riesling to be one of the most versatile wines for food pairing. Depending on the style, Riesling pairs well with fish, shellfish, poultry, game, pork, cheeses, desserts and many other categories.

“Riesling really does lend itself to all kinds of food,” affirms Tim Miller, a winemaker for Belhurst, who cites his 2009 semi-dry Riesling as a good candidate for food pairing. “When blending this vintage, we really looked for that apple and melon-like quality, with good minerality.”

As a food pairing for the 2009 semidry Riesling, Edgar Restaurant Executive Chef Casey Belile offers Wood-Fired Free Range Chicken with fusilli, chorizo, baby spinach, roasted red peppers, roasted pistachios and chevre cream. The ingredients are all natural and organic, with the chicken supplied from an organic farm that does not use antibiotics or hormones, and where grazing areas for the birds are rotated.

“My wife is of Syrian descent, and we often blend Middle Eastern flavors and cooking methods with traditional cooking as we know it in America,” Belile explains. “This dish has a variety of textures and flavors to make each bite a unique experience.”

Beyond the healthy benefits of the free-range chicken, Belile enjoys the interesting flavors created by the combination of pistachios and chevre cream.

Wagner Vineyards – Ginny Lee Restaurant

Some people who claim they don’t prefer Chardonnay are often referring to the oak taste that can dominate the wine. In a cool climate, however, Chardonnay that goes un-oaked can produce a style that is balanced, floral, and altogether different than the buttery, oaky version to which we’ve all been exposed.

Wagner Vineyards winemakers John Herbert and Ann Raffetto believe that their 2009 un-oaked Chardonnay is a perfect candidate for food pairing: “It showcases the bright lively fruit that Chardonnay can have. The warm days and cool nights of the Finger Lakes are ideal for achieving a perfect balance in the grapes. Ripe balanced fruit translates into a wine that is very food friendly.”

To complement the selected Chardonnay and its lively fruit, Ginny Lee Restaurant’s Head Chef Mitchell Vachel, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, suggests his Lakeside Chicken. The marinated tender meat chicken breast is served open faced on French bread on a bed of fresh baby leaf spinach, topped with Chardonnay Danish blue cheese sauce and succulent garden tomatoes. “The Lakeside Chicken is heavily influenced by Mediterranean and Greek flavors,” Vachel says of his creation. “The savory herb marinated chicken is balanced by the robust sharp acid flavor of the blue cheese sauce. The hint of fresh regional-grown tomato and baby spinach offers an earthy garden finish to the surprising flavor combination.”


by Jason Feulner