08.11.09

The Secrets of Matchmaking

Just in time for the stickiest days of summer, here's a master class in matching great wines with the season's hardest-to-pair ingredients.

Remember that dopey ad where two girls are shoveling in yogurt, going back and forth, "Mmmm, this is 'fitting-into-your-skinny-jeans' good!"? I have nothing against yogurt, but the amount of pleasure expressed by these women as they enjoyed their yogurt seemed disproportionate to many of us.

“The first step in (wine) pairing is often to eliminate things you don't want.”

Here's the segue: the discovery of a perfect summer wine; now that's a topic worthy of lots of back and forth self-congratulatory badinage. But even those of us who know a little something about wine can easily get stumped when it comes to matching it up to dinner. And if you take into account some of the more notoriously tricky foods to pour against, it's time to use a lifeline, and phone-a-friend. The friend I phoned is Ryan Ibsen, who is the Wine Director at Pasanella & Son, Vitners, on South Street in New York City. His mission, which he chose to accept, was to take 5 summery recipes, and pick a great wine to go with each. The second part of his mission was to explain to me why he chose what he did. And then I thought, while I'm cooking and phoning friends, I'll phone a few more, because two people is a thoughtful wine and food tasting, but 6 people is an educational excuse for a tiny party at 5:00 on a Wednesday night. The dishes were picked and prepared, the wines selected, and we congregated before our wine sensei.

We began with an extremely stripped-down tomato bruschetta, essentially all about the tomatoes, which are of course having their 15 minutes right now. Tomatoes are acidic, and Ryan explained that the first step in pairing is often to eliminate things you don't want: in this case, overly acidic wines. Here he wanted softness and juiciness and picked a rosé, Cataldi Madonna Montepulciano d' Abruzzo Rosato 2008. First we spent a slightly reverent moment holding up the glass, admiring the color, with Ryan pointing out "the punked-out color combo" of the dark pink of the wine against the bright red of the tomatoes. We sipped, we bit, we were happy. Ryan said that a dish this simple isn't all that hard to pair against, but that what you would look for is clean, simple, soft, elegant, and not aged in wood. The operative word was fresh. He picked this particular Rosato because it was "elementally simple" like the bruschetta itself.

We then spent a few minutes talking about wine categories that have been killed by one bad seed. White Zinfandel screwed rosé for a long time (at least in this country), boxed wine and those big jugs of crappy California whites crushed Chablis, and Riesling could barely be resuscitated after Blue Nun mowed it down in broad daylight.

But, this was no time for whining. We had a lemon and spinach salad to eat. This salad didn't have lemon juice in it, but rather little nuggets of actual lemon fruit, peeking out between baby spinach leaves, and ribbons of fresh mint. Again, some olive oil and salt, and that's all she wrote, in terms of ingredients. The challenge here: lemon AND spinach. The wine was Ronco del Gnemiz Sauvignon 2007 from Friuli. This was an Italian Sauvignon Blanc, with lots of minerality and a little new oak. Ryan explained: the citrus of Sauvignon Blanc plays off lemon and lime well, but the oak roped in the earthiness of the spinach. The combo of Sauvignon Blanc and oak apparently is pretty rare, so a real balancing act, this pairing. And apparently this wine not only drinks well today, but ages well, too. And for those of you keeping score, this wine is not just organic, but "hyper-organic," says Ryan. What amused me was the fact that the grapes were "gently pressed in a pneumatic press," which I now understand isn't meant to be funny at all.

Next up, shrimp and tomatoes baked with feta cheese. Even though the recipe was Greek, Ryan was in the mood to keep the Italian theme going, and it all made sense. The whole coastal winery/seafood thing clearly works similarly in both countries. The pick was Bisson Vermentino 'Vignaerta' 2006 from Liguria , and the idea was that this workhorse grape, Vermentino, actually reminded Ryan of another workhorse grape from Greece, Assyrtiko. Apparently both grapes have to struggle to survive—as in these particular vines are hanging on to cliff sides maybe 400 meters or less above the sea. Even though apparently Vermentino (and Assyrtiko for that matter) can be pleasant but forgettable this particular one was much more than pleasant, and not at all forgettable. This producer makes more Vermentino than any other producer, so clearly they know their varietal. Here's what Ryan had to say about why this wine played so nicely in the sandbox with the dish's ingredients: "There is a weighty but fresh vibrancy to the wine that really handles the zesty acidity of cooked tomatoes well." And as for the feta and the shrimp: "There's a sort of breezy reminds-me-of-the-sea- salinity that is always going to work with shellfish and shrimp and is also the perfect thing to compliment the cheese. I really like the use of seafood and cheese together in this dish, which is rarely pulled off, but in this case creates perfect harmony with the addition of the tomatoes."

Marco Pasanella, owner of the aforementioned Pasanella & Son, joined the party we had taken it upon ourselves to host in his establishment, and cheerfully endorsed Ryan's pick, adding, "Basically, the crummier the weather, the better the wine," which frankly explained a lot for me.

A pause to discuss pairing in general—forced to pick one word that he's striving for in his pairing choices, Ryan picks balance—and not just balance between the food and the wine, but making sure to take into consideration the weather and the physical environment. During his restaurant years he said, "it broke my heart when a guy would come in and order a dozen raw oysters and a bottle of Ameroni. You always had that moment: 'Do I say something, or do I just let him order what he wants?'" One member of our merry little band said that with this last pairing, every time he took a bite of the food he wanted a sip of the wine, and vice versa ("a vicious circle," he admitted). Ryan agreed that that was a sign of a well-done match.

And then (thunderclap) one of wine's darkest nemeses appeared: the artichoke. Batman and the Joker, Luke and Darth Vader. One could be happily sipping away at a lovely wine, enjoying its body, its flavor, its legs, its ankles, what have you. Then a lovely little dish featuring the innocent looking artichoke appears. A bite—delicious. Now back to the wine—what the hell? Few foods can wreak havoc on a perfectly good wine like the artichoke. So, of course we wanted to see WWRD (what would Ryan do, of course), and presented a grilled swordfish with artichokes, tomatoes, and olives—the self-professed wine geek was all over it. "First, you need something that isn't going to react badly to the very distinct green and slightly bitter herbaciousness of the artichoke. What you want is a wine that is definitely white, but not white in the way that most people think of (fresh, crisp) but rather a darker, bigger yellow wine that hopefully even has that rarest of things for a white, tannins." There are several whites from both Umbria and Emilia-Romagna he suggested, landing upon Paolo Bea Santa Chiara Bianco 2007, hailing from Umbria.This hefty white is a blend of 5 grapes and has as much structure as most Old World reds. This also worked well with the swordfish, which is also something that trips people up wine-wise, because people often underestimate just how "steak-y" and substantial this fish really is. And finally this wine was able to handle the strong and salty flavor of the olives. This was definitely the trickiest pairing of the five.

Still upright, and enjoying the air-conditioning, we headed into the grand finale, a serious grilled steak, one of summer's greatest pleasures. Not necessarily hard to match, but in hot weather that gorgeous big red that one would choose in the winter would act as an anvil. The summer pick was a Tuscan Chianti, Fontodi Chianti Classico 2006. Ryan reverted to his earlier language, "simple and elemental," to describe it. There are many reds and even some intense dry rosés that would wrap around this particular steak nicely, but Ryan was determined to keep to his Italian theme, and picked a Chianti Classico from right down the road a little ways. While Tuscany's oldest and most famous red has a reputation for being too tannic and strong and so forth, Ryan said that it was because: a) most Chianti is drunk too young and hasn't had a chance to mellow and, b) there are as many or more inferior producers than there are good ones. But "Fontodi, who makes the wine I am suggesting here, is one of the premier producers in the region." Even though 2006 isn't exactly "vintage" in Chianti terms, the wine is soft and elegant, and was the perfect accompaniment to a charred, juicy, garlic-tinged sizzler.

We corked what was left of the wines, and headed back out into the heat, a little wiser about the whole what-goes-with-what thing. Soon enough, the weather will turn, and I will be cheerfully re-presenting myself at Pasanella's door with a pot of coq au vin, a potato gratin, and a notepad.

The Dish: Tomato Bruschetta by Michele Scicolone
The Wine: Cataldi Madonna Montepulciano d' Abruzzo Rosato 2008

The Dish: Lemon, Mint and Spinach Salad by Nigella Lawson
The Wine: Ronco del Gnemiz Sauvignon 2007

The Dish: Classic Shrimp and Tomatoes Baked with Feta Cheese by Susanna Hoffman
The Wine: Bisson Vermentino 'Vignaerta' 2006

The Dish: Grilled Swordfish with Artichokes, Tomatoes, and Olives by Christopher Schlesinger and John Willoughby
The Wine: Paolo Bea Santa Chiara Bianco 2007

The Dish: La Fiorentina—Grilled T-Bone Steak, Florentine Style by Marcella Hazan
The Wine: Tuscan Chianti, Fontodi Chianti Classico 2006

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Katie Workman is editor in chief and chief marketing officer of Cookstr.com, a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. She writes about food for various blogs and websites. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.