Wine dinners are designed to be a showcase for a particular wine, winery, or winemaker, and for the food of a particular restaurant or chef. The idea is to create a series of pairings that bring specific wines together with dishes created by the chef to highlight the fusion of the two elements. Of the many possibilities that can occur from the pairing, there are three that are desirable: each element compliments the other, one element elevates the other, or the two elements combine to create a new, more flavorful design.
It is the chef who bears much of the burden of crafting the foods, as that is the only place in the process where any kind of control can be exerted; the wines already exist in the form that will be presented, so it is the food that must be manipulated to elevate the pairing to its (hopeful) height. The problem that arises for the chef is that in many cases, it is not possible to actually try the wines beforehand; instead, the chef must rely on the general characteristics of the wine, along with tasting notes and input from the winemaker. That is not necessarily a bad thing; because there are many know combinations of wine and food, riffing on the standards can create some delicious results. However, it’s also quite possible to miss the mark, leaving the diner to bear the brunt of the experiment.
On April 12th, Società Dante Alighieri will present what should be a stellar evening of wine and food pairing at Por Fin Restaurant in Coral Gables. Stellar, because unlike many wine dinners, Steve Stein, the wine director of the Dante, along with several willing volunteers (including this writer) gathered at Por Fin to taste the wines with the planned menu. It was a worthy exercise that resulted in a number of excellent combinations.
The wine chosen for the evening is made by Peter Figge, of Figge Cellars, in Monterey, California. Figge makes five wines: two Chardonnay, two Pinot Noir, and one Syrah. The Chardonnay is closer is style to Burgundy than California, while the other two varietals are more true to their terroir. For the menu, the chef suggested the following combinations:
- An appetizer course of Fried Quail Eggs with Serrano ham and Truffle Oil, to be paired with a Prosecco, and passed to diners as they arrive.
- A second course of Grilled Octopus atop Squid ink, Arborio rice, sautéed squid, sofrito, and green pea puree, paired with a Chardonnay
- A third course of Irish organic salmon, potato crisps, tomato confit, Kalamata olive drizzle and crispy leeks, paired with a Pinot Noir.
- A fourth course of Braised Short Ribs with Mahon Cheese Crust and Red Wine Sauce, paired with the Syrah.
- A dessert course of a simple tropical fruit sorbet.
We first tried the wines. Figge’s Chardonnays come from two vineyards: one from the Peilo vineyard, the other from the La Reina vineyard. The Pelio shows pineapple, light mineral, a hint of petrol, some mango, and tropical fruits on the nose, and was citrusy, flinty, and bright on the palate. It had a medium-long finish that was juicy and pleasant. The La Reina had a nose of light talc, vanilla, flint, pineapple, with a light floral note; on the tongue, we found orange peel, grapefruit, flint, white peaches and pears in a medium-long finish. Both wines had a good balance with nice acidity. Of the two Chardonnays, our favorite was the Pelio.
Then came our first course: the grilled octopus. To our surprise, neither wine worked well with the octopus, but the La Reina worked nicely with the rice/sofrito/pea puree. In fact, the green pea puree acted as a catalyst, pulling the ingredients together and creating a great compliment for the wine. A suggestion was made to substitute a grilled scallop for the octopus. The chef complied, and a pairing was made. The result was that our favorite of the two wines – the Pelio – was great on its own, but did not work in the pairing. La Reina became our choice.
We next tried the two pinots, one from Paraiso vineyard, the other from the Pelio vineyard. The Paraiso showed cherry, smoke, a little earth, and some cardamom. On the palate, it gave cherries, tobacco, menthol, dark fruits, and some dried cherries. It had a medium finish, good acidity, and mild tannins. The Pelio was more towards the earthy side: smoke, forest floor, chocolate, and faintly herbal on the nose, with dried cherries, pepper, strawberries, and a hint of licorice in a medium-long finish.
Of the two we liked the Pelio best, and it turned out to pair best with the Salmon. The Paraiso went very well with the Potato Crisps, but the winner of the pairing was the Pelio. We expected there to be some clash with the olive drizzle, but that addition turned out to add a very nice note to the flavor profile of the pairing.
Our final dish was the short ribs. Our task was slightly easier, given that there was only one Syrah, but we forged ahead: The Syrah is from the Sycamore Flat vineyard, and showed chocolate, dark berries, a hint of tobacco, and some slight herbal notes on the nose, with black raspberries, cherries, and plums on the palate. The body was light, with a good mouthfeel.
The short ribs were delicious, but the initial presentation of a manchego cheese crust did not really compliment the wine; the suggestion was made to try a Cabrales blue cheese sauce, but that turned out to be a bit strong. The final combination that won us over was when the chef altered the sauce a bit, combining honey with the Cabrales; that toned down the sharpness of the cheese, and brought the dish into harmony with the wine.
The final menu became:
- Tataki de Atun: Seared tuna, charred scallion, romesco sauce, paired with a Prosecco Valdiviano
- Arroz Negro con Vieras: Squid ink, Arborio rice, sautéed squid, sofrito, and green pea puree served with a seared scallop, paired with 2009 La Reina Chardonnay
- Salmon con patatas, tomate y kalamata: Irish organic salmon, potato crisps, tomato confit, Kalamata olive drizzle and crispy leeks, paired with 2009 Pelio Vineyard Pinot Noir
- Costillas De Res: Por Fin’s famous short ribs served with carrot puree, sweet potato crisps, honey cabrales and red wine sauces, paired with 2006 Sycamore Flat Syrah
- Sorbet de Coco con Espuma de Maracuya: Coconut sorbet served with passion fruit foam and mint granita
If you’d like to discover for yourself how the pairings work, please join the Dante and winemaker Peter Figge at 6:30pm on April 12th for the wine dinner at Por Fin Restaurant, located at 2500 Ponce de Leon Blvd, in Coral Gables. Contact the restaurant directly for reservations, at 305.441.0107.